Respighi's father was a piano teacher, who taught the child violin and piano. Ottorino continued studying violin with Federico Sarti at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna, and composition with Giuseppe Martucci and the early music scholar Luigi Torchi . Later Respighi briefly studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov in Russia, and considered these lessons very important. He also had composition lessons with Max Bruch.
Respighi was also a musicologist, a devoted scholar of Italian music of the 16th-18th centuries. He published editions of the music of Claudio Monteverdi and Antonio Vivaldi, and of Benedetto Marcello's Didone. Because of his devotion to these older sources (which worked its way to many of his compositions), many would start to consider him as a typical exponent of Neo-classicism (while Neo-Renaissance or Neo-Baroque would probably be more accurate to describe most of his compositions based on older work). In fact, different from the style of most neo-classicist compositions, Respighi kept more or less clear from the musical idiom of the classical period: he rather combined pre-classical musical forms (like dance suites) with a typical 19th century romantic idiom (e.g. the musical idiom associated with symphonic poems in the romantic period)
Some of his compositions:
- His most known symphonic poems (most of them symphonic poem suites), now belonging to the standard orchestral repertoire :
- Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome)
- Fontana di Roma (Fountains of Rome)
- Roman Festivals
- Brazilian Impressions
- His operas, from the early Semirâma to the late Lucrezia, on the other hand, are hardly ever played or recorded nowadays.
- His most popular works involving older sources:
- The Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 1 of 1917 is an orchestral piece based on Renaissance lute pieces by Simone Molinaro , Vincenzo Galilei (father of Galileo Galilei), and additional anonymous composers.
- In 1918 Sergei Diaghilev commissioned a ballet from Respighi, who then wrote La Boutique fantastique , which borrows tunes from the 19th century composer Rossini.
- Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 2 of 1924 is based on pieces for lute, archlute , and viol by Fabrizio Caroso , Jean-Baptiste Besard , Bernardo Gianoncelli , and an anonymous composer, plus Antoine Boësset 's famous song "Divine Amaryllis".
- Following the success of this suite, Respighi wrote Gli Uccelli ("The birds") in 1927, based on Baroque pieces imitating birds.
- Then in 1932, he wrote Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 3, which differs from the previous two suites in being arranged for strings only and somewhat melancholy in overall mood. It is based on lute songs by Besard, a piece for baroque guitar by Lodovico Roncalli , and lute pieces by Santino Garsi da Parma and additional anonymous composers.
Respighi's wife Elsa (née Olivieri-Sangiacomo) made ballets of the Ancient Airs and Dances Suite s.
From 1923 to 1926 Respighi was director of the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia, and until 1935 taught composition there. In 1925 he collaborated with Luciani on an elementary textbook entitled Orpheus.