The Italian composer’s bitter-sweet style graces many classic films; perhaps the time is ripe to discover his concert music, says Mervyn Cooke
You felt his creativity so near at hand that it gave you a feeling of inebriation, the sensation that it was you producing the music. It entered so completely into the characters, the atmosphere, the colours of my films as to permeate them with his music.’ This was Federico Fellini’s warmly appreciative verdict on the extraordinary contribution to his feature films made by Nino Rota, who scored no fewer than 16 of them between 1952 and his death in ’79.
It would be naïve not to attribute the impact of Rota’s celebrated Fellini scores in part to the idiosyncratic nature of the films themselves and to the immediacy of the director’s strong personal style. But Rota also composed prolifically and successfully for many other film directors, both in Italy and abroad, including Franco Zeffirelli, Luchino Visconti, Francis Ford Coppola and Sergei Bondarchuk.
He was a notable composer of concert music, too, which dominated his output before he devoted his energies increasingly to film work after World War II. Thanks to his formidable compositional training at conservatoires in Milan, Rome and Philadelphia between 1923 and ’32, his mature music in all genres was constantly distinguished by a combination of striking ideas and technical finesse.
Rota and Fellini
Rota and Fellini immediately enjoyed a strong creative rapport when they first worked together on The White Sheik (1952). In their later collaborations it soon became apparent that Rota, somewhat perversely, wasn’t remotely interested in what he saw on the screen: he worked instead from what Fellini described as his ‘interior world, to which reality had little hope of access’.
Rota would often fall asleep while viewing a rough cut of the film, and he would mostly ignore Fellini’s suggestions on the nature of the music the director had himself envisaged for a project. But, as with other director-composer relationships founded in a deep mutual respect – the work of their compatriots Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone immediately springs to mind – Fellini trusted Rota enough to let him compose some of his music cues in advance of the editing of the images.
At the heart of their shared emotional outlook on life was an awareness of the tension between comedy and tragedy epitomised by the traditional circus clown. In two very different films starring Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina – La Strada (1954) and Giulietta degli spiriti (1960) – Rota used quasi-circus music to hint at melancholic depths in Fellini’s female protagonists, deftly combining sad moods with jaunty instrumental gestures to create the bittersweet quality characteristic of so much of his film music.
In the surreal climax of 8 ½ (1963), all the characters from a fictional film director’s life and his abandoned movie project dance around a circus ring to the child-director’s shouted instructions. Throughout the film, Rota cunningly plays with the viewer’s perceptions of whether or not his circus music is actually being performed in the story, or is added background accompaniment on the soundtrack.
Fellini’s hedonistic celebrations of Rome in both La dolce vita (1960) and Roma (1972) inspired Rota to capture the distinctive energy of a city where (as the director put it) ‘the vulgarity is an enrichment’. He did this with an amalgam of catchy melodies, dance music, colourful orchestrations reminiscent of Respighi, trademark allusions to the soundworld of the circus and clichéd musical gestures associated with depictions of Ancient Rome in Hollywood epics.
Those ‘primitive’ ideas co-existed with modernistic elements – including electronics – in Rota’s score to Fellini’s Satyricon (1969), based on Petronius’s ancient satire. However, in several of Fellini’s films Rota continued at times to mine the unashamedly melodramatic vein that had been central to the earlier style of Italian film music against which he was in many other respects rebelling.
Rota’s music for Zeffirelli’s two sumptuous Shakespeare films, The Taming of the Shrew (1966) and Romeo and Juliet (1968), reached a yet wider international audience. The basic musical concept was simple: a balancing of lyrical, melody-dominated love music with archaic elements suggestive of the Elizabethan era.
Romeo and Juliet’s poignant love theme, first heard as a song performed in the film’s action and then becoming a pervasive leitmotif in the film score, caused such widespread demand that Capitol Records issued a soundtrack album. It is considered to be one of the best musical settings of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
Not surprisingly, Rota soon found work in Hollywood, scoring the first two parts of Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy in 1972 and ’74. (He would doubtless have scored Part III too, had his death not intervened.) His darkly Italianate music, drawing on the idiom of Romantic opera as a cultural and locational marker, proved to be the perfect enhancement to this violent Mafia saga.
But, controversially, his Oscar nomination for Part I had to be withdrawn when representations were made to the chairman of the Academy’s Music Branch claiming that one of the themes in the soundtrack had been recycled from his music to an earlier Italian TV movie. Somewhat ironically, when Rota – an inveterate recycler – subsequently reworked music from Part I of The Godfather in Part II, his second score earned him his overdue Oscar.
Did Rota compose classical music?
Rota’s concert music remains neglected, in spite of being championed by a conductor such as Riccardo Muti (who has also recorded some of the film music). Bizarrely, Rota’s entry in the usually authoritative Grove Dictionary does not include any of his concert pieces in its list of works, which is entirely restricted to his film scores, and the most comprehensive English-language book on the composer devotes just two pages to an overview of his concert music.
And this in spite of a prolific output which included no fewer than 11 operas, four symphonies, three piano concertos, three cello concertos, further concertos for bassoon, harp and trombone, and sizable bodies of choral and chamber music. Other fine composers who straddled the concert hall and film studio, for example Korngold, Rózsa and Richard Rodney Bennett, have not suffered this fate, and Rota’s treatment can no longer be attributed to an elitism that condescendingly relegates composers primarily known for their film work to the lowly artistic status of commercial hacks. Why, then, are we rarely given the chance to hear Rota’s concert music, superbly crafted as it is and shot through with all the melodic charm and memorability of his film scores?
Why doesn't Rota's classical compositions get the acclaim they deserve?
The answer may in part lie in the very eclecticism, delight in pastiche and occasional emotional ambivalence that are such strong features of Rota’s film music – away from striking images and intriguing filmic situations, the impact of such music can be significantly weakened and the composer’s musical persona appear to lack focus.
Take, for example, his Piano Concerto in C major (written in 1960 but not performed until 1987), which begins with a whimsical neoclassical engagement with Mozart’s style but quickly digresses into spiky eccentricity and disruptive dissonances evidently inspired by Prokofiev – and especially the Russian’s celebrated Third Piano Concerto in the same key. Rota’s Trombone Concerto (1966) is tautly constructed and has a compelling energy, but sounds like it could have been written by Hindemith and then edited (with a few cheeky circus-like insertions) by Shostakovich. By contrast, the Piano Concerto in E minor (first performed in 1978) backtracks stylistically in its explicit references to a range of Romantic composers, including Schumann, Grieg and Rachmaninov.
Sceptical listeners could easily dismiss the E minor Concerto as old-fashioned and derivative, but Rota aficionados have always fiercely praised the composer’s boldness in writing concert music in anachronistic styles when no one else would dare to do so. Old-fashioned styles have of course always been the life-blood of mainstream film scoring, in which context John Williams once declared: ‘I’m a very lucky man… If it weren’t for the movies, no one would be able to write this kind of music any more.’
Williams, too, has been criticised on many occasions for the apparently undigested influences in some of his music which – like Rota’s – is faultlessly well crafted and often melodically arresting. Perhaps the time has finally come to stop validating originality as the ultimate compositional aspiration and instead celebrate Rota’s music – whether conceived for the cinema or concert hall – for its heady eclecticism, wit and melodic appeal, plus that curious ambiguity of simultaneous emotional engagement and distancing that was so distinctive in his iconic Fellini scores and an essential part of the ironic neoclassicism of his concert work.
Rota’s self-confessed aim as a composer was refreshingly simple and endearing: ‘I’d do everything I could to give everyone a moment of happiness. That’s what’s at the heart of my music’
Nino Rota's timeline
When was Nino Rota born?
Born in Milan on 3 December 1911 Giovanni Rota Rinaldi displays musical talent from a young age. He composes his first oratorio, L’infanzia di San
What Nino Rota's real name?
Nino Rota was born Giovanni Rota Rinaldi
When did Nino Rota move to the USA?
In 1930, On the advice of conductor Arturo Toscanini, Rota heads to the US where, at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, he studies conducting with Fritz Reiner and composing with Rosario Scalero.
What was Nino Rota's first film score?
In, While employed as the director of the Liceo Musicale in Bari, Rota composed The White Sheik, the first of his many film scores with director Federico Fellini.
When did Nino Rota compose the score for The Godfather?
Partly inspired by Sibelius’s First Symphony, he composed the score for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather in 1972. Three years later, his music for the sequel wins an Oscar.
When did Nino Rota die?
In 1979 Nino Rota died in Rome, aged 67, of coronary thrombosis. His death comes two days before the premiere of Jan Troell’s The Hurricane, featuring his last ever film score.
Rota’s composition style
- Circus music: Inspired by Fellini’s belief that cinema is ‘an art form and at the same time a circus, a funfair, a voyage aboard a kind of “ship of fools”,’ Rota’s film scores are littered with sometimes unsettling allusions to circus music. Khachaturian’s famous Sabre Dance was a potent influence, for example in the ‘Carlotta’s Galop’ cue in 8½.
- Italian opera: The now indelible association in the movies between Italian opera and the Mafia largely took off when Coppola asked Rota to model his first Godfather score on the style of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana. Verdi and Puccini were crucial influences too.
- Amateur bands: Numerous Rota film scores affectionately parody the erratic playing of incompetent but well-meaning marching bands in provincial towns: for example the uniformed Sicilian ensemble in Visconti’s The Leopard
- Ironic attachment: This phrase (coined by film studies academic Richard Dyer) perfectly describes how Rota appears engaged with the musical or dramatic task at hand yet also ironically distanced from it. Whether one listens to the circus-like and quasi-operatic tunes in the film scores or admires the neoclassical elements in the concert works, there is often a sense that the composer is having tongue-in-cheek fun with his material.