composers have ventured upon ethnomusicologic research more or less positively
and starting from various perspectives.
With Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) there is a strong and overwhelming “popular” taste in his production imbued with a colourful language that is manipulated and changed depending on the result that has to be achieved.
His tendency towards a minutely descriptive art and his ability to handle the orchestra led him to create pieces where academic rules and the heritage of the downright world of the common people intermingled in a perfect symbiosis. For this reason he abandoned the opera, a research that was limited to introspective undertones, to devote himself to symphonic poems that gave him a greater composition satisfaction as well as fame. It is in the symphonic poems that “popular” themes are in-depth dealt with and not just in the titles but also in clear folkloric features that he never hides or camouflages with blatant contrivances such as a dense and highly rhythmic orchestration.
Respighi frequently made use of popular elements leading hearers to a careful analysis of the piece. Who does not remember the 1916 “Fountains of Rome” where this minutely descriptive art merges with ancient Rome-related themes? Melodic elements extrapolated from hymns and songs that do not certainly belong to academic music.
Thus Respighi was the spokesman of a modernistic conception of music, borrowing popular raw sonorities, clashes of dissonant sounds and all the “rules” of folkloric tradition. Our excursus on Respighi cannot certainly leave out “Pines of Rome” (1924) a work that encompasses wider musical choices and where the brilliant fantasy and the glowing palette of the orchestra offer a hint to reach the goal of the modern Italian symphonic music.
The symphonic poem “Roman Festivals” (1928) is a synthesis and the essence of simple celebrations where dancing, sounds and smells comment on a reality that Respighi tried to describe.
Historic settings, typical characters, the inns' rhythms, the special and charming sounds of the old instruments can be found in this poem.
is Respighi's genius, a genius based on the desire to go in depth in every
direction, using his own experience as a transcriber and scholar of ancient
music in a style closer to the clear and incisive Italian tradition. In
“Gregorian Concert” for violin and orchestra (1921) the carrying structure
of form is based on the violin that introduces thematic fragments of the
past, getting out of classic composition methods. Respighi showed here
and modern he was in a century where the musical revolution of the period
wanted to destroy whatever was linked with the past. An example of this
kind of policy can be found in “Ancient airs and dances for lute” composed
between 1917 and 1931 where the musician showed that he had a sound knowledge
of the folklore of the previous centuries.
There is a hidden fil rouge linking together the composer's pieces in an ideal cultural and historic path. He showed this particular characteristic even inside orchestration where the perfection of the sonorous and timbre balance merges with the use of both classical and otherwise themes. Although Respighi worked during a musical revolution, it is impossible to call him a revolutionary musician tout court.
Another place, out of the fray, had to be found for him, because he did not strive for success but for a naturalness of things that could further enrich the difficult world of composition. An aesthete of the precise period of time intrigued by simplicity and the desire to be understood by everybody, he was, ultimately, in tune with the popular world where melodies arose from mood, from a will to dialogue, from the desire to express experiences and traditions of life. It is no accident that this reality, never tainted by market needs, is to be found continuously in his production. We can sum up by underscoring that fact that this musician was the only to use a music that was not totally “cultivated”.
He kept the themes' fluency unchanged, believing in a “total” music and anticipating a fashion which was to become very successful among the critics and the public. The only difference was that Respighi did not do it for fashion but for the love of music, beyond labels and schools of thought.
This was the composer's essential message although many people failed to understand the essence of his words that were too modern for that period. It is now time to study Respighi in the light of the new conquests and the new experiences as the popular genre has now gained the importance it deserved. Consequently, the popular genre is an element intrinsic to music and not just another secondary possibility of music itself. And Respighi understood this much earlier than us.
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