December 3, 1911– Nino Rota
At 14 years old & feeling highly romantic, I couldn’t have been more captivated by the Franco Zeffirelli film version of Romeo & Juliet (1968). Most assuredly, the sight of a nearly naked Leonard Whiting held my imagination for years. I was also totally 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 & Juliet, which brought me much happiness.
This version of the Shakespeare play was my first encounter with the music of Nino Rota & the beginning of my love for all things Italian. I had yet to see a Federico Fellini film. That would not happen for another 4 years when I saw Satyricon (1969) one evening at a revival house in Boston… while on acid!
Rota was a pianist, conductor, academic, & one of the most important composers in Film History. Popular & prolific, Rota wrote some of the memorable & loved film scores: The Godfather Parts I & II, The Leopard, Zeffirelli’s popular Shakespeare films, nearly all of Fellini’s output, & more than 140 popular Italian movies.
Yet, his music does not quite work in the way that we have come to assume music in film works: it does not seek to draw us in, or to overwhelm & excite. His music is lovely, yet reticent, at once comic & touching, with a direct relation to what’s on screen, Rota’s musical scores are close & affectionate towards the film’s characters & story lines, but restrained, not detached, but ironically attached.
Born Giovanni Rota Rinaldi in Milan, part of a large family of musicians, Rota & household moved to Rome while he was still a kid. He studied music at the prestigious Conservatory Of Santa Cecilia, graduating when he was just 17 years old. Rota was an “enfant prodige”, famous both as a composer & as an orchestra conductor while still a teenager. His first oratorio L’infanzia Di San Giovanni Battista, was performed in Milan & Paris in 1923, when he was 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 & orchestration, taught by composer Fritz Reiner.
Rota returned to Italy & 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 & ballets. He also composed hundreds of works for orchestra that are still performed by orchestras all over our pretty planet. In 1944, Rota was commissioned for his first film score by director Renato Castellani for Zaza. The result brought significant success, & Rota worked again with Castellani on Father, My Son (1946).
Rota is probably most noted for his work with Federico Fellini. He began his relationship with the renowned director in 1952, producing a brilliant score for The White Sheik (1952), following with I Vitelloni (1953) & then La Strada (1954). Roto described this collaboration as one that was always meant to exist, & that when they 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 (he won an Oscar for Best Original Score for The Godfather: Part II (1974), King Vidor, & René Clement. He also did the music for many theatre productions by Visconti & Zeffirelli. In 1995, he founded The Nino Rota Foundation at the fabulous Fondazione Cini in Venice, specializing in the study & 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, & reality had no way to enter it.”
Rota was openly gay, but quietly so. My research points to no boyfriends or longtime attachments. His BFF 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, & 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.
Rota took his final bow in his apartment in Rome in 1979.
“If anyone reckons that all that I am attempting to express in my music is a little nostalgia & lots of humor & optimism, well then, that is exactly how I would like to be remembered.”