Respighi Paints a Picture of Darkness and Drama

A storm is brewing. © Charles Thibo

Wagner? This is not Wagner. But it sounds like Wagner! An Italian, you say? Non è possibile! But yes, this symphony, aptly named “Sinfonia Drammatica”, was composed by an Italian composer, Ottorino Respighi. For those of you who have followed this blog from its creation on, that name will have a familiar ring – Respighi composed this wonderful cycle of symphonic poems with the city of Rome as its main subject, that I discussed in one of my first posts.

Echos of German Romanticism

Respighi’s “Sinfonia Drammatica” is an impressive work, first because of its length of almost 50 minutes, second for its rich colourful instrumentation – and that is where Richard Wagner comes into play. The composer wrote the piece in 1914 after his studies in Russia in Germany. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov taught him for a couple of months at the turn of the century, and several stays in Berlin brought Respighi in contact with German opera, which at time was still dominated by Wagner while Richard Strauss, close to Wagner’s musical language, was about to rise. The “Sinfonia Drammatica” shows the influence of both the Wagner School and Rimsky-Korsakov.

The composer wrote this monumental piece in a time where political tensions were palpable, the balance of power in Europe was shifting, Italy’s position between the German-Austrian alliance and the British-French Entente was uncomfortably fuzzy. Did Respighi write a political work? Probably not. But the composer succeeded in expressing the unease, the darkness of the time, the threat of the upcoming storm. The symphony is indeed dramatic and the feeling of a pending drama is its central idea.

A single thematic idea

The “Sinfonia Drammatica” is written for a large orchestra with a substantial brass section as you would expect for such a piece. It is written in three movements and has nothing in common with the traditional sonata form. Respighi moves from one thematic block to the next without caring too much about a coherent thread. What is important is the emotional “value” of each block and the way Respighi  creates an overall emotional effect: Succeeding crescendos played by the strings and the woods express the tension, the brass and percussions transmit the anticipation of violence. The brutal, massive sub-themes alternate with gentle, almost lyrical parts featuring the strings only, a harp or a solo flute. This is valid for all three movements.

The symphony does not fit into any familiar category; it is not often performed,  and I was much pleased to discover a recording by the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège while I looked for works other than Respighi’s symphonic poems. One might argue that a single idea does not sustain an hour-long symphonic work, and that Respighi sometimes tends to copy-paste sub-themes or musical figures throughout the piece. Does that make the piece boring? Not at all, I find its thematic simplicity quite charming. Respighi set out to stir  the audience’s emotions and he masterfully succeeded in this. Rimsky-Korsakov would have been proud of him had he lived to hear his pupil’s work.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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