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Die Summe seines Schaffens - Deutsche Oper Berlin

The Sum of his Creativity

Ottorino Respighi was one of Italy’s greatest composers of instrumental music. However, he also wrote monumental operas. Finally, we can experience his greatest work, LA FIAMMA.

Disinclination: this was the composer Ottorino Respighi’s excuse not to attend an appointment for which some of his colleagues would have traded their father’s and mother’s souls. He was invited to visit Benito Mussolini at the Palazzo Venezia in Rome. He would not have to travel far; he had been living in the Italian capital since 1913. Respighi, however, whined: “He’s very busy? And I have nothing to say to him. Why should I go. No, I won’t go,” his wife Elsa reported him saying. She had to report to the heart of Fascist power to make apologies for her husband.

This story can be found in Elsa’s biography of Respighi. It was written in the 1950s, when Respighi’s star was fading. Not least because composers like he, who had been successful under the Fascist regime, were increasingly discredited. Elsa told the anecdote to defend her husband against the accusation of collaboration. She did so tirelessly until her death in 1996, at 102 years of age. Ottorino Respighi lived most of his mature years under Fascism. He was courted and honoured by the leaders of the state. It was no coincidence that in Rome in 1934, Mussolini attended the world premiere of the opera which now opens the 2024/25 season of the Deutsche Oper Berlin: LA FIAMMA – The Flame. It was first heard in Berlin in 1936, the year of the Olympic Games. Nevertheless, simple conclusions should be eschewed. The Duce’s applause at the celebrated premiere did not automatically make Respighi a Fascist artist. It is far more complicated than that. Fortunately.

Respighi was born in Bologna in 1879. The family was arts-minded, yet he was not a child prodigy. He attended the conservatory, beginning to compose at the age of 15. In 1902/03, he worked as a violist in St. Petersburg, taking lessons from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Both shared a weakness for oriental subjects and sounds. Respighi perfected his technique of instrumentation with Rimsky-Korsakov; the influence of Wagner, Strauss and Debussy is also obvious. The result is a sound which today often elicits the response: “Sounds like a film score.” For the longest time, that was a damning verdict. For a Respighi renaissance yet to come, however, it might prove an advantage. Respighi also seemed to compose as if to an inner film. The famous tone poems “Fontane di Roma” and “Pini di Roma” describe scenes in Rome. In his “Impressione brasiliane”, poisonous snakes writhe; the “Vetrate di chiesa” depict the lives of the saints. Yet one must know this: many of these settings were thought up after the fact. Respighi, Elsa and his librettist and friend Claudio Guastalla would sit together, coming up with programmes and titles for works already written. That is the opposite of film music – but it is effective marketing.

Like all composers of his generation, Respighi laboured to secure the future of Italian music. This musical nationalism was an international phenomenon. Arnold Schoenberg also declared dodecaphony “an invention which will secure German music’s predominance for the next one hundred years”. The Italians strove to weaken opera’s rank as the dominant art form. Puccini’s works were actually frowned upon as “internationalistic”. Respighi did not join some of his colleagues in their furor; he did not contribute to the flood of pamphlets condemning the “melodramma” and glorifying instrumental music. He was suspicious of music theories. Nonetheless, if he wanted to be taken seriously, he had to write instrumental music.

By way of preparation, he delved into infinite amounts of ancient music. These studies explain the formal variety of his compositions and his affinity for writing short works. Even his great tone poems are sequences of pieces assembled like baroque suites. His “Fontane di Roma” was a “succès d’estime” in Rome in 1916, only becoming a triumph when Arturo Toscanini conducted it at La Scala in Milan the following year. Respighi was suddenly famous. The new Italian musical style was born. His reputation was cemented by “Pini di Roma” of 1924 and “Feste romane” of 1927. To this day, these works are played; all his other compositions have a hard time. Especially his ten operas. One of the reasons is that his cinematically expansive sound doesn’t even sound all that “Italian” to today’s ears. One hundred years ago, there was no doubt about his Italianità. Ancient church modes and Gregorian chant played a key role. To his contemporaries, monkish chant was the oldest and purest manifestation of Italian music.

When Mussolini took power in 1922, Respighi was already established. There is not one written line of text in which he praised fascism. Criticism, however, is equally absent. Respighi also accepted honours, such as a seat in the Accademia d’Italia. His nomination was a memorable event. The composer Don Lorenzo Perosi recommended him with the words: “I nominate Maestro Respighi, for he speaks seven languages and is a vegetarian.” Pietro Mascagni, who had tried to prevent his appointment because Respighi was not a political hardliner, looked perplexed. No one today doubts Mascagni’s bowing and scraping to power during the fascist era. Yet no one wants to forego a hit such as CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA. Even the politically correct music world has always worshipped at the altar of creators of repertoire works.

The Accademia, whose members included the radio pioneer Marconi and the Nobel Prize winner for literature Pirandello, was not a relative of the German “Reichskulturkammer”, where National Socialism had declared the bad taste of the Führer the yardstick for all artistic questions, persecuting everything Hitler disliked. Italian fascism, on the other hand, demanded allegiance, but the style and means in which the artists contributed to Italy’s glory were not very important. None of the leading composers saw any reason to emigrate. Even in 1940, at the Maggio musicale fiorentino, a festival founded by the Fascists, Luigi Dallapiccola’s “Volo di Notte” was performed. It is a dodecaphonic work. The Nazis, meanwhile, considered dodecaphony “degenerate”.

Only from 1938 onwards, when the German racial laws were introduced in Italy, did some artists change their mind. At the world premiere of LA FIAMMA in 1934, however, Respighi shared the stage with his Jewish librettist Guastalla; together, they took more than two dozen curtain calls. Which position might he have taken later vis-à-vis Guastalla? Respighi died unexpectedly in 1936, at the age of 57.

Thus, LA FIAMMA is not a legacy, but the sum of his creativity. It is an opera which would be unimaginable today: a true melodrama. The first measures of the three-act work are reminiscent of TOSCA. Only a few moments into the opera, the listener knows: this will not end well. The story is about unhappy marriage and illicit love, set before a backdrop of witch-hunts. As a movie, this would be the grandest of cinemascope stories. Nothing more grandiose had been written since the end of Act I of TURANDOT. The opera is set in the Byzantian Ravenna in the 7th century, an epoch Respighi was itching to have his way with, musically speaking. Thus, the literary model was antedated by a meagre 900 years. Orchestra and chorus soar and roar. The opera is full of oriental sounds, Latin chants, veristic cantilenas and Monteverdian monodies. The sound is sombre, archaic, ever earnest and highly dramatic. And does it all hang together? It does.

Critics celebrated Respighi for adding to Italy’s glory. But what did the composer do? He immediately veered off the path of success. His next opera, LUCREZIA, has one act, takes an hour and calls itself an “istoria”, a story. The action on stage is recounted by a voice from the orchestra pit. Did Respighi distance himself from himself? Or was he keeping others at arm’s length? Presumably, he was just insisting on a great artist’s right to make independent decisions.

Dr. Thomas Vitzthum is a political correspondent and head of the Berlin office of the Mediengruppe Bayern. He wrote his doctoral thesis on nationalism in Italian music during Fascism, in particular the case of Respighi.

Translation: Alexa Nieschlag

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