Ottorino Respighi

Ottorino Respighi ( , also , ; 9 July 187918 April 1936) was an Italian violinist, composer, and musicologist who became one of the leading Italian composers in the early 20th century. Among Respighi's best known works are his three symphonic poems, Fountains of Rome (1916), Pines of Rome (1924), and Roman Festivals (1928), which displayed rich orchestral colours and brought him international fame. His musicological interest in 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century music led him to compose pieces based on the music of these periods.


Early years

Respighi was born on 9 July 1879 at 8 Via Guido Reni, an apartment building to the side of Palazzo Fantuzzi, in Bologna. He was the youngest child of Giuseppe and Ersilia (née Putti) Respighi. His brother Alberto died aged nine, and he had a sister, Amelia. His parents came from artistic families; his maternal grandfather and great-grandfather were distinguished sculptors and his paternal grandfather was a cathedral organist. Giuseppe was an accomplished pianist who encouraged his son's musical inclinations, giving basic tuition in piano and violin from an early age. To his father's initial disappointment, Respighi showed little interest in music until he was almost eight. Shortly after Respighi began formal violin tuition, he quit abruptly after his teacher whacked him on the hand with a ruler when he had played a passage incorrectly. He resumed lessons several weeks later, this time with a more patient teacher. His piano skills, too, were a hit-and-miss affair initially, but his father arrived home one day surprised to find his son performing the Symphonic Studies by Robert Schumann; Respighi had learned to play the piece in secret. Respighi quickly took to other instruments; he learned to play the harp in the course of several days.

Bologna and St. Petersburg, 1890–1913

Respighi was schooled at Bologna's Ginnasio Guinizelli for two years. In 1892, he enrolled at the Liceo Musicale di Bologna, where he studied the violin and viola for the next seven years with his teacher, Federico Sarti. Among Respighi's earliest completed and dated compositions were the Piccola Ouverture and Preludio for orchestra. Four years into his course at the Liceo Musicale, Respighi started classes in musical composition with Giuseppe Martucci and music history with Luigi Torchi. By the time he reached twenty, Respighi was performing in the orchestra Teatro Comunale di Bologna. In 1899, he received a diploma in the violin. By this time, Respighi had developed a fondness for languages, demonstrated by his large collection, which contained atlases and dictionaries. In his life Respighi became fluent in eleven languages and read literature in all of them.

In 1900, Respighi accepted the role of principal violist in the orchestra of the Russian Imperial Theatre in Saint Petersburg, during its season of Italian opera. During his visit he met with Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, whose orchestrations he greatly admired, and studied orchestration and composition with him over the course of five months. After a period in Germany, Respighi returned to Bologna where he completed his studies at the Liceo Musicale with an advanced course in composition, for which he completed Preludio, corale e fuga (Prelude, Chorale and Fugue), written under Rimsky-Korsakov's guidance and met with resounding success. Martucci spoke of Respighi upon graduating: "Respighi is not a pupil, Respighi is a master." He received a diploma in composition in 1901.From 1903 to 1908, his principal activity was as first violinist in the Mugellini Quintet, a touring five-piece founded by composer Bruno Mugellini. He remained with the group until 1913.

In 1909, Respighi's second opera Semirâma premiered, and was a considerable success. However, he fell asleep during the post-performance banquet from exhaustion of writing out the orchestral parts; his inconsistent sleeping patterns may have been caused by narcolepsy.

Life in Rome, 1913–1918

In 1913, Respighi left Bologna to become professor of composition at the Liceo Musicale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, a position that he held for the rest of his life. The busy atmosphere of the city unnerved Respighi, however, and soon teaching duties became difficult and composing a strain. He became withdrawn, suffered from irregular sleep, and dreamed of returning to Bologna. Also in 1913, Respighi spent some time performing in Germany. Despite many sources indicate he studied briefly with composer Max Bruch during this time, Respighi's wife later asserted that this was not the case. Upon returning to Rome, Respighi turned his attention primarily to composition.

In May 1915, Italy entered World War I by declaring war on Austria. At age 36, Respighi was still eligible to join the army, though his position as Professor at the Liceo Musicale in Rome granted him temporary exoneration from military service two years later. After a holiday in more peaceful surroundings in the summer of 1915, Respighi returned to Rome to continue teaching. One of his new students in his fugue and composition class was Elsa Olivieri-Sangiacomo; the two started a relationship and Elsa, at fourteen years his junior, married the composer in January 1919. Their friend, librettist Claudio Guastalla, spoke of their marriage: "It functioned on an almost transcendental level of human and spiritual harmony."

Respighi was deeply saddened by his mother's death in March 1916. Upon hearing that she had become ill he delayed his departure from Rome and by the time he arrived in Bologna, she had already died from pneumonia. Respighi returned to Rome and went back to work, but this would not last and he returned to Bologna. Elsa recalled Respighi retiring to bed and refusing to eat or see anyone. He recovered in Eremo di Tizzano, a religious retreat in the country hills some 20km south of Bologna. While there, he composed the short piece Preludio for organ. In a letter to his friend, singer Chiarina Fino Savio, from January 1917, Respighi wrote: "I am alone, sad and sick."

In the midst of such difficult times, a turning point in Respighi's career arrived on 11 March 1917 when the first of his Roman trilogy of tone poems, Fountains of Rome, premiered in Rome with conductor Antonio Guarnieri. The premiere was originally scheduled in late 1916, but an audience riot during the first half of the concert due to their distaste for German music caused the show to end early. Respighi's disappointment with the lukewarm response from the audience fuelled his effort to start on a follow-up.

Following the premiere, Respighi underwent a short tour of Italy and Switzerland with a group of musicians, including violinist Arrigo Serato, pianist Ernesto Consolo, and Fino Savio. Upon returning to Rome, he resumed work at the Liceo Musicale until the end of that academic year. While on vacation in Bologna in the summer of 1916, Respighi visited Viareggio to meet Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, operator of the Ballets Russes, who wished to stage new productions based on the baroque and classical periods. Respighi accepted a sum of 1,500 lire from Diaghilev and contributed orchestrations of the piano works from Péchés de vieillesse by Gioachino Rossini which formed the basis of the music to a new ballet, La Boutique fantasque.

The commission for Diaghilev may have inspired Respighi to gather scores for what would become Suite No. 1 of his Ancient Airs and Dances, a trilogy of orchestral suites transcribed from lute pieces by 16th century Italian composers. Suite No. 1 premiered in December 1917 in Rome, after which the full score was somehow lost and Respighi was forced to re-write it using individual orchestral parts.

Rise to fame, 1918–1925

An important milestone in Respighi's career took place when Arturo Toscanini asked the composer to have one of his compositions performed in a series of twelve concerts in Milan in February 1918. Respighi reluctantly picked Fountains of Rome, which had only been performed at its 1917 premiere. The concert was a huge success and placed Respighi at the forefront of one of the leading Italian composers of the early 20th century, prompting the start of a longterm, though sometimes tumultuous, relationship with Toscanini. Two months after the concert, Respighi allowed Casa Ricordi to publish the score in a deal that granted the composer 40% of the rental and performance rights of the work. Respighi succumbed to illness soon after with a mild case of Spanish flu. By the summer of 1918, Respighi had entered negotiations to translate and publish Italian versions of Theory of Harmony (1922) by composer Arnold Schoenberg and a book on musical counterpoint by Sergei Taneyev, but the project never materialised.

In the summer of 1919, Respighi reconnected with Diaghilev in Naples to discuss another commission for the Ballets Russes. This time, Diaghilev wished to stage a revised version of Le astuzie femminili by Domenico Cimarosa, which concluded with a series of dances based on Russian musical themes. Respighi accepted, and provided new arrangements of the ballet score which premiered in Paris in 1920. Respighi was also commissioned to score for a revival of La serva padrona by Giovanni Paisiello, which also had a Russian connection. He delivered the finished manuscript one month late, in March 1920. However, Diaghilev had decided against a full stage production and used the music as part of a series of different songs and dance numbers. The score was shelved and considered lost until it was rediscovered 90 years later, after which it was performed in full in August 2014 in Bologna.

In January 1921, Respighi and Elsa began their first tour as joint performers, marking Elsa's debut as a performing concert artist. They were joined by violinist Mario Corti. The tour saw dates across Italy, followed by Prague, Brno, and Vienna. The time away from his teaching duties at the Liceo Musicale in Rome led to his employers issuing a letter suggesting he return to fulfil them for the remaining months of the academic year. Towards the end of 1921, Respighi eagerly completed Belfagor, his first opera in a decade, without the usual spells of depression that him after he had finished composition. In October 1921, Respighi and Elsa relocated to a flat in Palazzo Borghese in Rome.

In January 1922, despite the possibility of further objections from the Liceo Musicale, the Respighis resumed touring as performers, this time visiting Czechoslovakia. When Benito Mussolini came to power later in 1922, Respighi steered a neutral course in his Fascist dictatorship. His growing international fame allowed the composer some level of freedom, but at the same time encouraged the regime to exploit his music for political purposes. Respighi vouched for more outspoken critics such as Toscanini, allowing them to continue to work under the regime. In 1923, Respighi became the first director of the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia. He resigned from the position in 1925 to focus on composition. In 1925, he collaborated with Sebastiano Arturo Luciani on an elementary textbook entitled Orpheus.

International recognition, 1925–1936

In December 1925, Respighi arrived in New York City for his first performances in the United States. His first public performance was the solo part for the premiere of his piano concerto, Concerto in the Mixolydian Mode (1925), at Carnegie Hall on 31 December. The concert was a success.

In May 1927, Respighi and Elsa travelled to Brazil to engage in a concert series of his own music in Rio de Janeiro. The musical style and local custom inspired Respighi, who told the press of his intention to return in the following year with a five-part orchestral suite based on his visit. Respighi did return to Rio, in June 1928, but the composition was finalised in the form of an orchestral work in three movements entitled Impressioni Brasiliane (Brazilian Impressions). On the ship back home from Brazil, Respighi met by chance with Italian physicist Enrico Fermi who tried to get Respighi to explain music in terms of physics, which Respighi was unable to do. They remained close friends.In 1928, Respighi completed his third Roman tone poem, Roman Festivals, in nine days. The piece premiered in 1929 at Carnegie Hall in New York City with Arturo Toscanini conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Toscanini recorded it twice for RCA Victor, first with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1942 and then with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1949. Respighi's music had considerable success in the U.S.; his Toccata for piano and orchestra was premiered, with Respighi as soloist, under Willem Mengelberg with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in November 1928, and his Metamorphoseon was a commission for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

In 1932, the Fascist government honoured Respighi with a membership to the Reale Accademia d'Italia, one of the highest honours awarded to the best of Italian science and culture.

Respighi was an enthusiastic scholar of Italian music of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. He published editions of the music of Claudio Monteverdi and Antonio Vivaldi, and of Benedetto Marcello's Didone. His work in this area influenced his later compositions and led to a number of works based on early music, notably his three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances and the Suite Gli uccelli (The Birds). In his Neoclassical works, Respighi generally kept clear of the musical idiom of the classical period, preferring to combine pre-classical melodic styles and musical forms (like dance suites) with typical late-19th-century romantic harmonies and textures.

Death and legacy

While working on his opera Lucrezia at the end of 1935, Respighi became ill with a fever and fatigue. Subsequent medical checks in January 1936 revealed samples of S. viridans bacteria in his blood, leading to the diagnosis of subacute bacterial endocarditis, a heart infection still untreatable at the time and likely brought on by his recent throat infection and oral surgery. Respighi's health deteriorated over the next four months, during which he received three blood transfusions and experimental treatment with sulphonamides imported from Germany. Elsa made a conscious effort to hide the severity of the illness to others, except a select few. Respighi died on 18 April in Rome, aged 55, from complications of blood poisoning. Elsa and several friends were by his side. A funeral was held two days later. His body lay in state at Santa Maria del Popolo until the spring of 1937, when the remains were re-interred at the Certosa di Bologna, next to poet Giosuè Carducci. Inscribed on his tomb are his name and crosses; dates of his birth and death are missing.

Elsa survived her husband for nearly 60 years, unfailingly championing her husband's works and legacy. A few months after Respighi's death, Elsa wrote to Guastalla: "I live because I can truly still do something for him. And I shall do it, that is certain, until the day I die." In 1961, to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, Elsa donated a collection of unpublished and incomplete manuscripts to the Conservatorio G. B. Martini in Bologna, formerly the Liceo Musicale, where Respighi had studied. In 1969, she helped found the Fondo Ottorino Respighi, a foundation at the Fondazione Cini in Venice with a large amount of letters and photographs documenting her husband's career. Elsa was also at the forefront of the Respighi Centenary celebrations in 1979 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Respighi's birth. The event saw a number of long-neglected works of his performed and recorded for the first time. Elsa died in 1996, one week short of her 102nd birthday.



  • Re Enzo (1905)
  • Semirâma (1909)
  • Marie Victoire (completed in 1913, but not produced until 2004)
  • La bella dormente nel bosco (1922)
  • Belfagor (1923)
  • La campana sommersa (1927)
  • Maria egiziaca (1932)
  • La fiamma (1934)
  • Lucrezia (1937) opera in 1 act (completed posthumously by his wife, Elsa, and his pupil Ennio Porrino)


  • La Boutique fantasque (1918), borrows tunes from the 19th-century Italian composer Rossini. Premiered in London on 5 June 1919.
  • Sèvres de la vieille France (1920), transcription of 17th- to 18th-century French music
  • La Pentola magica (1920), based on popular Russian themes
  • Scherzo Veneziano (Le astuzie di Columbina) (1920)
  • Belkis, Regina di Saba (1932)


  • Preludio, corale e fuga (1901)
  • Aria per archi (1901)
  • Leggenda for Violin and Orchestra P 36 (1902)
  • Piano Concerto in A minor (1902)
  • Suite per archi (1902)
  • Humoreske for Violin and Orchestra P 45 (1903)
  • Violin Concerto in A major (1903), completed by Salvatore Di Vittorio (2009)
  • Fantasia Slava (1903)
  • Suite in E major (Sinfonia) (1903)
  • Serenata per piccola orchestra (1904)
  • Suite in Sol Maggiore (1905), for organ and strings
  • Ouverture Burlesca (1906)
  • Concerto all'antica for Violin and Orchestra (1908)
  • Ouverture Carnevalesca (1913)
  • Tre Liriche (1913), for mezzo-soprano and orchestra (Notte, Nebbie, Pioggia)
  • Sinfonia Drammatica (1914)
  • Fountains of Rome (1916)
  • Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 1 (1917), based on Renaissance lute pieces by Simone Molinaro, Vincenzo Galilei (father of Galileo Galilei), and additional anonymous composers.
  • Ballata delle Gnomidi (Dance of the Gnomes) (1920), based on a poem by Claudio Clausetti
  • Adagio con variazioni (1921), for Cello and Orchestra
  • Concerto Gregoriano for Violin and Orchestra (1921)
  • Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 2 (1923), based on pieces for lute, archlute, and viol by Fabritio Caroso, Jean-Baptiste Besard, Bernardo Gianoncelli, and an anonymous composer. It also interpolates an aria attributed to Marin Mersenne.
  • Pines of Rome (1924)
  • Concerto in modo misolidio (Concerto in the Mixolydian mode) (1925)
  • Poema autunnale (Autumn Poem), for Violin and Orchestra (1925)
  • Rossiniana (1925), free transcriptions from Rossini's Quelques riens (from Péchés de vieillesse)
  • Vetrate di chiesa (Church Windows) (1926), four movements of which three are based on Tre Preludi sopra melodie gregoriane for piano (1919)
  • Trittico Botticelliano (1927), three movements inspired by Botticelli paintings in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence: La Primavera, L'Adorazione dei Magi, and La nascita di Venere. The middle movement uses the well-known tune Veni Emmanuel (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel)
  • Impressioni brasiliane (Brazilian Impressions) (1928)
  • The Birds (1928), based on Baroque pieces imitating birds. It comprises Introduzione (Bernardo Pasquini), La Colomba (Jacques de Callot), La Gallina (Jean-Philippe Rameau), L'Usignolo (anonymous English composer of the seventeenth century) and Il Cucu (Pasquini)
  • Toccata for Piano and Orchestra (1928)
  • Roman Festivals (1928)
  • Metamorphoseon (1930)
  • Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 3 (1932), arranged for strings only and somewhat melancholy in overall mood. It is based on lute songs by Besard, a piece for baroque guitar by Ludovico Roncalli, lute pieces by Santino Garsi da Parma and additional anonymous composers.
  • Concerto a cinque (Concerto for Five) (1933), for oboe, trumpet, violin, double bass, piano and strings


  • Nebbie (1906), voice and piano
  • Stornellatrice (1906), voice and piano
  • Cinque canti all'antica (1906), voice and piano
  • Il Lamento di Arianna (1908), for mezzo-soprano and orchestra
  • Aretusa (text by Shelley) (1911), cantata for mezzo-soprano and orchestra
  • Tre Liriche (1913), for mezzo-soprano and orchestra (Notte, Nebbie, Pioggia)
  • La Sensitiva (The Sensitive Plant, text by Shelley) (1914), for mezzo-soprano and orchestra
  • Il Tramonto (The sunset, text by Shelley) (1914), for mezzo-soprano and string quartet (or string orchestra)
  • Cinque liriche (1917), voice and piano
  • Quattro liriche (Gabriele D'Annunzio) (1920), voice and piano
  • La Primavera (The Spring, texts by Constant Zarian) (1922) lyric poem for soli, chorus and orchestra
  • Deità silvane (Woodland Deities, texts by Antonio Rubino) (1925), song-cycle for soprano and small orchestra
  • Lauda per la Natività del Signore (Laud to the Nativity, text attributed to Jacopone da Todi) (1930), a cantata for three soloists (soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor), mixed chorus (including substantial sections for 8-part mixed and TTBB male chorus), and chamber ensemble (woodwinds and piano 4-hands)


  • String Quartet in D major in one movement (undated)
  • String Quartet No. 1 in D major (1892–98)
  • String Quartet No. 2 in B-flat major (1898)
  • String Quartet in D major (1907)
  • String Quartet in D minor (1909) subtitled by composer "Ernst ist das Leben, heiter ist die Kunst"
  • Quartetto Dorico or Doric String Quartet (1924)
  • Tre Preludi sopra melodie gregoriane, for piano (1921)
  • Violin Sonata in D minor (1897)
  • Violin Sonata in B minor (1917)
  • Piano Sonata in F minor
  • Variazioni, for guitar
  • Double Quartet in D minor (1901)
  • Piano Quintet in F minor (1902)
  • Six Pieces for Violin and Piano (1901–06)
  • Quartet in D major for 4 Viols (1906)
  • Huntingtower: Ballad for Band (1932)
  • String Quintet for 2 Violins, 1 Viola & 2 Violoncellos in G minor (1901, incomplete)

    Biographical sources

  • Respighi, Elsa (1955) Fifty Years of a Life in Music
  • Respighi, Elsa (1962) Ottorino Respighi, London: Ricordi
  • Cantù, Alberto (1985) Respighi Compositore, Edizioni EDA, Torino
  • Barrow, Lee G (2004) Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936): An Annotated Bibliography, Scarecrow Press
  • Viagrande, Riccardo, La generazione dell'Ottanta, Casa Musicale Eco, Monza, 2007
  • Daniele Gambaro, Ottorino Respighi. Un'idea di modernità nel Novecento, pp. XII+246, illustrato con esempi musicali, novembre 2011, Zecchini Editore,