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Composed: 1902; 1921
Length: c. 12 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, harp, strings, and solo cello
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance

Respighi managed to get a couple of operas staged in his native Bologna by the time he was 31 years old, but work as an orchestral musician (violin and viola), teacher, piano accompanist, and arranger of Baroque music sustained his peripatetic career in its early years. A move to Rome in 1913 as professor of composition at the Liceo Musicale of Santa Cecilia proved decisive, since Rome was then the center of orchestral life in Italy. In 1916 he completed Fountains of Rome, a four-part symphonic tone poem that gradually became a huge success, making Respighi famous and wealthy.

In 1919 the Liceo became the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia, and in 1923 Respighi was appointed its director. He held that administrative post only three years, during which he composed Pines of Rome, a sequel to Fountains and even more lucrative for Respighi. Its success, following its premiere in December 1924, enabled Respighi to quit as director of the Conservatory in 1926, although he continued the teaching he loved, as an advanced composition professor, there until 1935.

The Adagio con Variazioni spans his evolution as a composer. In 1902 he studied briefly with Bruch in Berlin, before returning to Russia for work as an orchestral viola player. (He also had a few lessons there with Rimsky-Korsakov, which proved highly influential on Respighi’s orchestration.) He wrote a number of pieces at that time, including a cello concerto. That concerto was not published, but in 1921 – the same year that Respighi wrote his Concerto Gregoriano for violin and orchestra – he returned to the cello work and revised its middle movement as the Adagio con Variazioni. Classical in formal conception, achingly Romantic in expressive execution, the work was dedicated to the cellist Antonio Certani, Respighi’s old Bolognese friend and chamber music colleague.

– J. H.