Tune in at 1:00 p.m. this week to hear five great orchestral works by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi.  

On Tuesday, July 9th it will be Respighi's 145th birthday. Aside from his compositions, Respighi was a musicologist, violinist, and teacher, whose multi-faceted career would play a key role in early twentieth century music not only in Italy but around the world. 

Largely remembered today for his Roman Trilogy for orchestra, Fountains of Rome (1916), The Pines of Rome, (1924) and Roman Festivals, (1926) Respighi also wrote chamber music, orchestral suites, songs, ballets, and operas. This week we will explore orchestral works that are less frequently performed than the Roman Trilogy. 

Monday, July 8: Concerto gregoriano for violin and orchestra (1921) 

Respighi was fascinated by Gregorian chant and believed that it could be incorporated into orchestral music. 

When his violinist colleague Mario Corti wanted a concerto in 1921, Respighi turned to the old chants for inspiration. According to his wife, he said: 

 “how wonderful it would be to recast those magnificent melodies in a new language of sounds, free from the rigidly formal Catholic Liturgy … and revive the indestructible gem of real human values contained therein”.  

He used the Easter chant sequence “Victimae paschali laudes” in the second movement and headed the finale “Alleluja”; and the work is imbued by the spirit of the chant. It has been suggested that the violin's role could be seen as a cantor, while the orchestra plays the role of a choir of believers. 

Respighi wrote the concerto for a large orchestra; two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, celesta, harp, timpani and strings, however he deploys it subtly so that the full ensemble is rarely heard. 

Tuesday, July 9: Poeme autunnale for violin and orchestra (1925) 

The Poema Autunnale of was also written for Corti and dedicated to him. Much of the writing is modal, creating the desired archaic atmosphere. The composer had in mind a program conveying the:

“sweet melancholy of an autumn day, enlivened at one point by a Dionysian dance until finally the great god Pan wandered lonely across the fields under falling golden leaves.”

Rather than have the woodwinds portray Pan’s pipes, Respighi gave this task to the solo violin. 

Wednesday, July 10: Piano Concerto in A minor (1902 pub.1941) 

His Piano Concerto in A minor is an early work, completed in 1902. The concerto shows the impact of his studies with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in the orchestration and Franz Liszt on piano writing.  

The Piano Concerto opens with a grandiose flourish before more lyrical material is introduced. The piano writing is often florid, idiomatic, and demanding, in music that is thoroughly romantic in character, moving to a calmer central section, its serenity shattered by the outburst that marks the last section of the work, a dramatic finale, that brings its own moments of repose and of bravura. 

Over the last 40 years this concerto has enjoyed a resurgence of interest from orchestras and soloists. It took decades to get it published, and when it was finally published it took some time for pianists to recognize its musical value. This is a virtuosic piano concerto steeped in romantic tradition. 

Thursday, July 11: Trittico botticelliano (1927) 

Respighi’s three Botticelli Pictures were written for the American philanthropist Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. In 1925 Coolidge financed a trip for Respighi to come to the United States to tour and conduct and perform his own compositions. It was on that tour that he visited the Library of Congress in Washington, where he took in a concert hosted by Coolidge. After the concert he said he would compose a work and dedicate it to Coolidge as a gesture of gratitude. 

Where Respighi drew his inspiration from were the paintings of the 15th century artist Sandro Botticelli. Respighi chose three and decided to depict them in music. 

Primavera 

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Adoration of the Magi 

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The Birth of Venus 

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In the Botticelli Triptych, Respighi show his mastery of orchestration. Attentive listeners will hear Respighi’s quoting of the Christmas Carol Veni Veni Emmanuel in the second movement titled Adoration of the Magi 

Friday, July 12: Church Windows (1926) 

Respighi composed Vetrata di Chiesa (Church Windows) in 1926. The work is heavily influenced by Gregorian chant. The first three movements were based on Respighi’s Tre preludi sopra melodie gregoriane for piano, composed in 1921.  

Respighi consulted a literature professor, Claudio Guastalia, to help him find a title and subtitles for the orchestrated version. Guastalia’s mental images upon hearing the music are the source of the quotations before each movement, which describes the drama of a major church event as depicted in the stained-glass windows of Italian churches. 

1. The Flight into Egypt. The little caravan proceeds through the desert in a starry night, bearing the Treasure of the World. Respighi captures the swaying hesitation of a donkey stepping over loose stones against exotic Middle Eastern modal melody. 

2. St. Michael the Archangel. And a great battle was made in the heavens; Michael and his angels fought with the dragon and his angels. But these did not prevail, and there was no more place for them in Heaven. In this mini-tone poem, the opening glissandi in the strings and fanfare in the brass are a none-too-subtle quote from Wagner -- only here for angels, not Valkyries. The melody in the lower brass is a Gregorian chant. The trombone melody signals the arrival of the Archangel. 

3. The Matins of St. Clare. But Jesus Christ, her bridegroom, not wishing to leave her thus disconsolate, had her miraculously transported by angels to the church of St. Francis, to be at the service of Matins. St. Claire founded an order of nuns whose dedication to poverty mirrored that of St. Francis of Assisi. This quote is taken from The Little Flowers of St. Francis. Respighi creates a meditative melody, reflecting the tranquility of monastic life. At other times when Claire was too ill to attend mass, she could visualize it on the wall of her cell. In witness whereof, in 1958 Pope Pius XII made her the patron saint of television. 

4. St. Gregory the Great. Behold the Pontiff! ... Bless the Lord ... Sing the hymn to God. Alleluia! Pope Gregory (540-604) was known for his ecclesiastical writings and for what for many years was thought to be his contribution to the sung liturgy of the Catholic Church. This movement is a fantasia on one of the chants for the Gloria of the mass. It proceeds like a procession, heard in the distance, growing ever louder and more pompous. 

*Program Note from Symphony Orchestra Augusta (Ga.) concert program, 27 September 2013