Orchestra Seattle | Seattle Chamber Singers
George Shangrow, music director
PO Box 15825
Seattle, WA 98115


Lauda per la Nativitą del Signore, P. 166

Respighi was born July 9, 1879, in Bologna, Italy, and died April 18, 1936, in Rome. His cantata Lauda per la Nativitą del Signore, a setting of a text by the 13th century Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi, was composed in 1930; it was first performed on November 22 of that year in Siena, under the direction of the composer. In addition to three vocal soloists and chorus, the work is scored for 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), oboe, English horn, 2 bassoons, triangle, and piano (four hands).

Ottorino Respighi's music has been described as "new old music": he brought to the forms, techniques, and melodic lines of early Italian music his special gift for evoking poetic images, and his ability to, in his words, "reproduce by means of tone an impression of nature." He was uniquely successful in clothing the best of the Italian musical past in the luminous harmonies and orchestral colors of the present. He desired above all to compose music that would speak to his compatriots about all aspects of their beloved country in a musical language that was beautiful and easy for ordinary people to accept and enjoy. He is probably best known for his highly descriptive symphonic poems, Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals, which are wonderful examples of his style, embody his musical ideals, and bring the spirit and history of the city of Rome powerfully and vividly to life.

Respighi was a reserved and musically talented youth who began studying the violin at the age of eight and composition at thirteen. By the age of twenty, he was also an excellent viola player and pianist. In 1900 Respighi composed his first major work, the Symphonic Variations, written for his final examinations at his father's Liceo Musicale in Bologna. At this time, he was playing in the orchestra of the Teatro Comunale, Bologna, and his ability as both a violinist and a violist was so outstanding that he was offered an engagement with the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg as a violist; he played later at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow as well. Respighi soon became fluent in Russian, as he did later in many other languages, and spent some five months studying composition and orchestration with the famous Russian composer, Rimsky-Korsakov, who rapidly recognized the young Italian's gifts and taught him mostly by offering him suggestions as needed. The young composer's musical education was also enhanced by attending Max Bruch's lectures in Berlin in 1908.

Respighi received his diploma in composition in 1901, and proceeded to build his reputation as a composer with a glittering variety of works, including his first opera (Re Enzo), songs, quintets, a piano concerto, sonatas, and the Suite in G Major for Strings and Organ, a musical tribute to Bach, whom Respighi held in highest esteem. A superb arranger, he made brilliant orchestral transcriptions of works by Bach, Monteverdi, Tartini, Vitali, Vivaldi, and Rossini (his arrangement of pieces by Rossini, La Boutique Fantasque, produced by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in London in 1919, became one of his most popular works), and he also edited many early chamber works for modern publication and performance. His operas brought him recognition that led in 1913 to an appointment as Professor of Composition at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, where he was the director from 1924 until 1926.

It was his songs that first attracted to Respighi the 18-year-old Elsa Oliveri-Sangiacomo, a gifted singer who was 15 years younger than Respighi and who herself became a composer of operas, choral and symphonic works, and songs. She became his pupil, and their relationship developed into a love affair that led in 1919 to marriage. Elsa thereafter gave up her own musical career and devoted herself completely to her husband's. Elsa told an interviewer:

"I have lived amongst music all my life. That is why Respighi always respected my judgment. I was always objective and sometimes I needed to tell him, 'You know, I think there are eight bars too much here,' and a few days later he would come back and say, 'You were right, Elsa.' We worked together this way all the time. Our marriage was a perfect union; we mutually respected our totally different personalities. We never tried to interfere with each other's tastes or wishes. This was the way we were made and we were destined to live together in total happiness."

Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, a wide variety of brilliant works flowed from Respighi's pen: the Adagio with Variations for Cello and Orchestra; the Trittico botticelliano; and the masterful operas, La Fiamma, La campana sommersa, and La bella dormente nel bosco (Sleeping Beauty). His deep love of, and identification with, ancient Italian music brought to birth such works as the three delightful sets of Ancient Airs and Dances, transcribed from lute music, the Concerto in the Antique Style, and Gli uccelli (The Birds). "The Italian genius," he wrote, "is for melody and clarity. Today there is a noticeable return to the less sophisticated music of the past-in harmony to the church modes and in form to the suites of dances." Respighi incorporated medieval melodies and modes into such compositions as his Concerto gregoriano, Vetrate di chiesa (Church Windows), and his Concerto in the Mixolydian Mode for piano and orchestra. Through his global travels, during which he conducted his own music, accompanied singers, and sometimes even played in performances of his works, Respighi gained international acclaim. He became the most celebrated Italian composer of his generation, his honors including election to the Academy of Italy in 1932.

In January of 1936, Respighi was diagnosed with endocarditis lenta viridans, a bacterial infection that was at that time incurable. Though the composer had a strong constitution and fought on for four months, the disease depleted his energy, distorted his hearing (the thought of deafness terrified him), and probably affected his work on his last opera, Lucrezia. It was completed after his death by his widow, Elsa, who survived the composer by 60 years and labored untiringly to promote his work until her own death in 1996 at the age of nearly 102. She published books; organized conferences, performances, recordings and new editions of his music; and not only completed his unfinished compositions but also produced transcriptions. In 1969 she established Fondo Respighi in Venice to promote Italian music education.

The Lauda per la Nativitą del Signore (or Laud for the Nativity) is a beautiful pastoral work that depicts the nativity of Jesus as the shepherds might have seen it. Respighi employs several archaic forms and devices: madrigals ("Contenti ne andremo"), Monteverdi-like arioso ("Seignor tu sei descieso"), some plainchant, and even a touch of fugue in the "Gloria" section. In addition to chorus, a small wind orchestra and piano, the work features three soloists: soprano ("The Angel"), mezzo-soprano ("Mary"), and tenor ("The Shepherd").

The Lauda is based on a text by Jacopone da Todi, a 13th-century Franciscan poet who was originally a successful practitioner of the law. In 1267 he married a deeply religious noblewoman who did penance for her all-too-worldly husband. The next year when Jacopo insisted that she attend a public tournament against her wishes, his wife was killed when the stands in which she sat collapsed. Following this tragic event, the devastated Jacopo abandoned his profession and his belongings, joined the Franciscan order after a decade of penance, and became a writer of laude (psalms), of which he composed some 200. The famous hymn Stabat Mater Dolorosa is thought to be one of his numerous passionate, mystical poems. He was eventually excommunicated because of his participation in the Spiritual movement, which called for the Church to embrace the ideal of total poverty, and he was imprisoned in 1298 for signing a manifesto against the pope. He was released in 1303 and withdrew to a hermitage, devoting the last three years of his life to composing mystical poems, and dying on Christmas day in 1306.

Respighi dedicated his Lauda per la Nativitą del Signore to Count Guido Chigi Saracini, founder of the Accademia Chigiana in Siena. The work received its premiere in the count's palace on St. Cecilia's Day, 1930, performed by the Piccolo Coro di Santa Cecilia under the direction of the composer; Elsa Respighi sang the role of Mary. A month later, on December 26, the work was first performed in Rome.

© 2002 Lorelette Knowles

Last performance:

Other works
on this program:

Arcangelo Corelli
Antonio Vivaldi

Lauda links:
Baroque Choral Guild

Respighi links:
Respighi Society
Grove biography

Good CDs:

Respighi's Laud to the Nativity, along with Three Botticelli Pictures and Rossini's Petite messe solennelle