Pining for Rome: Ottorino Respighi, Mussolini, and the doctrine of fascism

By Carmel Raz

Fascism, according to a 1932 Italian encyclopedia, is “the doctrine best adapted to represent the tendencies and the aspirations of a people, like the people of Italy, who are rising again after many centuries of abasement and foreign servitude.” This entry, co-authored by Benito Mussolini and his ghostwriter, Giovanni Gentile, reflects the cultural atmosphere of Italy throughout the ‘‘ ‘ ‘20s and 30s, in which veneration of the past, specifically the Roman Empire, was practically a state-sponsored cult. Perhaps it is only natural that after the fall of fascism, Italian audiences became wary of art celebrating the glory of Rome. However, linking the music of Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936), one of Italy’s most important post-Romantic composers, to Benito Mussolini is more of an unfortunate coincidence than historical justice.

Credited with restoring Italy’s symphonic tradition at a time when composing meant writing operas, Respighi’s music was inspired by medieval chants, Renaissance polyphony, and modal folk songs. After completing his studies with distinction at the Conservatory in Bologna, the young composer was engaged as a violinist by Russia’s Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg, and during this time he studied orchestration with Rimsky-Korsakov, who profoundly influenced his technique.

Although Respighi was determinedly non-political, his membership in the openly fascist Reale Accademia d’Italia was seen as an endorsement of Mussolini’s regime, and his artistic collaboration with the nationalistic poet Gabriele D’Annunzio led some musicologists, such as J. Waterhouse, to dismiss his music as “rather superficial decorativeness in which a variegated and colorful palette serves purely hedonistic ends…D’annunzianesimo running riot.” Similarily, the tone poems Fontane di Roma (1915-’16), Pini di Roma (1923-’24) and Feste Romane (1928) are often cited as examples of “atavistic pageantry associated with fascist propaganda,” in spite of the fact that, according to the composer’s wife, Elsa, they were actually inspired by his love affair with two Lithuanian sisters in 1913. However, the Italian government certainly promoted performances of Respighi’s music at a time when dissident artists were banished from official forums. Harvey Sachs writes that Respighi did not have to ingratiate himself with Mussolini because “the ethnocentricity of his popular tone poems was just what the regime needed to demonstrate that progressivism and fascism were natural allies.”

After the fall of Mussolini’s government in 1943, successive Italian governments took pains to distance themselves from nationalistic artists, and Respighi was lumped together with overtly fascist composers such as Pizzetti, Malpiero and Mascagni. Italian newspapers protested honors awarded to his widow, and her efforts to celebrate the centenary of Respighi’s birth in 1979 were blocked by political opposition. In an interview, Elsa Respighi claimed that “musical progressives with left-wing political sympathies” were attempting to discredit the memory of her husband, and in 1993 the Respighi Society was founded in London with “the intention of making the life and works of the 20th-century Italian composer…better known and understood…by the dissemination of accurate and impartial information.”

By all accounts, Respighi’s lifelong interest in ancient music, as well as his exposure to unconventional orchestral techniques during his studies in Russia, had far more influence on his compositional output than the national sentiments prevalent in pre-World War II Italy. Jonathan Jones has written, “when we speak knowingly of ‘fascist art,’ we are trying vainly to give the devil a face.” While Pini di Roma had the misfortune of being Il Duce’s favorite piece, it remains to the listener to judge if it the music itself is propaganda.