The piano concertos of Ottorino Respighi

The piano concertos of Ottorino Respighi

Few composers throughout the ages can claim an innate musicality such as that of Ottorino Respighi. Born in Bologna on July 9th 1879 into a family of artists (his father Giuseppe had been an accomplished pianist, his Great-Grandfather Giovanni Putti an illustrious sculptor), Respighi came into a musical world whose primary concern was opera.

In Italy, during the Nineteenth century, few musicians had devoted their attention to the symphonic and chamber medium. It is a telling story that Giuseppe Verdi had never published nor allowed a public performance of his Quartetto in la minore, a work we now enumerate among his masterpieces. Furthermore, the term Sinfonia, in the belpaese, inevitably meant an operatic ouverture, and in the few instances in which Italian maestros ventured into the symphonic field they rarely managed to produce anything other than rather uninspired works, heavily influenced by the German tradition of Brahms and Wagner. Figures such Martucci and Sgambati are good examples of the phenomenon: their music is refined, well written, pleasant, but it tends to lack the impetus of genuine passion and inspiration. Part of the problem, much like in our times, was financial. Opera was the most popular form of enlightened entertainment, and could generate huge incomes. In a letter to his mother, the young Giacomo Puccini tells of his dreams to become a successful opera composer, so that he may also afford the expensive fur-lined coats he would see on the shoulders of famous tenors. Symphony concerts were exceptional events, and the quality of Italian orchestras attested to the relative insignificance of symphonic music in the fabric of Italian musical culture. Things were to change dramatically with the turn of the century. A handful of young composers, later known as the generation of the Eighties (a definition coined by Massimo Mila, pointing to the fact that they had all been born around 1880), endeavoured to reinstate an instrumental tradition in Italy. A Società Italiana di Musica Moderna (Italian Society of Modern Music) was founded, with the proclaimed aim to “rejuvenate the stale musical scene”. Spearheaded by giants such as Arturo Toscanini, Marco Enrico Bossi and Ferruccio Busoni, the group was a veritable ‘who’s who” of indigenous talents: its members included Malipiero, Casella, Labroca, Pizzetti and, last but not least, Ottorino Respighi.

Respighi studied violin and viola in the local Liceo musicale, graduating in 1899 with a performance of Paganini’s Le Streghe. He was a good player, who found immediate employment as first viola player in the orchestra of St. Petersburg’s Imperial Theatre. During his stay in Russia, Respighi befriended Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakoff, from whom he took several lessons in composition and acquired one of his greatest skills, that of the inimitable orchestrator. A year later, Respighi returned to Italy where he took his composition diploma in 1901 with Preludio, Corale e Fuga, a work he had prepared with Rimsky and which received immediate success. A period of intense travels ensued, with Respighi moving first to Russia, then to Germany where he worked in Berlin whilst concertising extensively both as a violinist and as a pianist; Respighi was one of those geniuses for whom learning to play a musical instrument was a run-of-the-mill enterprise: he was a self-taught pianist who could and would appear publicly in his own compositions, could play the viola d’amore, and once learned overnight a passage for the Harp that an orchestral harpist had declared unplayable! He returned to Italy in 1911, replacing his composition teacher Torchi at the Liceo Musicale of Bologna. By then, he had had a truly cosmopolitan musical background and was up to date with the latest musical developments.

In 1919, Respighi married his composition student Elsa Olivieri Sangiacomo, a pioneer in the study of plainsong. Before long, Elsa introduced Ottorino to the mysteries of Gregorian chant, and he was quick to realize the immense potential of these archaic melodies. A string of Gregorian-inspired works appeared in quick succession: the Tre Preludi sopra melodie Gregoriane for piano in 1920, a Concerto Gregoriano for violin and orchestra in 1921, and the Quartetto Dorico in 1924. Today Respighi is chiefly remembered for his trilogy of Roman-inspired symphonic works, and very few people indeed associate his name with piano music. Yet, he was very fond of this instrument, producing a significant amount of works that included no less than four pieces for piano and orchestra. Of these, two are youthful efforts that have little to offer more than curiosity value (the Fantasia Slava and the Piano Concerto in a minor), while the remaining two, presented here, are masterpieces of the highest order.

In 1925, whilst working on Vetrate di Chiesa and the opera The Sunken Bell, Respighi finished what he considered his best work, the one that would outlive all his others and bear an enduring testament to his art: the Concerto in modo misolidio for piano and orchestra. The concerto received its world premiere at Carnegie Hall in New York on December 31st, 1925, with Respighi appearing as soloist under Willem Mengelberg and the New York Philharmonic. Despite a warm public reception, the concerto was coolly received by the legendary music critic of The New York Times, Olin Downes, who claimed it was too long and sprawling. The concerto fared a little better for its European première, given a few months later at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam during a Respighi Festival organised by Mengelberg. Further performances in Berlin (November 11th, 1926, Respighi as soloist under Heinz Huger) and Rome (April 10th, 1927, Carlo Zecchi at the piano and Bernardino Molinari conducting) were met with much reserve, and the concerto then fell into neglect. Respighi’s hope about this work was thus severely shattered, and the Concerto in modo misolidio has only recently resurfaced in the repertory of pianists and orchestras, enjoying both performances and recordings that will, hopefully, reinstate it as the magnificent effort it represents. The mixolydian mode was the last of four modal scales upon which the whole Gregorian literature was built. Elsa Respighi wrote that her husband «wanted to recast these magnificent melodies in a new language of sounds, and free them from the rigidly formal Catholic Liturgy of the Roman Gradual». He certainly succeeded here, producing a work that was a vast symphonic essay, full of picturesque inventiveness and flair. There is no formal structure to the concerto’s three movements (even the third, despite its title of Passacaglia, moves along an extreme freedom of form), save for a certain cyclical element that broods over the whole work. The first movement, Moderato, is based on the chant Viri Galilaei, an introitus for the Ascension Mass. The theme is heard immediately in a stately piano cadenza and keeps returning in different guises. Two subsidiary themes, acting as interludes between the various apparitions of the Viri Galilaei motif, provide ample room for colour contrast, and accompany the music to the vast cadenza that closes the Moderato in a very reflective atmosphere, with the piano imitating the tolling of bells over the last restatement of the main theme. In the following Lento, a beautifully ascending melody in the celli (a Halleluja in the 8th mode) creates the atmosphere for the whole movement, one of pastoral clarity and lush harmonies. A central section, more animated and improvisatory in character, is interrupted by a severe choral in the brass: the resulting development brings to a final, grand restatement of the first theme, and the piano leads directly into the final Passacaglia, where the soloist begins alone with a tumultuous introduction (a Kyrie in the 8th mode). The orchestra enters with clamour, and develops the main theme in a myriad of tone colours, attesting to Respighi’s talents as an orchestrator. A reflective cadenza in the piano brings forth a brief, quiet episode. This is the proverbial calm that precedes the storm: an Allegro ritmico propels the music powerfully towards the final pages, where the main theme is heard again in all its splendour and brings the concerto to a truly magnificent close.

By the mid-Twenties, Neoclassicism was a well established trend among European composers, young and old. In Italy, Malipiero’s edition of the complete works of Monteverdi had a deep impact on the enlightened musical intelligentsia. Significantly, Respighi had devoted a large amount of time to the transcription and arrangement of early Italian keyboard and lute music from as early as 1902, had already produced several orchestral pastiches of old masters works (Gli Uccelli, Antiche Danze ed Arie), and was thus in an ideal position to exploit the growing trend of age-inspired music.

Three years after completing the Concerto in modo misolidio, he once again turned his attention to the medium with his Toccata for piano and orchestra, perhaps one of his best works overall. Sketched during an Atlantic crossing from Brazil in July 1928, Respighi completed the work at Capri on August 30th. The Toccata received its world premiere at New York’s Carnegie Hall on November 24th, 1928 by the same forces that had introduced the Concerto in modo misolidio: Willem Mengelberg conducting the New York Philharmonic, Respighi again at the piano. This time, Olin Downes was much more impressed with Respighi’s efforts and praised the Toccata quite openly, asserting, prophetically, that the symphonic Respighi was far greater than the operatic Respighi (his opera The Sunken Bell had been staged the same week by the Metropolitan Opera Company), and indeed a few symphonic works of the Italian maestro have fared much better than his ten operas. Scored for a downsized orchestra comprised of three Flutes, three Oboes, one Bassoon, one Double-Bassoon, three French Horns and strings, the Toccata is built like a piano concerto. A study of the manuscript reveals that Respighi himself had originally split the musical material in three separate movements, a fact that did not escape Mr. Downes’ acute ears: “The work, free in form but in connected movements, is of larger proportions than its title implies, since there is not only a Toccata, but a free introduction and a slow movement that precede the brilliant finale. […] This is composing which is at the least of an agreeable and effective kind. The form could be invoked to excuse a flimsy structure; but this piece has unity and plasticity of outline and enough of the flavour of another age to give a picturesque impression.” The music begins with a dramatic Grave in d minor that sets the tone for the whole work. A close-knit counterpoint, based on a stern double-dotted rhythm, animates the first few pages of the score. The relentless motion is interrupted here and there by the piano, with improvisatory cadenzas that have a predominantly organistic feel. More lyrical passages follow, complete with an exact quote from one of Girolamo Frescobaldi’s Toccate et Partite d’Intavolatura per organo et cimbalo, (No.1 in g minor) which, in Respighi’s hands, becomes a poignant interlude that precedes a significant Recitativo played by a solo cello over discordant trills from the piano. After a restatement of the sonorous beginning, a short cadenza leads to the Andante Lento middle section. Here Respighi is at his best, endowing the orchestra with a couple of gorgeous tunes, interrupted by numerous interventions from the piano. The solo part here is indeed reminiscent of early Baroque writing, with modal progression and running figurations that maintain a melodic – rather than decorative – physiognomy throughout. The compactness of the language, palpable at every step of the way, transfers effortlessly also in the finale, a spirited Allegro vivo. The music is dark and restless, and despite numerous surges from the brass and woodwind sections it remains on a high-octane level until the appearance of a Vivacissimo section. Here, the piano launches into a Scarlattian passage complete with devilish trills and piquant dissonances, commented upon by the oboes and flutes with sarcastic insistence. A short cadenza leads to the brilliant, massive conclusion of the work, with a half-time restatement of the Toccata’s theme in the French Horns, this time in the major mode. An interesting question arises. On both occasions, Mr Downes commented on the fact that Respighi would not lay claims to being a brilliant piano virtuoso, yet he insisted on premiering both of his major works for piano and orchestra. Significantly, he never played his gorgeous Concerto gregoriano for violin, and I have often wondered whether his less than state-of-the-art pianistic equipment has taken its toll to the very popularity of these works. Had he given the premiere of his Concerto or the Toccata to a star pianist (he was acquainted with such giants as Horowitz), perhaps these works would have endured the test of time more easily than they did and certainly deserved.

­A quintessentially Romantic composer, Respighi shied away from the irreverent sonorities of Stravinsky or the visionary conceptions of Malipiero, preferring instead a melodious, lush idiom that served his expressive and stylistic purposes to perfection. In addition, he was recognised as a conductor, especially of his own works, and his indefatigable activities earned him a serious reputation. During the rehearsal for a performance of Puccini’s Il tabarro, the Tuscan maestro was unsatisfied with the orchestration of a few pages. Puccini summoned Respighi, who took pencil and paper and offered his own solution to the problem to the delight of the composer. The passage remains in place today (without credit: the story was related by Elsa in her biography of her husband published in the 1950s). Respighi become the most successful offspring of the generation of the Eighties, enjoying fame and success on both sides of the Atlantic together with an accolade of loyal supporters: Toscanini championed his works assiduously, and musicians of the calibre of Willem Mengelberg and Fritz Reiner collaborated with the composer for virtually his entire creative career. Rachmaninoff asked Respighi to transcribe five of his Etudes Tableaux, whilst Toscanini commissioned an orchestral transcription of Bach’s Passacaglia in c minor. Another fervent admirer of Respighi had a less happy influence: the dictator Benito Mussolini, an amateur violinist, was very fond of Respighi’s music, and his proclaimed admiration for the Bolognese composer led to posthumous and unfounded accusations of being a fascist sympathizer.    Ottorino Respighi died in his villa I Pini at Rome, on April 18th, 1936. He was fifty-six years old.

©Sandro Ivo Bartoli Zeri, autumn 2010