Born in Bologna in 1879, Ottorino Respighi studied in his home city and spent his early twenties playing the viola in an opera orchestra in St Petersburg while studying composition with Rimsky-Korsakov. After several more years spent studying and performing (as both a string-player and a pianist) in Germany and France, he settled permanently in Rome following his appointment as Professor of Composition at the Liceo (later Conservatorio) di Santa Cecilia in 1913. Promoted to the position of Director in 1924, he resigned two years later to concentrate on composing.
It was in 1916 that Respighi completed Fountains of Rome, the first of three sets of musical ‘picture postcards’ of famous Roman tourist spots that soon made his international reputation: Pines of Rome followed in 1924, Roman Festivals in 1928. Brilliantly coloured orchestral showpieces, they reveal the composer’s easy assimilation of a variety of cosmopolitan influences – Germanic counterpoint, Gallic harmony, Russian orchestration – with an innately Italianate melodic gift. Definitely no modernist, Respighi can yet claim to have invented electronic sampling with his inclusion of a recorded nightingale’s song in the score for the Pines.
Although he wrote several operas – of which at least his last two completed examples, La campana sommersa (‘The Sunken Bell’, 1924–7) and La fiamma ('The Flame', 1931–3), enjoyed some success – Respighi showed a greater interest in orchestral and chamber music. A noted editor and arranger of early music, mainly from the Renaissance and the Baroque (including a free transcription of Monteverdi’s Orfeo in 1934), he based his three popular sets of Ancient Airs and Dances (1917, 1923 and 1931) on lute music of the 16th and 17th centuries, and his suite The Birds (1927) on music by 17th- and 18th-century French and Italian composers.
But his archaising instincts are heard at their purest in the Gregorian chant-influenced symphonic poem Vetrate di chiesa (‘Church Windows’, 1925–6) and the charming choral Christmas carol sequence Lauda per la natività del Signore (‘Hymn to the Birth of Christ’, 1928–30).
Profile by Louise Downes © BBC