Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 2

Ottorino Respighi

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes

Date of Composition: 1923
Duration: 19 minutes

In the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries, the profession of musician was not so neatly subcategorized as it is today. Composers were also simultaneously performers, entrepreneurs, and teachers. Thus, it seems appropriate that twentieth-century Italian composer Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936), who can also rightly be labelled performer, conductor, editor, professor, and musicologist, held a special fascination for the music and musicians who preceded him—a modern “Renaissance man” one might say.

As a young man, Respighi first attended the conservatory in Bologna as a string performance student. Upon his graduation in 1900, he accepted a position as principal violist in the Russian Imperial Theatre Orchestra. While in Moscow, he also studied with the great orchestrator-composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Perhaps it was this combination of hearing romantic opera daily, while exploring programmatic color options for different instrumental combinations, that led him to compose some of the lushest soundscapes of the century.

In contrast to the thicker romantic textures of his more famous works such as The Pines of Rome, Respighi’s Antiche danze ed arie per liuto (Ancient Dances and Airs for Lute) sonically replicates the charm of early Baroque dances in three orchestral suites. Each provides fresh new settings for modern audiences. His Second Suite includes four movements inspired by music originally composed for the lute, the most popular instrument of the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras. Utilizing dances first composed by Italian musicians Fabritio Caroso (c. 1530–c. 1605) and Bernardo Gianoncelli (d. c. 1650), Burgundian lutenist Jean-Baptiste Besard (c. 1567–c. 1616), and French court composer Antoine Boesset (1586–1642), the composer resurrects music of former times. Performance practice purists might quibble over Respighi’s arrangements, which set old lute dances for modern instruments and do not always follow historically-informed musical practice. The composer, however, labelled the works as “free transcriptions for orchestra,” leaving no doubt that Respighi achieved just what he intended.

© Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, 2023