From Italy, With Love

by Benjamin Pomerance

The music was born in America. This, by itself, is startling when linked with the name of Ottorino Respighi, arguably the most heart-on-his-sleeve nationalist in the entire artistic history of Italy. Today, concertgoers know him predominantly for a trio of tone poems — Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome, and Roman Festivals — that rise and fall with tsunami-like swells, fully employing the forces of gigantic orchestras with dazzling effects that some listeners consider glorious, other listeners consider garish, and all listeners ultimately consider unforgettable.    

But like other classical composers who fly just below the radar of many conductors and critics, Respighi’s reputation tends to get the short shrift. A virtuosic performer who served as the principal violist of one of Russia’s finest orchestras by night and studied composition with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov by day, Respighi was hardly a one-trick pony. The fact that his homeland soon called him back to teach at the Conservatory of St. Cecilia in Rome, an institution that he went on to direct, demonstrates that he was no intellectual lightweight.

And in a blend of his pedagogical and patriotic tendencies, Respighi harbored an almost obsessive interest with the Italian arts of centuries past. He poured over manuscripts of music from the 1500s through the 1700s, often correcting misprints and mistakes in the ancient scores. He published editions of previously neglected pieces by Antonio Vivaldi, Benedetto Marcello, and Claudio Monteverdi. Later in his life, he wrote new works incorporating styles that epitomized these bygone days, including three compelling suites titled Ancient Airs and Dances.

Yet perhaps the most seismic event in Respighi’s musical life came from love. Sometime around 1915, he started turning cartwheels over Elsa Olivieri-Sangiacomo, a gifted mezzo-soprano who studied composition under Respighi’s tutelage in Rome. They were married in 1919, the start of an apparently beautiful friendship that lasted until Respighi’s death in 1936. A couple of decades later, Elsa published a biography of her husband’s life and career, and continued to champion his music around the world until her passing in 1996 at the age of 101.

According to Elsa’s book, a conversation between the newlyweds may have transformed Respighi’s entire outlook on crafting musical works. “We had been married some weeks when one day I asked Ottorino if he had ever studied Gregorian Chant,” Elsa wrote. “He replied that it was something he had long wanted to do but never found the opportunity.” As it turned out, the composer’s wife was a chant aficionado. “I offered to teach him,” she declared. “Not one day passed before he asked me to intone a passage while he listened spellbound.”   

From that day forward, Respighi was a changed composer — at least if Elsa’s account is to be fully believed. As if anticipating the doubters, she provides evidence. “There are echoes of Gregorian Chant in almost everything he wrote after 1920,” she wrote. “The Three Piano Preludes on Gregorian Melodies were completed a few months later at Capri in the summer of 1919 and brightly reflect his state of mind at that time: delighted wonder at a revelation and the mystic exaltation of profound religious feeling which matched the harmony of our life together.”

Eight years after this revelatory experience, Ottorino and Elsa traveled to the United States together. It was a working vacation. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, one of the most prolific benefactresses of the arts in American history, wanted them to perform together — Respighi at the piano, accompanying Elsa’s performances of art songs by Respighi and other Italian composers — at the Library of Congress. The recital was such a success that Respighi vowed to dedicate his next composition in Mrs. Coolidge’s honor.    

Several weeks later, back in Italy, husband and wife visited the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. And while strolling through those cavernous halls of treasured exhibitions, all of the forces from the past decade — the enchantment with early Italian musical forms, the eye-opening exposure to Gregorian chant, the devotion to Italian themes in his compositions, the desire to create something emblematically Italian but artistically unique for Mrs. Coolidge —somehow melded together while standing in front of the paintings of Sandro Botticelli.

So the composer of those three gigantic tone poems about Rome embarked upon another Italian triptych. This time, though, he called for a far smaller ensemble to turn his notes into realities. And while the three tone poems rang with brightness and bombast, the Trittico Botticelliano (“Three Botticelli Pictures”) that he developed for Mrs. Coolidge brought a softer beauty to the forefront, with lyrical orchestral lines and colors that feel as if they had leapt right from one of Botticelli’s canvases.      

The musical gallery tour begins with La Primavera (“Spring”), a scene believed to depict the realm of the goddess Venus. Multiple supernatural beings frolic throughout a flower-drenched meadow, with Mercury himself pushing the clouds away. To illustrate these images in music, Respighi paints with a bounding theme from the trumpets. A few minutes later, however, the mood relaxes, with the oboes playing a melody reminiscent of a Gregorian chant. But the lively milieu ultimately prevails, with the strings ending the proceedings with shimmering trills.

Next up: The Adoration of the Magi. Respighi grants the woodwinds center stage in this segment, placing his early music teachings from Elsa on full display. A solemn solo from the bassoon opens the proceedings, followed by an answer from the flute. Then the flute and bassoon break into the theme of Veni, Veni Emmanuel, a twelfth-century chant sung at Vespers services in the last week of Advent. For the rest of this movement, this melody carries the day, passing through oboe and flute again until a quiet bassoon passage brings this depiction to a close.   

And then, at last, The Birth of Venus, one of the most recognizable artistic creations of the entire Renaissance. From the strings come soft legato passages, a simulation of the waves pushing Venus and her half-shell vessel toward the shoreline. As Venus draws nearer, the strings increase their volume, then hand their undulating notes to the woodwinds, and then to the harp and piano. A new motif, beautiful and powerful, rises from the strings and woodwinds. Finally, the strings pick up the wave theme again, slowing to a standstill as Venus steps onto the land.   

At first blush, it’s the type of creation one would expect from Respighi: programmatic music hailing some aspect of Italy’s glories. Yet anyone who knows this man from only his three tone poems will discover a far different composer in this work: simpler, sensitive, steeped in musical structures from long ago, aware that splendor can surface from restraint. It’s the type of piece that can make listeners all the more rueful that Respighi did not live a little longer, just to see if his compositional sensibilities would have continued evolving in this exquisite direction.    

And perhaps most importantly of all for the clearly smitten composer, it was a work of music that appeared to delight Elsa dramatically. “The Maestro told me how wonderful it would be to recast those melodies [from Gregorian chant] in a new language of sound,” she wrote in her book, “one that would fully revive the indestructible germ of real human values contained therein.” Savoring the passages of Trittico Botticelliano, one could proclaim this mission accomplished.        

The Schenectady Symphony Orchestra performs Respighi’s Trittico Botticelliano on March 5 at 3 p.m. in the GE Theatre at Proctors. For tickets, call (518) 346-6204 or order online.    

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