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Rota, Nino

(December 3, 1911 - April 10, 1979)

Nino Rota was born in Milan in 1911 and died in Rome in 1979. Rota’s mother was the pianist Ernesta Rinaldi, the daughter of the composer and pianist Giovanni Rinaldi (one of the leading Italian instrumentalists of his time, 1840-95). Rota began composing at the age of 8 and in 1923 had an oratorio, L’Infanzia di S.Giovanni Battista, performed in Milano and Lille. He began his musical education in 1919, studying piano with his mother and solfège with A. Perlasca.
In 1923 he entered the Milan Conservatory, where he studied with Paolo Delachi, Giacomo Orefice, Giulio Bas and, in 1925-26, with Ildebrando Pizzetti (composition). He continued his composition studies under Alfredo Casella in Rome, and graduated from the Santa Cecilia Academy there in 1930.

In 1931-32 he attended the Curtis Institute of Philadelphia, taking courses in composition with Rosario Scalero, conducting with Fritz Reiner, and history of music with Johann Baptist Beck. In 1937 he took a degree in literature from the University of Milan with a thesis on tje Italian theorist and composer Gioseffo Zarlino.

In 1937-38 he taught music theory and solfège at the Liceo Musicale in Taranto. In 1939 he began teaching harmony at the Conservatory of Bari and subsequently taught composition: he was appointed director of the Conservatory in 1950.

He was active in many fields, always with perfect measure and technical mastery: he wrote about 162 compotions and 152  soundtracks. Rota owes his international renown essentially to his music for the cinema. He was often called upon to compose for film of prime importance (including all those directed by Fellini, who never wanted any other composer for his films).


by Giovanni Carli Ballola

In 1979 Nino Rota left the world ("not dead", Federico Fellini was to say, "but vanished: that strange, ineffable impression of disappearing that he had always given me when he was alive") without having received any attention from the critics - whose work should be the support and soundbox of 20th-century musical culture - except repeated expressions of a more or less benevolent condescension. One has to search at length among the press articles, programmes, rare interviews extracted from the most accessible and courteous of contemporary composers, who was also the most reserved and evasive, in order to find - and not always - something interesting that closely concerns the sea of notes in which that amiable and rather mysterious dolphin frolicked (to quote Fellini again) "with the freedom and happiness of a creature who lives in a dimension which it spontaneously finds congenial".

Fine words, certainly, but words. The fact is that we have been extremely well informed about the workings - actual or intended -of a score of what with a bit of optimistic triumphalism was called New Music; little or nothing has yet been said concerning the being and functioning of those rhythms and motifs lavished on the staves with portentous fecundity by Rota. Little or nothing, except that they operate in the sphere of tonality (tonal or atonal? the alternative was Manichean, almost like Hamlet's "To be or not to be") and amount to music that is uncommitted, entertaining, Brechtianly "culinary"; and it is not impossible that, in putting together this fine little collection of banalities, Rota's supporters have played as large a part as the detractors or condescenders.

The first thing that must be said is that it would be misleading and hypocritical to separate Rota the excellent and fortunate craftsman of memorable film soundtracks from Rota the composer of operas and symphonic, chamber and religious pieces. At a time when there was the widest gap in history between "consumer" music and music as "art", Rota's fidelity to a primitive and so to speak metahistorical language of sounds, his confident and undiminished progress by means of a versatile and all-embracing creativity, his Olympian super partes impassivity towards the aesthetic and ideological upheavals in the world around him, his imperviousness to diatribes and polemics, sound provocative: whether involuntarily or not, it is difficult to say. The fact remains that the hand which penned the notes for Fellini's La strada, Le notti di Cabiria, La dolce vita, Otto e mezzo, Giulietta degli spiriti, Il padrino and Amarcord, Visconti's Le notti bianche, Rocco e i suoi fratelli and Il Gattopardo, and for many other films, some famous, some not, was not in any sense more careless and less rigorous (since the merits of a superlative professionalism remained the same) than that of the composer of Il cappello di paglia di Firenze and La notte di un nevrastenico, the Concerto for Strings and the Piano Concerto in C, the Variazioni sopra un tema giovanile, as well as numerous instrumental and vocal chamber works, which were often born in kind and generous reply to occasional entreaties from friends and disciples.

A substantial stylistic and qualitative unity underlies, like a karstic seam, the disparity between the  destinations towards which the two branches of Rota's work were channelled. This fact, which may perhaps seem obvious (but it is not necessarily so), was fundamental to his compositional practice, as he was in the habit of transposing thematic material from one channel of production to the other, with no problem except whether it would function effectively in its new containers. Such recycling still awaits organic study, to be carried out on the multiple textual sources rather as has been done (though Rota's disenchanted shade does not want to hear about these risky comparisons) for Handel, Gluck, Rossini and other champions of self-borrowing. And at this point it is opportune to consider that other specific trait of Rota's art which is intimately correlated to his practice of self-borrowing and which is still a victim of current ideas about the composer: his fertility in inventing plastic, incisive and readily memorable motifs, without which it would have been impossible for him to do the work which brought him international fame and fortune. 

Once celebrated as a primary and indispensable ingredient of musical expression, especially that connected with the theatre ("One cannot write operas without motifs", declared Bizet; "He has no talent for motifs", Verdi grumbled behind Boito's back), in the 20th century the motif was to become isolated in the ghetto of consumer music, or, in the works of "serious" composers, in the gilded frame, winking and intellectualizing, of the quotation. The reason for this state of affairs and the way in which Rota was able to oppose it in non-theoretical terms - certainly not polemical, but utterly spontaneous - were wonderfully summed up by Fedele D'Amico in an article which I cannot fail to quote:

"The modern composer is 'out of touch' in the sense that there is not necessarily a relationship between his music and that which the society of his time feels as Musica Naturalis, i.e. as the natural formulation of its spontaneous musical feelings [...] His typical characteristic is a clear dualism between the elaborate finale and his own points of departure (themes, determined styles, the very idea of Music), which must be distanced, described, commented on, in short criticized, never assimilated without residues, never restored to their original spontaneity [...] Now Nino Rota achieves his own splendid out-of-touchness too, but by the opposite route, namely by ignoring this procedure. People think they are scandalized because they find in his music tonal relationships that are always explicit, melodic symmetries founded on the canonical eight bars, etc; but they are wrong: the scandal is that such things are admitted as natural in his score, instead of being put in quotation marks [...] The sense of a position à la Rota lies in appealing to a clandestine society, that of coeurs simples, calmly testifying to the permanence of ingenuous sentiments and values, through styles and conventions that have been declared out of bounds" (L'Espresso, 21-1-1969)        

That takes us back to '68, when the Avant-garde was still worthy of the name and the ideological and aesthetic stakes with which it surrounded itself were well sharpened. Now, after so many walls have come down and in a world of extremely parcelled art in which no-one is scandalized by anything any more, such an impassioned defence seems like a historical document. Acquitted by such a court, Rota's art could at last be seen, freed from the protection of partisan patrons (not always of the calibre of a D'Amico) who sought to justify its existence and presence in the world of 20th-century music with a very different choice of aesthetic and language. Less than ever does it appear today as an obsolete currency in terms of some ill-defined "modernity", but rather as the legitimate expression of a way of making music that is no less authentically contemporary, in its abyssal diversity, than that of Berio or Stockhausen. It is absolutely true that Rota's melodic writing moves mostly within the ambit of a tonal and phraseological system that is well-tested and familiar; but this is not all there is to say on the matter. The fact is that his harmony, his modulating procedures and his timbric values are inconceivable without the influence of more than one of the greats of 20th-century music, from Stravinsky to Prokofiev, from Ravel to De Falla to Britten, as well as names that are less resounding but no less intriguing such as Korngold, Gershwin, Berlin, Kern, Porter, Rodgers, and other Hollywood and Broadway composers who are certainly not to be dismissed; to say nothing of the world of classical and modern operetta. An extremely varied panorama and not at all out of step with the times: on the contrary, it is all too firmly rooted in this dying century of ours.

So the oft-repeated classification of such music as pedestrian or metacomposition seems utterly and obviously incongruous. But it is above all in the theatre that Rota's modernity, his inability to define himself as other than a composer of the 20th century, are revealed in an exemplary fashion. Although they contain arias, duets, choruses and finales, Il cappello di paglia di Firenze or La notte di un nevrastenico cannot properly be described as number operas: the scene, not the self-contained number, gives rise in a thoroughly modern way to the generating idea of their theatricality, oscillating between the two poles of a narrative that is so to speak traditional, in that it is articulated act by act over a long time-span, and the episodic panel that is circumscribed and conclusive in itself. Think of the scene in the hat shop in the first act of Il cappello, traversed by the pungent throbbing of the little female chorus which embroiders the theme à la Rossini: Rota calls it "intermezzo", knowing perfectly well that many others, starting with Debussy and reaching Britten via Berg and Prokofiev, did not conceive musical theatre other than through scenes which are structurally autonomous and of short duration. Nevertheless he generally seems to favour a flexible and modulated narrative style which enables him to model his melodic acting on the mobile tracery of finely elaborated orchestral motifs: ready to take off in a conspicuously cantabile flight (which it would therefore not be correct to describe as a self-contained number) and then return with souplesse to an exquisite conversational style. 

Immersed in this swirling flow of motifs and evocations, Rota moved as if through the trees of a variegated orchard, picking - as Molière said - his profit wherever it presented itself. But in those little hands which were in the habit of distractedly tormenting the piano keys and extracting a ceaseless stream of motifs, the apples of the Hesperides of two or more centuries of music became something utterly personal, to which only those hands were able to give a new and unmistakable flavour. The ancient flavour of that Musica Naturalis which knows no duty but to please, and which, beyond the ultimata of 20th-century aesthetics, and freed from the cruel quotation marks of metacomposing, can still make its amiable and friendly voice heard, and always will.