A Resu­mé of the 20th Century – 2000 Back to the Future

Ottorini Respighi

Born July 9, 1879 in Bologna, Italy Died April 18, 1936 in Rome, Italy

Most well known for his Roman trilogy, Fontane di Roma, Pini di Roma and Feste Romane, Respighi seems to be the composer of large scale Romantic forms. His lessons in violin began at age eight, and it wasn’t long before he developed an interest in composition. His formal schooling in composition was at the Liceo Musicale in Rome, where he was deeply rooted in the German style of composition. As an accomplished violinist, violist and pianist, he took a position as a violist at the Imperial Theater at St. Petersburg. Developing fluency in the Russian language, he took advantage of his time there to study with the great Russian master Rimsky-Korsakov. His lessons from Rimsky-Korsakov profoundly influenced his orchestration techniques.

Stylistically, Respighi’s music is a blend of rich melodies with full and rich harmonies. Not only was he a master of orchestration, he had an uncanny ability of the evocation of Italian scenes, and the ability to sustain interest for long periods of time. His music shows a strong inclination toward impressionism while being rooted in the Romantic manner reminiscent of his contemporary, Richard Strauss. He took quite an interest in works and forms of earlier composers, and became adept in arranging the works of composers like Monteverdi, Tartini, Vitali and Vivaldi. This is probably the source of the Passacalia movement in the sonata.

Violin Sonata in B minor, P 110 (c. 1917) This Violin sonata in B minor was written shortly after the acclaimed premiere of his Fontane di Roma, a piece that catapulted him into the international spotlight as a composer. At the same time he was composing the sonata, he was working on a commission from Diaghilev to arrange some pieces of Rossini for the Ballet Russe. This piece became La boutique fantasque. He was also working on his Antiche danze ed arie per liuto (Ancient airs and dances). The sonata shows very little of the influence of these pieces, but is rather Brahmsian in its nature. It has a rather conventional three movement form, but is individualistic in its use of constantly changing meters in the first movement, Moderato. The second movement, Andante espressivo, is very passionate, expressive and lyrical with its constantly fluctuating harmonies.

Inspired by the theme of the last movement of Brahms’ fourth symphony, the last movement is based on the ancient form of the Passacaglia, and marked Allegro moderato, ma energico. The ostinato theme is not in the expected eight measure phrase, but rather in a ten measure phrase, and jumps back and forth from the piano to the violin. It repeats eighteen times throughout the movement, mid-way through appearing in E major, and increasing the tempo, and going back into B minor. It works its way back down in tempo to a Lento then Adagio, and modulating to the key of B major. As the movement draws to a close, the ostinato again appears in its original form in the left hand of the piano, and again in the key of B minor, just before the coda. This sonata was premiered in Bologna on March 3, 1918 with Federico Sarti on violin and Ottorini Respighi, himself, on piano.

Elizabeth E. Torres

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