Born in Bologna in Italy, Ottorino Respighi studied violin and
composition at the city's Liceo Musicale from 1891 to 1901.
Towards the end of this period, and again in 1902—3, he visited St
Petersburg in Russia, where lessons from the great master of
orchestration, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, deeply influenced him. In
the first decade of the century, living in Bologna, Respighi was
active as a pianist, string player, conductor, and teacher, but he
was slow to find a characteristic voice as a composer. A setting
from 1910 of Shelley's poem "Aretusa" does show a certain amount
of individuality, but the shadow of Richard Strauss is all too
visible over the huge and unwieldy Sinfonia drammatica of
In 1913 Respighi settled in Rome to take up a post as professor
of composition at the Conservatoire. With his four orchestral
impressions of Roman scenes at different times of day, Fontane
di Roma (Fountains of Rome; 1914-16), Respighi at last found
the perfect vehicle to suit his talent. Without attempting to
plumb emotional or intellectual depths, the music evokes
glittering and colourful scenes with great success.
Respighi's international reputation was assured when conductors
of the calibre of Arturo Toscanini took Fontane di Roma
and its successor, Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome), into
their repertories. In Pini di Roma, Respighi displays vivid
powers of observation as he imitates children's songs in the
opening piece, "Pines of Villa Borghese." The night evocation of
"Pines of the Janiculum" even uses a gramophone recording of a
nightingale's song. Had he been born a generation later. Respighi
would have had obvious credentials for a career m film music.
His later attempts to repeat the formula were not always so
happy. In Fate Romane (Roman Festivals), for example, the
naivete of earlier works turns into boisterous and superficial
brashness. But Respighi's explorations into the Italian music of
the past, which he had conducted for 20 years, also bore extensive
fruit. In the 1919 production of his ballet La boutique
fautasque (The Magical Toy-shop), he arranged for orchestra
piano pieces by Rossini with ideal wit and verve; and in 1927 he
composed the suite for chamber orchestra Gli uccelli (The
birds), skilful and affectionate arrangements of short harpsichord
pieces by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century composers such as
Rameau and Pasquini.
Respighi's interest in the musical language of pre-Classical
composers led him to create a series of more austere and abstract
instrumental works, such as the Concerto gregoriano of 1921
for violin and orchestra, and the Quartette dorico of 1924.
The most attractive and endearing result of these "archaic"
interests was the delightful Christmas cantata Lauda per la
Nativita del Signore, clearly inspired in part by the works of
During Respighi's final years he turned his attentions
increasingly to opera, but none of the resultant works entered the
general repertory, although the charming children's opera La
bella dormente nel bosco (The sleeping beauty in the wood) is
worthy of revival. His reputation rests to a large extent on his
brilliant and attractive use of orchestral colour and timbre to
evoke scenes and places, particularly Rome, where he died in 1936.