Eternally Yours - Phil News

As Auckland Philharmonia prepares for Respighi’s Roman trilogy, Amber Read takes a deep dive into the composer’s love/hate affair with the Italian capital.

Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) had a fraught relationship with the Eternal City. He struggled to compose amidst the thrum and tumult of daily life in Rome, being driven out of an otherwise comfortable apartment by the constant din of street musicians playing below his window as he tried to write. But it brought him career opportunities; he relocated to the city from Bologna in 1913 to take up a professorship in composition at the prestigious Liceo Musicale Santa Cecilia.

It was in these first years in Rome, too, that his relationship blossomed with the young Elsa Olivieri-Sangiacomo, a composer and singer – and Respighi’s pupil – who became his wife after her graduation. She outlived Respighi by 60 years, and it is from her memoirs that we get an insider’s view to the trilogy of Roman inspired works Respighi composed across his mature career.

The first of the trilogy, Fountains of Rome, was composed soon after his arrival in the Italian capital: “It is in a way a synthesis of Respighi’s feelings, thoughts and sensations during those first few months of life in Rome,” Elsa wrote. “Like a lover afraid of not being loved in return, he vented his spleen on the object of his passion,Rome, restless and unsettled, biased and ungrateful, until the idea of the symphonic poem Fountains of Rome formed in his mind and he found relief in the joy of creation.”


Sir Andrew Davis 2000x1300

Although Respighi lived in a thoroughly modern world – the world of the personal motorcar, the silver screen, the telephone, the first world war and the heady inter-war years, in his Roman trilogy he was inspired again and again by nature and historic architecture. Through the prism of water, of architecture, of trees and buildings, he mingled his modern impressions of the sites with his imaginings of the historic events they bore witness to.

The orchestration of the trilogy magnificently cloaks Respighi’s musical forms. Early in his career, Respighi worked as a violist; short contracts with the orchestra of the Russian Imperial Theatre enabled him to take lessons with Rimsky-Korsakov, another master of orchestration. This influence is clearly seen throughout Respighi’s works, the trilogy of tone poems being a masterclass in drawing out vivid colour and texture in the 20th century orchestra.

Fountains established Respighi internationally, but it was with Pines of Rome, composed in 1924, that his fame grew to fever pitch. Respighi directs our attention to stands of Italian stone pine at various sites in Rome, such as the magnificent pines along the Appian Way, the music imagining the soldiers of imperial Rome emerging victorious out of the morning mist in the final movement. Respighi was so affected by this moment when he first heard it in rehearsal that he told Elsa that he “felt something odd in the pit of my stomach”. At the premiere in Rome, Elsa recorded proudly that “frantic applause such as had never before been heard in the Augusteo [Theatre] drowned the last bars of the poem.”

Pines of Rome marked a turning point in Respighi’s career; around this period he left his professorship and spent his time touring and conducting across Europe and America, and composing in the haven of his beloved villa which overlooked Rome from a wooded hill (see Tree Houses, above). Pines of Rome was dear to Respighi as well as popular with audiences; he conducted it himself countless times in the last decade of his life. When it was first toured to America, Elsa writes that audiences were delirious.

Sir Andrew Davis 2000x1300

Perhaps for this reason, Roman Festivals, the final work of this trilogy, was premiered in America at Carnegie Hall, the first of the three to debut outside of Italy. The most ambitious in scope, Festivals call for an orchestra of enormous proportions, added buccina (a brass instrument used in the Imperial Roman army, nowadays played on modern instruments) in the first movement catapulting us into the ancient world of Emperor Nero’s circuses, while the mandolin of the third movement brings a romantic serenade from the October harvest festival.

Respighi’s health declined in the 1930s and he died of heart infection in 1936. The tomb in his birthplace of Bologna is honoured by the city with which he had such a complex relationship, resting on a short section of ancient paving stones donated by the city of Rome, and laurels from the Palatine forming a hedge around it. The composer’s tribute to the capital, the Roman trilogy, forms 12 vivid impressions of the city, that “like the facets of a single diamond,” Elsa wrote, “reflect the multiform spirit of Rome just as Respighi saw and sensed it."

The New Zealand Herald Premier Series: The Eternal City
7.30pm, Thursday 13 June
Auckland Town Hall

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