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Composed: 1927
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, glockenspiel, triangle, harp, piano, celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

The two orchestral aspects of Respighi include his best-known compositions: on the one hand the epic (one might say bombastically colorful) tone poems of the “Roman Trilogy,” comprising Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome, and Roman Festivals, all for gigantic orchestra. The other side comprises his charming arrangements for smaller orchestral ensembles of melodies by composers of the 17th and early-18th centuries, the three Suites of Ancient Airs and Dances and The Birds, as well as the Botticelli Triptych of original material, except as noted below.

The Trittico is an evocation of three celebrated paintings by Sandro Botticelli (born Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi in Florence, c. 1445, died 1510) that today hang in Florence’s Uffizzi Gallery.

The first mention of the musical Trittico seems to have been in an interview with the composer’s wife, Elsa, a soprano – the composer often accompanied her at the piano in his own and other Italian composers’ music – after an American tour in 1927 sponsored by the indomitable Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, patron also of such greats as Bartók, Copland, Poulenc, Ravel, Schoenberg, and Hindemith, in the process drawing from those composers and others too numerous to mention here a substantial portion of the 20th-century chamber-music repertoire.

The tour concluded with a Respighi program in the splendid chamber musical hall – also the product of Mrs. Coolidge’s generosity – of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. On this occasion, Elsa related, Respighi promised to dedicate his next piece to Mrs. Coolidge, and it was on a visit to the Uffizi several weeks later that he found his inspiration in the three Botticelli paintings that constitute the musical Trittico: La Primavera (Spring), L’Adorazione dei Magi (The Adoration of the Magi), and La nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus). The score was premiered at a concert in Vienna sponsored by Mrs. Coolidge at the end of the year, with the Respighis in attendance.

Sharp-eared listeners will note in the middle movement, The Adoration, variations on the medieval hymn Veni, veni Emanuel, the famous antiphon introduced here by flute and bassoon two octaves apart.

Herbert Glass, after serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, was for 25 years a columnist-critic for the Los Angeles Times. He has been English-language editor/annotator for the Salzburg Festival since 1996.