Sunday, February 19, 2006

Nino Rota

I was watching Fellini's Le Notti Di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria) many years back and marvelling at the "color" in the musical soundtrack. There was a haunting melody in particular that might have been straight from the shores of Sicily or Calabria: it had a touch of an Arabic scale, echoes of Scheherezade - minor-sounding but with a twist of ginger that rescued it from somberness, wistful without sentimentality. Aside from this tune there were other odd musical turns; a bit of mambo, jazz, circus, and operatic overture all of which enhanced the tragi-comic, bittersweet tone of the movie.
Though Fellini's movies have been a hit-or-miss affair for me, my favorites like Amarcord, Cabiria, The White Sheik, and La Strada were very much enhanced by the musical scores. After finding out that these films were all scored by Nino Rota, I was all a-fire and off on an information/recording rampage - got hold of a cd "Omaggio a Fellini" which is a collection of themes composed by Rota for Fellini during his career as the maestro's musical-director-in-residence from 1952 to 1979. This record has been a popular food-prep, party, what-have-you "background" cd in our household for years - i'm sure the Italian-circus-sophisticated/numbskull mix has been "harmonious" with the environs.

Rota is more famously known here in the States as the composer of the Godfather soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola. At least one of the melodies has passed into a popular kitsch theme when gangsters are referenced but, even the most jaded of listeners has got admit (i chance it) that this is a gorgeous melody nevertheless. The same could be said for Rota's soundtrack to Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet. The Love Theme has gained elevator music status, and yet, listening to the original Rota orchestral version....a palms up, eyes heavenward, shrug is all I can come up with. What can I say, the guy's a genius. If you're in doubt, forget the Love Theme and check out "A Renaissance Timepiece" from the same score. Beautiful! THATS what i'm talkin about!
Rota was, aside from a composer for film, a prodigious serious composer of operas ballets and instrumental works. He was born in 1911 in Milan and was a child prodigy, studying piano, and soon composing at the age of 8 as well as conducting soon after! He studied renaissance music in depth and it is a thread throughout his film scores.
As described in a bio; "Well acquainted with new musical developments from his youth (during which he enjoyed a long personal friendship with Stravinksy), Rota followed a quite different path in his own music, retaining the supremacy of melody, a tonality free of harmonic complexity, established patterns of rhythm and form, and a concept of music as spontaneous, direct expression." His lifelong passion seemingly knew no bounds and his death in 1979 has been attributed to 20 hour workdays.

Aside from Fellini, Zeffirelli, and Coppola, Rota was the author of scores for Visconti's The Leopard and even Lina Wertmuller's Love and Anarchy.
Coincidentally, yesterday I was in a to-remain-anonymous "restaurant" having a bite of the unmentionable while I poured, Italian dictionary in hand, over some Italian text about Rota that I'd copied from a website about him. After finishing, I got into the car and turned on NPR and lo 'n behold the very first thing I hear is (it's a Radio 360 interview with award-winning film composer Rachel Portman) an interviewer asking, "Are there any scores that you particularly look to as the 'Gold Standard' for film music?"
answer from Portman "I'd have to say Nino Rota's music for the's music that stands on its own, really not 'background music' at all".
...please maestro, cue the Twilight Zone theme!

a brief Nino Rota discography:

Omaggio : A Homage to Federico Fellini (actual excerpts from the movies)
Film Music of Nino Rota - piano arrangements by Rota of much of his film music
The Essential Nino Rota Film Music Collection - performed by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra
Amarcord Nino Rota - a collection Rota's themes from Fellini movies played by a variety of stellar jazz musicians. The most effective and evocative of Rota's spirit are the solo or near-solo performances by pianist Jaki Byard and vibist Dave Samuels

...and last but not least, a great record called;
Traversata - featuring mandolins of Carlo Aonzo and David Grisman with harp-guitar by Beppe Gambetta. It contains one not-to-be-missed piece of Rota's, The Godfather's Waltz....more on this later

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