Ancient Airs and Dances Suite III, P. 172

Printer Friendly VersionSend by email

            A kernel of truth often lies in a cliché, and that is so for the old saw that through the centuries Italian musical culture has preferred and been more successful in vocal music than in instrumental.   There are of course many and notable exceptions, and Ottorino Respighi is a case in point.  After Puccini, it is said, he was the most successful and popular Italian composer of the twentieth century, and his reputation is still rather high, today.   He was a prolific composer, active in most genres, including song and opera, but in this country, at least, his reputation has lain in less than a half dozen works for symphonic orchestra composed in the 1920s. No progressive or modernist, by any means, he nevertheless created a unique musical style roughly in the first quarter of the twentieth century.  He was fundamentally a late romanticist, influenced by Richard Strauss and Rimsky-Korsakov, and his mastery of lush, colorful, virtuoso orchestra textures is—like theirs—complete.  But to this romantic style he integrated a deep interest in the Italian music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.  It’s an unusual combination of stylistic elements, but his genius in amalgamating them bore fruit in his ever-popular three symphonic suites based upon early lute and viol music:  Ancient Dances and Airs.   Turn on any classical radio station playing Renaissance music scored for large orchestra, and it just screams “Respighi!”

            He was born in Bologna, early on learned to play violin and viola well, in addition to pursuing his life-long interest in musicology and the compositions of earlier centuries.  Composition lessons with a well-known composer of instrumental music rounded out his education, and by the age of 24 he had spent a couple of seasons playing viola in the Russian Imperial Orchestra in St. Petersburg.  While in Russia he studied for a while with the master of orchestration, Rimsky-Korsakov.  He composed from that time prolifically, finally moving to Rome, where he spent the greater part of his life at its conservatory.  He was the toast of his country in his maturity, achieving widespread respect and popularity both there and abroad.  He maintained his integrity, both musically and politically—he was a favorite of Mussolini, but made no effort at all to ingratiate himself, nor engage with Fascist cultural politics.  He was working on his last opera, when he died young at fifty-five in 1936.         

           After Respighi moved permanently to Rome in 1913--at the time, the center of orchestral concerts in Italy--he turned more of his attention to the composition of instrumental music.  His first big success was the symphonic poem, Fountains of Rome, in 1916; the next year he put on his musicological hat and turned to his interest in the music of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.  The result was—over the years—the three suites for orchestra, Ancient Airs and Dances (Suites I, II, and III).  The first suite was composed in 1917, and the second in 1923; both were scored for strings and winds.  The third suite stems from 1932, and it is for strings alone.  Its four movements are based upon sixteenth-century compositions for solo lute by Jean-Baptiste Besard, Santino Garsi da Parma, and two anonymous composers, as well as a seventeenth-century guitar piece by Lodovico Roncalli.

            Today’s music audiences, especially those outside of educational institutions, tend to hear mostly the music of the late eighteenth through the twentieth centuries.  While the early music movement is well over a half-century old, exposure to music before the time of J.S. Bach is not as common as those musical riches deserve.  One reason for the dearth of modern performances is simply that the orchestra as we know it today simply did not exist then.  Most instrumental music was written for small chamber groups, and solo members of the lute, guitar, and keyboard families.   And much of this was strongly oriented to music for social dancing.  Whether actually played for the dancers, or played as private or concert music, music written expressly for the specific rhythms of the myriad social dances was a much more important part of the art until well into the eighteenth century.  In many ways, the last remnants of this important part of art music are the familiar minuets incorporated into the symphonies of composers such as Haydn and Mozart.

            The first movement of Respighi’s third suite is an anonymous “Italiana,” simply a graceful, slow tune in the putative “Italian” style.  Seven short “court airs” by Besard comprise the second movement, in a variety of tempos and meters.  Gathering a series of different dances into a suite was once one of the most common genres in early music, and this little group is a perfect example.  It this case it’s a “suite within a suite.”  A graceful siciliana, also by an anonymous composer, is the sole dance of the third movement.  This gentle traditional dance with the swinging, dotted rhythm is one of the few early dance rhythms to survive until the present day—there’s even one in Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors! The last movement is a passacaglia by Roncalli.  Generally speaking, a passacaglia is like a series of variations, in this case repeating much of the harmony and melody.  In the middle there is the characteristic fast section in triple time before returning to the tempo of the beginning.

            While purists will moan, we may easily dismiss them, for Respighi’s suites of lute music are an entrancing and masterful interpretation of a rich legacy of important music.  His skillful and imaginative writing for the modern string orchestra captures all of the musical spirit and nuances of the original, but in a lush modern guise.  Besides, they help spread the word about this great body of musical literature.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan