Italian composer Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) began life in Bologna, where he studied the violin at the local conservatory. His first job out of school was at the Russian Imperial Theatre in Saint Petersburg, where he played violin in their season of Italian opera. While there, he took composition lessons from legendary Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Upon his return to Bologna, he continued composition studies, which would soon become the focus of his career. He became a figure of international renown, producing dozens of orchestral and vocal works as well as several operas. He is best remembered for three sets of tone poems: Fountains of Rome (1916, the piece which cemented his international reputation), Pines of Rome, and Roman Festivals. He was also a teacher, holding a position professor of composition at the Conservatorio Santa Cecilia in Rome from 1913 until his death at age 56 in 1936.
Respighi wrote Huntingtower in 1932. It is dedicated to Edwin Franko Goldman and the American Bandmaster’s Association. They commissioned the piece for a special concert in memory of John Philip Sousa, who had passed away on March 6 of that year. Huntingtower thus received its premiere at that concert on April 17, 1932 (incidentally, so did Holst’s Hammersmith), by the United States Army Band under Captain Taylor Branson. Given the time between Sousa’s death and the concert, Respighi could have had no more than 6 weeks to write the piece. His inspiration for the piece came from a visit to Huntingtower Castle in Scotland, which must have happened years before he began work on the composition. It is a remarkably unified and varied portrait, beginning and ending with a slow, gloomy dotted figure and exploring mysterious, heroic, and romantic themes (perhaps in a nod to the Lady Greensleeves legend associated with the castle) in its interior, all of which reflect Respighi’s impressions of Scotland and its music. For a more detailed analysis, see my 2008 paper on the piece, as well as the links below.
Huntingtower was published shortly after its premiere. Sadly, that original edition has gone out of print (although it undoubtedly still exists in several band libraries around the world). Those wishing to perform the piece today must rely on one of several new editions, each of which takes some liberties while attempting to “fix” the original. They are available from Bravo Music, De Haske/Hal Leonard, and Maecenas Music.
A performance of Huntingtower on Youtube:
Huntingtower Castle on Undiscovered Scotland – lots of photos of the castle!
A research paper and conducting guide about three pieces, including Huntingtower (starting on page 42).