The Italian composer Ottorino Respighi was born in a musical family. He studied the violin, the viola, and composition at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna. The young musician also studied history with Luigi Torchi, a scholar of early music. Upon graduation with a diploma in the violin, in 1899, Respighi became the principal violist with the orchestra of the Russian Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg, where he met Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov, whose orchestra writing greatly influenced the young Italian. In 1913, Respighi was appointed professor of composition at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome. He held this position for the rest of his life.
Respighi’s music is characterized by the use of illustrious combinations of instruments, its intricate expression and harmony inherited from the twentieth-century impressionist French composers such as Debussy. This is especially applicable to a series of his tone poems titled “Roman Trilogy,” consisting of the Fontane di Roma (1916), Pini di Roma (1924), and Feste Romane (1928). Although he was a twentieth-century composer and eager to cultivate a new way of composing, Respighi had a strong interest in early music, namely European music of the Middle Ages (500–1400), Renaissance (1400–1600), and Baroque (1600–1760). His three Antiche danze ed arie (Ancient Airs and Dances) Suites display such traits. The impetus for writing them came after his encounter with sixteenth- and seventeenth-century dances and airs written for the lute. The lute is a plucked instrument, an ancestor of the guitar, popularly played in Renaissance Europe. The music for this instrument was written in a peculiar style of notation that Respighi was unable to decipher. Therefore, he consulted an edition in modern (regular) notation prepared by the Italian musicologist Oscar Chilesotti.
Respighi selected four lute pieces to make three orchestral suites; he re-harmonized and orchestrated the original pieces with modern taste. The first suite for chamber orchestra was composed in 1917, a few months after the successful premiere of the Fontane di Roma. The suite’s enthusiastic reception prompted the composer to write two more suites: the second suite for symphony orchestra, written for the Cincinnati Orchestra under Fritz Reiner (premiered 7 March, 1924) and the third suite for string orchestra (premiered in the Sala Verdi of Milan Conservatory, January 1931) performed under the baton of the composer.
Suite No. 1 opens with Balletto: Il Conte Orlando published in 1599 by composer Simone Molinaro. The second section comes from Gagliarda (a type of dance, also known as a galliard) by Vincenzo Galilei. The third comes from Villanella (a street song) by an unknown composer, and the finale comes from Passo mezzo e mascherada also by an unknown composer.