OTTORINO RESPIGHI (1879-1936) Ancient Airs and Dances: Suite 3 (1930)

i.  Italiana       ii.  Arie di Corte   iii.   Siciliana    iv.   Passacaglia

Respighi was born into a musical family in Bologna, and was luckier than many talented youngsters, for example Berlioz, in that his family encouraged his musical inclinations, his father Giuseppe initially teaching him both piano and violin. Eventually he studied for seven years at music college in Bologna, specialising in violin and viola, and, later in his course, composition with Giuseppe Martucci, At the age of 21 he became principal viola at the Russian Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg for a season of Italian opera, and during the season met the eminent Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, whose composition style and orchestration he already hugely admired; such was the promise his composing already showed that Rimsky took him under his wing for no less than five months for further advanced study.

Having completed his composition course in Bologna he then spent some years touring as first violin of the Mugellini Quintet, before finally settling in Rome and becoming Professor of Composition at the St Cecilia Conservatoire, a post he held from 1913 until his death in 1936.

When Italy entered the First World War in 1915 Respighi’s position at the Conservatoire gave him immunity from military service; throughout turbulent political times for the rest of his life, including the rise of Mussolini, he managed to steer a middle course, remaining in favour with all sides of the political spectrum.

He composed prolifically from his college days until his death, showing a profound interest in the flamboyant and exotic, presumably the product of his time with Rimsky-Korsakov, and in older Italian musical forms, on which his three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances are based.

His big breakthrough came with his tone poem The Fountains of Rome in 1917, which would be followed in due course by The Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals, each full of exuberance and virtuoso orchestration; taken up by the great conductor Arturo Toscanini these three works in particular made his reputation, and also gave him a route into fame in America. On his first visit in 1925 he was also able, as soloist, to give the premiere of his Piano Concerto, Concerto in the Mixolydian Mode, at Carnegie Hall, New York, on New Year’s Eve. A number of his works were premiered in America, and he received commissions from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He even travelled to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for a concert season of his works in 1927.

His interest in early Italian composers led him to edit and publish performing editions of  both Monteverdi and Vivaldi, and another of his own works showing the ancient influence was the suite The Birds; older audience members may recall one of the earliest TV antiques programmes from the 60s and 70s, the quiz Going for a Song, which used a theme from The Birds.

The three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances are based on compositions for lute and baroque guitar by Renaissance and baroque composers. The Third Suite is the only one of the three written entirely for strings, and is the most often performed, its premiere taking place under Respighi himself in Milan on 31 January 1931.

The opening Italiana is in the style of a Minuet, in which each part from cello up to first violin shows fluidity in terms of both musical independence and harmony.

Arie di Corte is based on 16th century dances by Besardo, and is framed in a number of sections ranging from Andante cantabile to Vivacissimo, using a variety of time signatures and phrase-lengths.

The Siciliana, once again resembling a Minuet, is by Ignoto, once again from the 16th century, and is perhaps the most conventional of the four dances.

The final dance is a Passacaglia, a complex set of variations on a ground bass, based on a work for lute by Roncalli from 1692. As in Pachelbel’s Canon, the spacious stride of the first section becomes more and more intensely active before the brief coda brings a grand conclusion.

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