December 3, 1911– Nino Rota
At 14-years-old and feeling highly romantic, I couldn’t have been more captivated by the Franco Zeffirelli film version of William Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet (1968). Most assuredly, the memory of the sight of the naked backside of Leonard Whiting meant lots of crumpled tissues under my bed when I was a teenager. I also totally fell in love with the score for this film. At the time, I was studying improvisational piano with an amazing, inspiring teacher who coached me through working on playing the theme from Romeo And Juliet, which brought me much happiness.
This version of the Shakespeare play was my first encounter with the music of Nino Rota, and the beginning of my love for all things Italian. At that point I had yet to see a Federico Fellini film. That would not happen for another four years when I saw Satyricon (1969) at a revival house in Boston… while on acid!
Rota was a pianist, conductor, noted academic, and one of the most important composers in Film History. Popular and prolific (171 films), Rota wrote some of the most memorable and loved film scores, including The Godfather Parts I and II (1972, 1974), The Leopard (1963), Zeffirelli’s other popular Shakespeare films, nearly all of Fellini’s output, along with more than 140 other Italian films.
Yet, his music does not quite work in the way that we have come to assume music in film scores work. His music does not seek to draw the audience in, or to overwhelm and excite. His music is lovely, yet reticent, at once comic and touching, with a direct relation to what is going on onscreen. Rota’s musical scores are close and affectionate towards a film’s characters and story lines, but restrained, not detached, but ironically attached.
Born Giovanni Rota Rinaldi in Milan, part of a large family of musicians, Rota and household moved to Rome while he was still a kid. He studied music at the prestigious Conservatory Of Santa Cecilia, graduating when he was only 17-years-old. Rota was an “enfant prodige”, famous both as a composer and as an orchestra conductor while still a teenager. His first oratorio L’infanzia Di San Giovanni Battista, was performed in Milan and Paris in 1923, when he was just 12-years-old. His lyrical comedy, Il Principe Porcaro, was composed in 1926. From 1930 to 1932, Rota lived in the USA, after he won a scholarship to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia where he studied composition and orchestration, taught by composer Fritz Reiner.
Rota returned to Italy and earned another degree, this one in World Literature from the University Of Milan. In 1937, at 26-years-old, he began a teaching career that led to becoming the Director of the Bari Music Conservatory, a title he held from 1950 until he left this world in 1979.
After his childhood compositions, Rota began to write operas and ballets. He also composed hundreds of works for orchestra that are still performed by symphonies all over our pretty planet. In 1944, Rota was commissioned for his first film score by director Renato Castellani for Zaza (1942). The result brought him significant success, and Rota worked again with Castellani on Father, My Son (1946).
Rota is probably most noted for his work with Fellini. He began his relationship with the director in 1952, producing a brilliant, exciting score for The White Sheik (1952). A score for I Vitelloni (1953) followed and then La Strada (1954). Roto described these collaborations with Fellini as ones that were always meant to exist, that when the two of them worked together, everything fell in place in a perfect semblance. They continued to work together for decades, producing close to 70 scores.
He also composed the music for films by other directors: Luchino Visconti, Zeffirelli, Francis Ford Coppola (Rota won an Academy Award for Best Original Score for The Godfather: Part II (1974), King Vidor, and René Clement. He also did the music for many theatre productions by Visconti and Zeffirelli. In 1995, he founded The Nino Rota Foundation at the fabulous Fondazione Cini in Venice, specializing in the study and archiving of the works of 20th century Italian composers.
Fellini on Rota:
“He was someone who had a rare quality belonging to the world of intuition. Just like children, simple men, sensitive people, innocent people, he would suddenly say dazzling things. As soon as he arrived, stress disappeared, everything turned into a festive atmosphere; the movie entered a joyful, serene, fantastic period, a new life.”
“He was the most precious collaborator I have ever had. The connection between us was 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 was openly gay, but very quietly so. My research points to no boyfriends or longtime attachments. His best friend was prolific Italian screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico, who did the screenplay for the classic The Bicycle Thief (1948). He had a close, loving, lifelong friendship with composer Igor Stravinsky, and he was very chummy with gay composer Aaron Copland while studying at the Curtis Institute, in fact it was Copland who inspired Rota’s interest in writing music for film. But, I can’t find anything that definitively shows that they might have been lovers.
Rota took his final bow in his apartment in Rome in 1979, taken by a heart attack at 67-years-old.
“If anyone reckons that all that I am attempting to express in my music is a little nostalgia and lots of humor and optimism, well then, that is exactly how I would like to be remembered.”