>ADRIANOíS CONVERSATIONS WITH ELSA
I had made Elsa Respighiís acquaintance in 1977. This,
my greatest friendship, with one of the most interesting women of musical
Italy, lasted until Elsaís death in 1996. It embraced considerable correspondence
and several personal visits to Elsaís house in Rome, and included an
unforgettable Venetian holiday in 1978, preceding the Respighi Centenary
for which I had conceived a comprehensive Respighi exhibition. This
was held, with great success, fn conjunction with the International
Lucerne Music Festival. Amongst various tape conversations with Elsa,
I have transcribed and translated, from the Italian, two of the most
important. They offer an interesting insight into a composer of which
too little has been written over the fifty years after his death. Only
his widow, could talk with such authority about him. - Adriano
First Conversation: Rome. September 12th, 1977!
Adriano: You are extremely busy preparing for the Respighi
Centenary to be celebrated in 1979. What will be the most important
celebratory events in Italy?
Elsa: In Italy, many diverse programs are being prepared,
both in the concert and the operatic domains. Casa Ricordi has issued
a new catalogue of all available scores that also includes those works
edited by other publishers, like Universal, Bote & Bock etc.
A: Some of Respighiís operas will also be performed?
E: I hope so. There is much interest in La campana
sommersa, which has recently been broadcast by RAI. This opera will
also find its way to some theatres. There is also much interest in Maria
Egiziaca and Lucrezia (both one-act pieces), in some ballets
and, finally, in most of the symphonic and chamber works. As in past
years, the USA is, apparently, the country showing the greatest interest
in Respighi. Many Universities, Colleges and Institutions have asked
me to send materials and information to enable them to prepare their
A: What about gramophone recordings?
E: There is great interest and excellent sales all
over the world now. Even Japanese labels have produced some new recordings.
A: Of the recordings of the Roman trilogy, which
do you consider to be the best? Or who is the ideal interpreter of these
symphonic poems? What, if any, disappointments may one experience listening
to some modern interpretations?
E: All great conductors have the Roman trilogy
in their repertoires, besides other Respighi works, and there are many
A: Which interpretation, for example, of Pini di
Roma would Ottorino have preferred?
E: Well, in this case, I feel a bit undecided. One
might discuss Toscaniniís versions. In my opinion, he did Fontane
and Pini marvellously, but he was not so keen on Feste
Romane, which apparently did not suit his temperament. But one can
also talk, with enthusiasm, about other conductors, like Kleiber and
Reiner. In the past, of course, gramophone recordings did not sound
as good as they do today.
A: Would Respighi have appreciated the latest technical
achievements: stereo and quadraphony?
E: He would have been very impressed - he was always
interested in all kinds of technologies, contrary to myself...
A: Would it not be the right moment now to acquaint
audiences, at last, with some less-known works by Respighi, like, for
example, his Sinfonia Drammatica?
E: Oh yes, but the Drammatica, although an excellent
work it is not the authentic Respighi. In my opinion, Respighiís breakthrough
came with his Fontane di Roma - even if earlier, he had shown
a highly personal style in many of his vocal works. Only after Fontane,
did he feel he was achieving increasing perfection.
A: And what about his chamber works?
E: I like very much his Sonata for violin, the Tre
preludi sopra melodie gregoriane, and his songs with piano (from
which one can assemble some nice programs). In the past, 1, myself,
have given over 300 recitals of songs by Respighi all over the world.
Every year, we were touring for example for 3-4 months in the USA, where
Respighi was invited to conduct his works with the best orchestras.
In between these concerts, we were usually giving recitals, as we also
did in Europe.
A: Once might say that Respighiís songs show his most
characteristic, original and intimate side?
E: Definitely! Nebbie, for example, is one of
his most celebrated works. Would you like to know how it was composed?
Respighi had told me once that in his youth (around 24-25 years old)
he was going through a period of depression. One morning he had started
to write down some music and had put it aside. In the afternoon, a lady,
who was a friend, came to visit, bringing a collection of Ada Negriís
poetry. After she left, Ottorino opened the book, read Nebbie,
and realised that this poem fitted exactly the mood of the music he
had written. He went to his piano and without changing one note of the
already written music, he set the words to it and finished the song.
This is very strange, but true.
A: Years ago, you mentioned that there was a great
need for a book on Respighi. Has anybody shown interest in writing such
E: Not really. I have written Respighiís biography,
myself. It was very hard work. You know, to reconstruct a life is a
very difficult thing. But what I tell is all true... There once was
a monograph by Raffaello de Rensis, but it is of no real value. A real
study on Respighiís work is waiting to be written. Respighiís artistic
personality has not been considered seriously yet - not even by the
critics. They seem to be disoriented by such a phenomenon as Respighi
who continued to express himself in the personal way he felt necessary.
At present, I am writing a book with Leonardo Bragalia, a musicologist,
which will be entitled "Opere, balli e balletti". I have just
finished the chapter on the ballets and Bragaglia is working on the
operas. The book should be published around November 1978, to be available
for the Centenary.
A: Whilst composing, did Respighi follow a certain
pattern, or system, or did he just wait for moments of inspiration rather
than follow a strict daily routine?
E: Respighi used to compose only during solar months,
he created everything between November and March. He used to get up
at sunrise, very early in the morning and went to bed at sunset. He
lived that kind of cycle. My own is just the opposite: I go to bed very
late at night and wake up later in the morning. When I was his pupil
at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Respighi asked me if I would become
his wife (usually he panicked at the thought of marriage and no one
believed he would ever marry). I warned him that I was so different
and that, among other things, I could not get up as early in the morning
as he did. He answered: "No problem, our lifestyles will continue
Generally, after having written something, he would
call me to his studio to hear my criticism. If it was a vocal composition,
I would obviously go through all the parts. I have studied so much music
in my life. I had started studying the piano as a six-year old girl,
then harmony and counterpoint, and finally fugue and composition, in
Respighiís class. But I also had a singerís training and had obtained
a degree in Gregorian chant. Thus, I have lived amongst music all my
life. That is why Respighi always respected my judgement. 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 otherís tastes or wishes. This was the way we were made and
we were destined to live together in total happiness.
Second Conversation Venice. September 17th. 1978
E: Shortly after we settled in our flat at Palazzo
Borghese, one of Romeís most beautiful residences, an invitation came
from Columbia Concerts, one of the most powerful concert agencies, to
go on tour to the USA. Respighi, not yet convinced about the necessity
of succeeding overseas, felt undecided at first, but I explained to
him that success in the USA was necessary for international renown,
so he accepted. Even on our first American tour, Respighi was invited
by the best orchestras to conduct programs devoted entirely to his own
works. And the Composerís Guild, a society specialising in chamber music
concerts, offered us recitals, in which I appeared as a singer, either
with Respighi at the piano or with a string quartet (as, for example,
the Lener Quartet) or with a violinist, also accompanied by Respighi.
We had an immediate and enormous success.
A: Which was the first of these American concerts?
E: Respighi was first invited (in 1926) as a guest
conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra at a time when Stokowski was
touring elsewhere. Respighi conducted five concerts with this orchestra:
two in Philadelphia and one each in Baltimore, Cleveland and Washington.
These concerts were enormously successful and the audiences were very
enthusiastic. This was the beginning of our great relationship with
American audiences. Later on, we had two more American tours lasting
three to three-and-a-half months each. At the time, Respighi had composed
Maria Egiziaca an opera that was originally conceived for concert
performance. The New York Philharmonic had secured for itself the world
premiere by paying Ricordi a considerable amount of money. Toscanini
should have been conducting, but he became ill a few days before and
so Respighi himself was asked to conduct it, since no one else knew
the work. This too was a tremendous success.
A: Toscanini can be considered the international promoter
of Respighiís work?
E: Even when Respighi was a young viola player in Bolognaís
opera orchestra, Toscanini recognised his talents, although one always
got the impression that this great conductor always wanted to be a composer
himself. He was certainly a great interpreter, but I am sure his often
strange and harsh behaviour towards some of his contemporaries came
from that frustration of not being able to create music himself. After
the Roman performance of Pini di Roma, for example, Toscanini
requested Ricordi to reserve the score for himself for American performances,
so that no other conductor could use it for five years, before he finally
premiered it there himself. That was, incidentally, an unforgettable
evening. Ottorino and I, were there. Carnegie Hall was decorated from
top to bottom with flowers and Italian and American flags. In the audience
were famous artists and personalities. Toscanini delivered an excellent
performance of Pini di Roma and he had to return four or five
times to the podium to acknowledge the applause, but without Respighi.
I knew that there had been a dispute between him and the maestro and
I told Ottorino that since everybody knew that he was there, he should
go out too. He finally agreed to accompany Toscanini causing tremendous
shouting and cheering. They had a standing ovation from thousands of
people. The players improvised fanfares on their instruments. I had
never before, experienced such a tremendous physical sensation. But
the curious fact about Respighi going out to accept that applause, was
that Toscanini had murmured to him, putting his hand over his shoulder
"Come, come Respighi, letís go out, do share my success!"
A: What other premieres were given in the USA?
E: I had the premiere performance of Deita silvane,
a song cycle which Respighi had written for piano and later on orchestrated
for an ensemble of pastoral-like instruments. When I went on-stage I
was amazed to see Toscanini, Horowitz, Rubinstein, Heifetz, all the
great musicians in New York at that moment, sitting together in the
first row. This was certainly a strange feeling, especially before giving
a premier performance that might have been a fiasco. But I just looked
at all those guests and with great calm 1 delivered my performance,
after which Toscanini came towards me, cross-looking as usual and said,
"But you know, you sing very well". He was really a strange
man, but a great conductor. His recordings do not really transmit his
charisma, you needed his physical presence at a live performance for
his thrilling music to make its full impact. He was a man who had a
strong personal charisma and the capability to absorb the playing of
an orchestra almost like a vampire, so that afterwards the ensemble
was like a wrung-out rag. I noticed this especially when I listened
to an orchestra that had had a concert with Toscanini and immediately
after that, another with Furtwangler: the ensemble was like this inertly
hanging shawl of mine. It could not deliver anything after Toscanini
had squeezed it out completely. I felt very bad because I had listened
to Furtwängler conduct orchestras in all over Europe splendidly.
The shock after Toscaniniís American departure was so great. He decided
to leave so suddenly; going to the Managerís bureau, tearing up his
contracts and never going back to the United States again.
A: Toscaniniís departure was certainly a great loss
for the musical world. But coming back to Maria Egiziaca Ö
E: Let me tell you about this premiere. A backdrop
triptych had been mounted on the podium, painted in the style of the
quattrocento or cinquecento and decorated with gold. It was about three
meters high and depicted, in its different sections, episodes from the
life of Mary of Egypt. Respighi wanted this work to be performed only
in concert halls, but it became so successful that it was impossible
to hinder its way to the opera stage, including that of the Scala. Respighi
regretted this since he wanted to enrich the concert repertoire with
a semi-staged work of a new kind. His last and unfinished opera Lucrezia
is similar to Maria Egiziaca, through its hierarchic and static
conception and, last but not least, in its musical structure which is
close to Monteverdiís recitare cantando style. There is a very important
singing character called La Voce, whose place is not on the stage, but
actually near or in the orchestra pit. Another unforgettable event during
our American tours was a production of La campana sommersa at
the Metropolitan Opera (1928, conducted by Tullio Serafin).
A: And in 1926 you also went on tour to South America.
E: There too, Respighi conducted various symphonic
concerts, but a highlight was certainly the production of La Fiamma
at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires with Claudia Muzio in the title
role (1934). Respighi and I could only attend later performances and
not the premiere, but the House was always full, although I had been
warned in advance by Ricordiís representative that it may have been
otherwise. On the fourth evening, for example, Muzio had forty curtain
calls after only the second act. If the manager had not ordered the
iron curtain to be lowered, applause would have continued. Muzio was
totally exhausted. The same production was also staged in Montevideo
shortly afterwards. Then followed another tour to Argentina after which
we returned to Rio de Janeiro. In total, we travelled three times to
South America. After Respighiís death, I returned there only in 1946.
I was very warmly received.
A: But still today, and now in connection with the
Centenary, the USA shows great interest in Respighi?
E: As far as I remember, last year, I had to answer
over eight hundred letters coming from that country. Many concerts and
productions had also been planned by Universities and Colleges. Besides
all the famous orchestras, many smaller institutions were interested
in Respighi. All this promotional work has quite exhausted me but I
do hope that everybody has had all the information they needed. Everyone
actually wanted me to go over myself, and I have also received invitations
and enquiries from many other countries like Greece, Guatemala, Israel
A: But already during Respighiís lifetime, festivals
were held in his honour, like in Belgium and the Netherlands.
E: There was a Festival in Amsterdam with Willem Mengelberg,
in which some concerts were organized so that Respighi was accompanied
as a soloist by Mengelberg in the first part, and so that he could conduct
during the second. I remember a funny story about Mengelberg. One day
when he was to conduct Fontane di Roma, I noticed that he rehearsed
the ĎFontana di Trevií in a tempo which seemed too fast and unsympathetic.
I asked Ottorino, "Why donít you tell Mengelberg to take the right
tempo?". He answered, "How could I ever dare tell him such
a thing?" While Respighi was conducting the first part of the concert,
I was sitting with Mengelberg in his room (He was eating his apple as
usual) and I just started humming the tune of the Trevi Fountain just
for myself, tapping my hand in the rhythm of the right tempo. Mengelberg
suddenly stopped eating, looked at me with his great sky-blue eyes,
and said, "I have understood". He then went out and conducted
the work at the right tempo. Respighi said to me, "You see, there
was no need to tell Mengelberg about the right tempo, he found it out
In Belgium, we had a Respighi Festival conducted
by Désiré Défauw. One programme had fontane
di Roma, followed by Berliozís Carnaval Romain, but someone
had decided to change the workís sequence at the last minute and Défauw
started with the Berlioz piece, which was hissed - it was a fiasco.
I could not understand why such a basic repertoire piece as Carnaval
Romain could cause such a reaction, but it appeared that an anti-Fascist
clique who knew nothing about music and thought Respighi was a Fascist,
just hissed the wrong piece. Poor Berlioz; Respighiís work had its usual
success. The Belgian Respighi Festival also included a production of
La Fiamma, in Antwerp, which was sung in Flemish, and it sounded
very funny. In Helsinki too, there was once a Finnish-translated production
of Maria Egiziaca. Did I tell you that Respighi had started studying
the Finnish language during the last years of his life?
We really had a marvellous and almost incredible life
together. But Ottorino could come home after having had a huge success
and forget about it immediately. In the USA we often had audiences of
over five thousand cheering people and, afterwards, I felt I had to
enthuse to Ottorino about this. However, he always changed subject and
reminded me: "All right, tomorrow we have a rehearsal at nine,
at two in the afternoon we need to be there, etc", and that was
it. He would never take up the subject again. He would never talk about
the past, he was only concerned with the future. That is why, perhaps,
our daily life was more bearable and lighter for if we had concentrated
on the past, we would never have been able to carry on with such intensity.
We never read newspapers and were not concerned about reviews. Thatís
the way we were.
I was admitted to American high society thanks to a
silly little decision I took during a dinner party. The hostess approached
me in the afternoon, asking me if I would be able to improvise a little
private recital with Ottorino, just to please her friends. I said, "Madam,
I generally donít give private recitals, however since I have been your
guest, I will accept, although I will not accept it as a private engagement,
but as a proper recital". The lady enquired about the fee to pay
to our agent, but I answered, "No, I have accepted this invitation
as Mrs Respighi, and so we will perform as Mrs. and Mr. Respighi; and
we wonít accept any fee". Considering that artists, giving such
a private recital, were generally paid more generously than for a public
concert, and that we had renounced our fee, of some $1,000-$2,000 the
doors to American society were thrown open to us. We were accepted by
the Wanderbilts, by the Roosevelts, the Rockefellers and many others
- a privilege certainly not granted to many other artists.
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