NINO ROTA – Fathers of Film Music, Part 15
Article by Craig Lysy
Born: 3 December 1911, Milan, Italy.
Died: 10 April 1979.
Giovanni Rota was born to Emesta Rinaldi and Ercole Rota in Milan in the northern Italian province of Lombardy. He was blessed with the gift of a musical family, as his mother was an accomplished pianist. She took the reigns of nurturing his nascent talent, tutoring him on the piano. It became apparent to her very early on that Nino was gifted, and so he was enrolled in the Conservatory of Milan, where he studied under the auspices of Giacomo Orefice and Ildebrando Pizzetti. By the early age of twelve Nino, as he was nicknamed, had already gained the reputation as a child prodigy. His first concert work, the oratorio L’Infanzia di San Giovanni Battista (1923), which remarkably he had composed four years earlier, was warmly received in both Milan and Paris, For his next concert piece, he composed the fairy opera Il Principe Porcaro (1926), which was also well received. These successes carried him to Rome, where he studied under Alfredo Casella at the Academia di Santa Cecilia. In 1930, after just three years, he received his diploma in piano and composition.
Fortune smiled upon Rota as he caught the ear of renowned conductor Arturo Toscanini, who counseled him to study composition with Rosario Scalero, and conducting with Fritz Reiner in America. He won a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Philadelphia and so in 1930 at the young age of 19, he continued his studies abroad in the United States. It was during this time that he made the acquaintance with Aaron Copland. Nino gained from this friendship a lasting appreciation and respect for American folklore, major Hollywood films, and the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. In 1932 he returned to Italy, and in 1937 he finally completed his doctoral thesis on the 16th century musicologist Gioseffo Zarlino. This resulted in his appointment as professor at the Conservatory in Bari in 1939 where he taught composition and harmony. In eleven years he would be promoted to director of the Conservatory.
Rota, motivated by economic necessity, composed his first film score for the film Treno Popolare (1931), directed by Raffaello Matarazzo. The film was a critical failure, which affected him deeply and caused a 9-year estrangement from film. The young Rota feared his career in film would not recover, and so decided to pursue composing for the concert hall. During the late 1930s and early 1940s he wrote primarily chamber music, and supplemented his income by teaching music at a high school in Taranto. 1942 was an important year in that Rota composed his second opera, Ariodante, and again took up the challenge of scoring the film Giorno di Nozze , which fared much better, thus rekindling greater interest in the medium. After penning another opera, Torquemada, in 1943, he took on scoring the film Zaza, his first for director Renato Castellani. There was significant critical acclaim and so he teamed up again with the director for the classic Professor, My Son in 1946. Rota’s success brought him numerous new assignments and he finished of the decade with twenty-one scores including such classics as the crime drama Flesh Will Surrender (1947), the redemptive Hey Boy (1948), and Edward Anton’s romantic drama The Glass Mountain (1948), which critics believe to be one of his finest.
Rota collaborated with all the notable post WWI Italian directors, including Vittorio De Sica on Boccacio 70 (1962) and The Condemned of Altona (1962), Ranato Castellani on Zaza (1944) and Sotto il Sole di Roma (1948), Luchino Visconti on Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and The Leopard (1963), Mario Soddati on Italia Piccola (1957), Franco Zefferelli on The Taming of the Shrew (1967) and Romeo and Juliet (1968), and Antonio Pietrangeli on Phantom Lovers (1961). But most notable was the relationship he forged with the iconic Italian director Federico Fellini. This collaboration achieved a unique synergy, the likes of which have never been duplicated, and would result in nearly 70 films over twenty-seven years. Just as Bernard Herrmann had an intrinsic understanding of Alfred Hitchcock’s film-making, so too did Rota understand Fellini, perhaps better than Fellini himself. Rota once described his collaboration as one that was fated to exist, and that when they worked together, everything always managed to perfectly fall into place. Due to Fellini’s often-disjointed imagery and fragmentary narrative style, Rota’s was always tasked to write a score which provided continuity. Remarkably, it was Rota’s melodious, stanzaic music, which provided essential gravity, a cohesive unifying force, which held the film together. Also notable was the fact that Fellini’s musical knowledge was quite limited, as such he trusted in Rota’s talent, and gave him broad creative control of the musical scores.
A testimonial to Fellini’s trust was that he often filmed to Rota’s music so as to acquire a certain rhythm, or to create a certain atmosphere for a scene. Quite often Fellini would suggest a sentiment or situation to Rota, and Rota would compose to this mental imagery.An exploration of the most notable Fellini-Rota collaborations begins with the brilliant comedy The White Sheik (1952), where Rota’s syncretic music perfectly captured the film’s exotic setting and narrative. Two other masterworks followed, the first being the farcical melodrama I Vitelloni (1953), which excels due to Rota’s score. We bear witness to his score achieving a perfect synergy with the film’s narrative. He celebrates the joy of life providing a potent emotional score, which offers, joy, pathos and unabashed vulgarity. The interpolation of Chaplin’s “nonsense song” from Modern Times to support the carnival scene was brilliant. As good as I Vitelloni (1953) was, what followed with La Strada in 1954 was even better, providing a poignant film, which captures Fellini’s humanity. We bear witness to the pathos of travelling entertainer Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) and his waif Gelsomina (Giuletta Masina), who he has bought, and whom he abuses and beats. Rota writes a main theme for the ages, full of heartache, one that captures the film’s emotional core. The theme permeates the film and its juxtaposition against the circus backdrop is brilliant!
With Nights of Cabiria (1957), we again bear witness to tragedy as the waif Cabiria suffers repeatedly in her search for love. Rota captures her spirit with a theme, which flows wistfully with a childlike innocence, and supports her travels by infusing the score with vaudeville, burlesque, jazz and music with a Latin flair. La Dolce Vita (1960) offers a tale seen through the eyes of a gossip magazine journalist Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), who spends a week in Rome searching for both love and the good life. Rota’s music perfectly captures Marcello’s optimistic spirit with his theme’s allusion to the Kurt Weill song “Ballad of Mack the Knife”. He also captures the spirit of Rome by interpolating Ottorino Respighi’s famous tone poem The Pines of Rome, as well as classic epic imperial Roman fanfares. He infuses his soundscape with a broad array of instruments including organ, piano, electric guitar, accordion, clarinets, and trumpets, to provide circus themes, lounge music, and Italian café interludes, which are innovative, and perfectly capture the film’s ambiance. The ending of the film, where Rota provides a carefree dance, informs us that there is joy in living. This brings us to 8½ (1963), Fellini’s masterpiece. The story reveals film director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mostrianni) repeatedly diverted from the production of his latest film because of distractions and drama from the many women in his life. The film’s narrative flow is fragmentary even by Fellini standards, with numerous tangents related to Guido’s many women who collectively block his progress. Rota pulls the film together by creating a unifying main theme, a silly circus-like march, which he repeatedly transforms in each of the film’s fairy tale vignettes. Emotions run high and Guido takes us through them all; confusion, frustration, anger, happiness and joy. To support this emotional cascade Rota provides Jazz, Foxtrot, Swing, playfulness, a jazzy interpolation of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, and the exuberant carnivalesque auras of the finale. Fellini masterpiece was in my judgment resultant from Rota’s score, which created a sublime synergy.
In Juliet of the Spirits (1965), another Fellini masterwork, we are offered visions, mysticism and memories, as we bear witness to the suffering of Juliet (Giuletta Masina) who is beset by her husband’s infidelity. With yet another disjointed narrative Rota takes us on an amazing and at times surreal ride. He offers a melodious main theme, and creates an amazing pastiche that is at once comedic, carnivalesque, dark and existential. Rota provides ethereal wordless female chorus, electric guitar, a 1960’s sensibility, a sinister Hammond organ and many songs, which bind the film’s narrative flow. For me this score offers testimony to Rota’s genius. The Clowns (1970) was a TV documentary, which reveals Fellini indulging himself with his childhood obsession with clowns. Rota’s score propels Fellini’s narrative with an animated circus march, but also offers passages of great affection and tenderness. In a masterstroke Rota provides lightness and cheerfulness to juxtapose a clown’s funeral, thus fully capturing Fellini’s vision. Lastly, we have Amarcord (1973), where Fellini, wearing rose-colored glasses, takes us on a nostalgic trip back to his hometown. Rota understood the Fellini emotions in play here and created a tender and sweet main theme, which perfectly captured the film’s emotional core. Fellini’s vision is clearly idealized and Rota understood this, providing a carefree score infused with joy, optimism and vibrancy.
The 1950’s proved to be Rota’s most productive decade, churning out an amazing 76 scores. In addition the Fellini collaborations discussed above were such hits as the Richard Todd mystery thriller The Assassin (1952), the romantic drama Mambo (1954), and the comedy Lo Piaccio. He however gained worldwide recognition with King Vidor’s production of War and Peace (1956). This epic film provided Rota with a massive tapestry on which to compose and he responded with one of his finest efforts. Using a massive orchestra, Rota brought Tolstoy’s tale to life, propelling the film with a powerful main theme that he at times tempered, transmuting it into a tender lullaby. He infused his soundscape with bright ethnic auras including Russian folk dances, gliding French promenades, and gypsy music, For intimate scenes he provided star Audrey Hepburn with the now iconic Natasha’s Waltz, while for the grand battle of Borodino scene he carries us with rousing military pieces with interpolations of both the French national anthem Le Marseille and the Russian Bozhe, Tsarya khrani! His scoring of the battle’s aftermath with a mournful elegy carried by muted horns beautifully underscored the tragedy and pathos of war. In many ways this was Rota’s most conventional score, a clear departure from the quirky realm of Fellini. Lastly, Rota never lost his love for the concert hall, and the 1950s saw him compose several operas including; I Due Timidi (1953), Il Cappello di Paglia di Firenze (1955), La Note di un Neurastenico (1959) and Lo Scoiattolo in Gamba (1959), as well as a ballet, La Rappresentazione di Adamo ed Eva (1957).
Rota’s output slowed dramatically during the 1960s, but the quality of his writing did not diminish. He opened the decade brilliantly with a trio of masterworks including Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) discussed above, director René Clément’s crime thriller Purple Noon (1960), and director Luchino Visconti’s crime drama Rocco and His Brothers (1960), where Rota again penned one of his finest main themes, one which captured the desperation, intensity and pathos of a family at war with itself. Three years later Rota would again demonstrate his genius with two scores most critics place in his top ten; the Fellini masterpiece 8½ (1963) discussed earlier, and Visconti’s historical drama The Leopard (1963). The story tells the tale of Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (Burt Lancaster), a man of integrity, dignity and nobility who tries valiantly to preserve his family and social status as his financial assets crumble during the social tumult of 1860s Sicily. Once again Rota was presented with a grand tapestry and he responded with one of his greatest efforts. He interpolated music from an unpublished symphony of his youth, “Symphony on a Love Song”, which bore a wealth of elegant and beautiful themes. He included what has become one of his signature waltzes, Valzer del Commiato, which speaks to us of brighter times, and infused traditional Sicilian dances to provide the necessary ethnic auras. The film seemed awkward with Lancaster miscast for the role, but Rota’s score provided a grand romanticism and elegant sweep, which overcame the film’s deficiencies.
After Fellini’s notable Juliet of the Spirits (1965), Rota once again stunned the world with two glorious period piece scores written for director Franco Zeffirelli; first came the Shakespearean tale The Taming of the Shrew (1967), which paired the celebrity couple of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Rota’s soundscape has felicitous Renaissance auras, which included fanfares, banquet music, dances, and drinking songs. Additionally, he perfectly captured thematically the unabashed exuberance of Petrarchan, the deceptiveness of Lucentio with the “Let me tell, gentle maiden” theme, which opens the film, and graced us yet again with one of his finest love themes. The interplay of his themes is extraordinary and his music achieved a perfect synergy with Zefferelli’s vision. What followed the next year was even better; I speak of the iconic Shakespearean tale Romeo and Juliet (1968). As with the Taming of the Shrew, Rota infused his soundscape with Renaissance auras, regional instruments, fanfares, pageantry, pavanes, sarabandes, and saltarello. His theme for Romeo is languid, minor modal, and carried simply by strings and a solo English horn, perfectly capturing his spirit. Masterful is how Rota transmutes Romeo’s theme into the love theme by altering its tempo, key and instrumentation. He understood that Romeo and Juliet was the quintessential paean to romantic love, fully embodying its yearning, ardor and anguish. As such he labored to create the theme and in my judgment succeeded magnificently on all counts. I believe his creation is now iconic, and has passed unto film score legend. The love theme was later rendered as a song, “A Time For Us”, arranged by Henry Mancini with lyrics by Eddie Snyder and Larry Kusik. It quickly became a pop sensation topping the charts in 1969 for two weeks.
Rota closed the decade with one of his most bizarre and unusual efforts, Fellini Satyricon (1969). The film is an unabashed homoerotic tale based on the ancient Roman book Satyricon by Gaius Petronius Arbiter. The film’s tag line was “There Is No End… No Beginning… There Is Only the Infinite Passion of Life…” Rota responded with one of his most eclectic scores ever where he brought in barbaric rhythms, Romanic fanfares, ancient-sounding instruments and melodies that recall the glory of Rome. However we also bear witness to a cacophony when he throws in everything but the kitchen sink, including interpolation of the Balinese Monkey Chant and avant garde electronic compositions from Ilhan Mimaroglu, Andrew Rudin, and Todd Dockstader! As such the score is at once Roman, primal, and yet otherworldly. Lastly, Rota again composed pieces for the concert hall during the 1960s including the ballet La Strada (1965), the opera Aladino e la Lampada Magica (1968) and the choral work Mysterium (1962).
The 1970s would be Rota’s final decade of composition, and while he wrote only 23 scores, four were perhaps his finest. He opened the decade strongly with The Clowns (1970), another collaboration with Fellini discussed earlier. Then came the sensational The Godfather (1972), which took the world by storm. The film was drawn from the award winning novel by Mario Puzo and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Rota was brought in to provide an authentic Italian score. He provided three wonderful themes to underpin the film; the Godfather Waltz, Michael’s Theme and the Love Theme. A recurring monophonic, forlorn and portentous trumpet motif opens the film and sets its tone. The motif actually unfolds and blossoms into the first theme, The Godfather Waltz, which permeates the film and unifies its narrative. When the melody is transferred to woodwinds and strings, it is actually warm and familial and inviting. Michael’s Theme serves as his identity, and is dark, informing us of his menace. Lastly we have the sumptuous Love Theme, one of the finest Rota ever wrote, which unfolds on plucked mandolin with a wondrous Italian sensibility. It was later adapted into song form, with lyrics by Larry Kusik, and soared on the pop charts. Rota also infused his score with traditional Sicilian auras by using the mandolin, accordion, and acoustic guitar. Regretfully Rota suffered the ignominy of having his Academy Award Nomination revoked when the Academy discovered that he had interpolated themes from his scores for the 1958 film Fortunella.
Next came another Fellini collaboration, Amarcord (1973), discussed earlier, and the magnificent sequel The Godfather: Part II (1974), a stunning late career masterpiece. As good as the Godfather score was, the sequel was better. Joining the three themes used from the first film are three additional themes Rota created for this latest effort. The first of these is a theme for the ages, one that earns Rota immortality: The Immigrant Theme. Rarely does a composer create music of such grandeur, sumptuous lyricism and refulgence, which perfectly captures a film’s emotional core. But Rota succeeds here, he captures our hearts, and we are powerless to resist. A kernel of hope emanates from this theme, which juxtaposes Michael’s Theme, whose grim darkness and growing dominance brings down a dark pall upon House Corleone. The second new theme is Kay’s Theme, which speaks to her growing realization of her husband’s business, violence and ruthlessness. She is held captive, helpless, and powerless to change the fortunes of her family. Rota informs us of this with a line of descending notes, which abound with an unabiding sadness and resignation. The third theme is the Sicilian Theme, a festive identity, which emotes with the sensibility of a traditional Sicilian dance, the Tarentella. As was done in the first film, Rota infused his score with traditional Sicilian auras by using the mandolin, accordion, and acoustic guitar. the Academy was swept away by his score and honored Rota with his only Academy Award.
Rota closed the decade with one additional gem, Death on the Nile (1978), which was drawn from the famous Agatha Christie novel. The score is sparsely spotted, and captures the regal and romantic period flavor, local auras and murderous drama of the story. The film has wondrous cinematography, vistas and lush visuals, which Rota matches with a magnificent soaring main theme, a theme that when it appears, makes you sit back in your chair, overcome. The theme is based on a simple five-note ascending line for horns, and reminds me of the Giuseppi Verdi opera Aida from which Rota perhaps gained inspiration. Lastly, during the 1970s Rota also composed for the concert hall, including the ballets: Aci e Galatea (1971), Le Molière Imaginaire (1976) and Amor di Poeta (1978) and two final operas, La Visita Meravigliosa (1970), and Napoli Milionaria (1977), and the choral work La vita di Maria (1970). Regretfully Rota passed in 1979, ending a magnificent career of composing over five decades.
ROTA’S COMPOSITIONAL STYLE
“Originality can not necessarily be found in a new syntax or new musical grammar. Actually, originality of music is in its substance, in the message it contains, not in its exterior form; that is, it must have canons of immediacy. If something is said to be melodic, who fears that it relates to a theme or a period in history? Simple melody brings up easy relationships, revelations, and derivations. It is a silly fear and anti-cultural. Every idea and inspiration has precise roots. Nothing comes from nothing.”
In regards to pastiche, Rota did have a penchant for borrowing not only from works of other composers, but often-outright quotation of music from his own canon. Indeed it was pastiche which caused the controversy that led the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to rescind the nomination of his “The Godfather” score. It suffices to say that Rota used all the tools at his disposal and brought in whatever music he believed was necessary to support the director’s vision.
No matter what project he was assigned, what genre, or what setting, Rota created unique harmonies, which drew upon his extensive knowledge of classical music, jazz and popular music. Indeed his extensive use of light jazz in his scores made him in my eyes the Italian version of Henry Mancini. He was also a master of carnivalesque and circus music, for which he excelled. You can see his influence in Danny Elfman’s scores to the Pee-Wee franchise. Rota was also an innovator with an intrepidness to explore new forms and idioms. Indeed it was this very trait that made him the artistic soul mate of Fellini. His capacity to celebrate the absurd, to offer comedic, good-humored and satirical scores was often genius, and his contributions made an indelible mark on Italian cinema. Fellini, when recalling his most precious collaborator stated in an interview;
“Between us, immediately, a complete, total, harmony … He had a geometric imagination, a musical approach worthy of celestial spheres. He thus had no need to see images from my movies. When I asked him about the melodies he had in mind to comment one sequence or another, I clearly realized he was not concerned with images at all. His world was inner, inside himself, and reality had no way to enter it.”
Rota once mused that he felt it unfortunate that a film score was too often regarded as a “secondary” element of a film, one that was “subservient” to the visual images, “a mere tool, used to recall and give credence to the images and the emotions those images try to evoke.” I believe in regards to his own contribution to cinema, he was wrong. I believe that he clearly demonstrated the essential need and power of music in film with his collaborations with Fellini. It was in the final analysis the power and facility of Rota’s music that unified Fellini’s disjointed, fragmentary narratives so as to achieve a cogent story. Without Rota, I believe Fellini would have been rendered to an obscure footnote in Italian cinematic history.
Along with his impressive film score canon, Rota left a diverse classical music body of work, achieving critical success with numerous opera’s, ballets, chamber music, and choral works. But I believe his contributions to film score art constitute the heart of his legacy. Rota repeatedly demonstrated that a film score could by its own singular power elevate both flawed and masterpiece films alike, that is was in fact as important as the cinematography, story-telling and acting. He demonstrated time and time again that he was a remarkable chameleon, capable of providing a full spectrum of musical forms, styles and instrumentation. During an interview Rota mused about his legacy and he related that he described his music as a bit of nostalgia with abundant good humor, and optimism. He added “That’s exactly how I’d like to be remembered… I’d do everything I could to give everyone a moment of happiness. That’s what at the heart of my music”. I could not agree more.
Academy Awards Wins:
- 1975 The Godfather II – Best Music, Original Dramatic Score
Academy Award Nominations:
- 1973 The Godfather – Best Music, Original Dramatic Score (later withdrawn as ineligible)
1930s and 1940s: Treno Popolare (1933), Giorno di nozze (1942), Il birichino di papà (1943), The Mountain Woman (1944), Zazà (1944), Le miserie del signor Travet (1945), My Widow and I (1945), La freccia nel fianco (1945), Albergo Luna, camera 34 (1946), Roma città libera (1946), Professor, My Son (1946), Un americano in vacanza (1946), Daniele Cortis (1947), Flesh Will Surrender (1947), Vanità (1947), To Live in Peace (1947), Be Seeing You, Father (1948), How I Lost the War (1948), Woman Trouble (1948), Sotto il sole di Roma (1948), L’eroe della strada (1948), Guaglio (1948), Anni difficili (1948), Fuga in Francia (1948), Without Pity (1948), Amanti senza amore (1948), Totò al giro d’Italia (1948), How I Discovered America (1949), The Masked Pirate (1949), Children of Chance (1949), Campane a martello (1949), The Hidden Room (1949), The Glass Mountain (1949).
1950s: È arrivato il cavaliere! (1950), Honeymoon Deferred (1950), Il monello della strada (1950), The King’s Guerrillas (1950), His Last Twelve Hours (1950), The Taming of Dorothy (1950), Vita da cani (1950), Side Street Story (1950), It’s Forever Springtime (1950), Filumena Marturano (1951), Napoleone (1951), Toto and the King of Rome (1951), Anna (1951), Never Take No for an Answer (1951), Era lui, sì, sì! (1951), Valley of the Eagles (1951), Marito e moglie (1952), Ragazze da marito (1952), Melodie immortali – Mascagni (1952), The Queen of Sheba (1952), Gli angeli del quartiere (1952), The Three Pirates (1952), The Assassin (1952), The White Sheik (1952), Something Money Can’t Buy (1952), Wonderful Adventures of Guerrin Mescino (1952), Un ladro in paradiso (1952), Scampolo 53 (1953), What Rascals Men Are (1953), Musoduro (1953), The Most Wanted Man (1953), The Ship of Condemned Women (1953), Easy Years (1953), I Vitelloni (1953), Riscatto (1953), The Wild Oat (1953), Jolanda, the Daughter of the Black Corsair (1953), La domenica della buona gente (1953), Finishing School (1953), Hell Raiders of the Deep (1953), Lo scocciatore (Via Padova 46) (1954), Forbidden (1954), Loves of Three Queens (1954), The Two Orphans (1954), Modern Virgin (1954), Mambo (1954), La Strada (1954), Appassionatamente (1954), 100 Years of Love (1954), Star of India (1954), The Stranger’s Hand (1954), Io piaccio (1955), Folgore Division (1955), Accadde al penitenziario (1955), The Belle of Rome (1955), The Woman in the Painting (1955), Il Bidone (1955), Torpedo Zone (1955), We Two Alone (1955), Bella non piangere (1955), Ragazze al mare (1956), The House of Intrigue (1956), War and Peace (1956), Italia piccola (1957), Doctor and the Healer (1957), The Sea Wall (1957), Le Notti Bianche (1957), A Hero of Our Times (1957), Nights of Cabiria (1957), Il momento più bello (1957), El Alamein (1958), The Law Is the Law (1958), Piece of the Sky (1958), The Italians They Are Crazy (1958), Fortunella (1958), Giovani mariti (1958), Città di notte (1958), The Great War (1959).
1960s: Rocco and His Brothers (1960), Under Ten Flags (1960), Purple Noon (1960), La Dolce Vita (1960), The Brigand (1961), The Best of Enemies (1961), Phantom Lovers (1961), Arturo’s Island (1962), The Reluctant Saint (1962), The Condemned of Altona (1962), Boccaccio ’70 (1962), The Teacher from Vigevano (1963), The Leopard (1963), 8½ (1963), Shoot Loud, Louder… I Don’t Understand (1965), Oggi, domani, dopodomani (1965), Juliet of the Spirits (1965), Il giornalino di Gian Burrasca (1965), Much Ado About Nothing (1966), Romeo and Juliet (1967), The Taming of the Shrew (1967), La Tormenta (1967), Spirits of the Dead (1968), A Quiet Place to Kill (1969), Fellini Satyricon (1969), Fellini: A Director’s Notebook (1969).
1970s: Roma (1970), Waterloo (1970), The Clowns (1970), Love & Anarchy (1972), The Godfather (1972), The Abdication (1973), Sunset, Sunrise (1973), Amarcord (1973), E Il Casanova di Fellini? (1974), The Godfather: Part II (1974), Caro Michele (1975), Ragazzo di Borgata (1976), Fellini’s Casanova (1976), Origins of the Mafia (1976), Kontakt (1977), Hurricane (1978), Il Teatro di Eduardo (1978), Quei Figuri di Tanti Anni Fa (1978), Orchestra Rehearsal (1978), Death on the Nile (1978), Il Furto Della Gioconda (1978), Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1979)
Thankfully, most of Rota’s scores are commercially available. Here are five that will provide you insight into the amazing and gifted composer.
My first recommendation is a fine 2 CD compilation of Rota’s greatest scores. It offers an excellent introduction by exploring the very best of his canon through a series of suites, overtures and outstanding cues. Disc 1 features; The Taming of the Shrew, The Glass Mountain, Romeo & Juliet, Death on the Nile – Nile, The Godfather and The Godfather 2, Juliet of the Spirits and La Dolce Vita. Disc 2 features; Histoires Extraordinaires, Lo Sceicco Bianco, Otto e Mezzo, Vitelloni, Il Bidone, The Nights of Cabiria, Boccaccio ’70, Fellini Satyricon, I Clowns, Roma, Amarcord, Casanova, Prova d’Orchestra, and La Strada. You get a lot of bang for your buck with this album, and for those of you unfamiliar, you will gain an immediate and lasting appreciation for the versatility that Rota brought to every project.
This is an acclaimed masterwork, which earned Rota his Academy Award. Joining the Love Theme, Michael’s Theme and the Godfather Waltz themes from the first film are three additional themes Rota created for this latest effort. The first of these is a theme for the ages, one that earns Rota immortality, The Immigrant Theme. Rarely does a composer create music of such grandeur, sumptuous lyricism and refulgence, which perfectly captures a film’s emotional core. But Rota succeeds here, he captures our hearts, and we are powerless to resist. A kernel of hope emanates from this theme, which juxtaposes Michael’s Theme, whose grim darkness and growing dominance brings down a dark pall upon House Corleone. The second new theme is Kay’s Theme, which speaks to her growing realization of her husband’s business, violence and ruthlessness. She is held captive, helpless, and powerless to change the fortunes of her family. Rota informs us of this with a line of descending notes, which abound with an unabiding sadness and resignation. The third theme is the Sicilian Theme, a festive identity, which emotes with the sensibility of a traditional Sicilian dance, the Tarentella.
The story tells the tale of Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, a man of integrity, dignity and nobility who tries valiantly to preserve his family and social status as his financial assets crumble during the social tumult of 1860s Sicily. Once again Rota was presented with a grand tapestry and he responded with one of his greatest efforts. The tone of the score is one of melancholia, which fully captures Don Salina, who bears witness to a grand romantic age succumbing to a cruel and violent new order. Rota interpolated music from an unpublished symphony of his youth, “Symphony On A Love Song”, which bore a wealth of elegant and beautiful themes. He included what has become one of his signature waltzes, Valzer del Commiato, which sparkles, and speaks to us of brighter times. Lastly, he infused traditional Sicilian dances to provide the necessary ethnic auras. This may be Rota’s most unabashed romantic score.
Well with this album you get two Rota masterpieces! La Strada 1954 was a poignant film, which captures Fellini’s humanity. We bear witness to the pathos of travelling entertainer Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) and his waif Gelsomina (Giuletta Masina) who he has bought, and whom he abuses and beats. Rota writes a main theme for the ages, full of heartache, one that captures the film’s emotional core. The theme permeates the film and its juxtaposition against the circus backdrop is brilliant! Nights of Cabiria (1957), also offers tragedy as wee see the waif Cabiria suffering repeatedly in her search for love. Rota captures her spirit with a theme, which flows wistfully with a childlike innocence, and he supports her travels by infusing the score with vaudeville, burlesque, jazz, and music with a Latin flare. Both these scores reveal Rota’s mastery of his craft.
This restoration of the complete score by James Fitzpatrick is just wonderful. Rota infused his soundscape with Renaissance auras, regional instruments, fanfares, pageantry, pavanes, sarabandes, and saltarello. His theme for Romeo is languid, minor modal and carried simply by strings and a solo English horn, perfectly capturing his spirit. Masterful is how Rota transmutes Romeo’s theme into the love theme by altering its tempo, key and instrumentation. Rota understood that Romeo and Juliet was the quintessential paean to romantic love, fully embodying its yearning, ardor and anguish. As such he labored to create the theme and in my judgment succeeded magnificently on all counts. I believe his creation is now iconic, and has passed unto film score legend. The love theme was later rendered as a song, “A Time For Us”, arranged by Henry Mancini with lyrics by Eddie Snyder and Larry Kusik. It quickly became a pop sensation topping the charts in 1969 for two weeks.
1. Burlingame, Jon. Sound and Vision: 60 Years of Motion Picture Soundtracks. New York: Billboard books, 2000.
2. Nino Rota – Wikipedia
3. Nino Rota at the Internet Movie Database
4. Nino Rota – The Encyclopedia Of Film Composers Nino Rota Music Catalogue: http://www.ninorota.com
5. Nino Rota Biography: http://www.nytimes.com/movies/person/109049/Nino-Rota/biography
6. Nino Rota at Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Nino_Rota.aspx
7. Nino Rota at Famous Composers.com: http://www.famouscomposers.net/nino-rota
8. Nino Rota at http://rateyourmusic.com/artist/nino_rota
9. The Invisible Art of Film Music: A Comprehensive History by Lawrence E. MacDonald.