Nino Rota

(03 December 1911 — 10 April 1979)

In 1979 NinoRota left the world («not dead», Federico Fellini was to say, «but vanished:that strange, ineffable impression of disappearing that he had always given mewhen he was alive») without having received any attention from the critics – whosework should be the support and soundbox of 20th-century musical culture –except repeated expressions of a more or less benevolent condescension. One hasto search at length among the press articles, programmes, rare interviewsextracted from the most accessible and courteous of contemporary composers, whowas also the most reserved and evasive, in order to find – and not always –something interesting that closely concerns the sea of notes in which thatamiable and rather mysterious dolphin frolicked (to quote Fellini again) «withthe freedom and happiness of a creature who lives in a dimension which itspontaneously finds congenial».


Fine words,certainly, but words. The fact is that we have been extremely well informedabout the workings – actual or intended – of a score of what with a bit ofoptimistic triumphalism was called New Music; little or nothing has yet beensaid concerning the being and functioning of those rhythms and motifs lavishedon the staves with portentous fecundity by Rota. Little or nothing, except thatthey operate in the sphere of tonality (tonal or atonal? the alternative wasManichean, almost like Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”) and amount to music thatis uncommitted, entertaining, Brechtianly “culinary”; and it is not impossiblethat, in putting together this fine little collection of banalities, Rota’ssupporters have played as large a part as the detractors or condescenders.


The first thingthat must be said is that it would be misleading and hypocritical to separateRota the excellent and fortunate craftsman of memorable film soundtracks fromRota the composer of operas and symphonic, chamber and religious pieces. At atime when there was the widest gap in history between “consumer” music andmusic as “art”, Rota’s fidelity to a primitive and so to speak meta-historicallanguage of sounds, his confident and undiminished progress by means of aversatile and all-embracing creativity, his Olympian super partes impassivity towards the aesthetic and ideologicalupheavals in the world around him, his imperviousness to diatribes andpolemics, sound provocative: whether involuntarily or not, it is difficult tosay. The fact remains that the hand which penned the notes for Fellini’s La strada, Le notti di Cabiria, La dolcevita, Otto e mezzo, Giulietta degli spiriti, Il padrino and Amarcord, Visconti’s Le nottibianche, Rocco e i suoi fratelliand Il Gattopardo, and for many otherfilms, some famous, some not, was not in any sense more careless and lessrigorous (since the merits of a superlative professionalism remained the same)than that of the composer of Il cappellodi paglia di Firenze and La notte diun nevrastenico, the Concerto forStrings and the Piano Concerto in C,the Variazioni sopra un tema gioviale,as well as numerous instrumental and vocal chamber works, which were often bornin kind and generous reply to occasional entreaties from friends and disciples.


A substantialstylistic and qualitative unity underlies, like a karstic seam, the disparitybetween the destinations towards which the two branches of Rota’swork were channelled. This fact, which may perhaps seem obvious (but it is notnecessarily so), was fundamental to his compositional practice, as he was inthe habit of transposing thematic material from one channel of production tothe other, with no problem except whether it would function effectively in itsnew containers. Such recycling still awaits organic study, to be carried out onthe multiple textual sources rather as has been done (though Rota’sdisenchanted shade does not want to hear about these risky comparisons) for Händel,Gluck, Rossini and other champions of self-borrowing. And at this point it isopportune to consider that other specific trait of Rota’s art which isintimately correlated to his practice of self-borrowing and which is still avictim of current ideas about the composer: his fertility in inventing plastic,incisive and readily memorable motifs, without which it would have beenimpossible for him to do the work which brought him international fame andfortune.


Once celebratedas a primary and indispensable ingredient of musical expression, especiallythat connected with the theatre («One cannot write operas without motifs»,declared Bizet; «He has no talent for motifs», Verdi grumbled behind Boito’sback), in the 20th century the motif was to become isolated in the ghetto of consumermusic, or, in the works of “serious” composers, in the gilded frame, winkingand intellectualizing, of the quotation. The reason for this state of affairsand the way in which Rota was able to opposeit in non-theoretical terms – certainly not polemical, but utterly spontaneous –were wonderfully summed up by Fedele D’Amico in an article which I cannot failto quote:


The modern composer is ‘out of touch’ in the sensethat there is not necessarily a relationship between his music and that whichthe 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 elaboratefinale and his own points of departure (themes, determined styles, the veryidea of Music), which must be distanced, described, commented on, in shortcriticized, never assimilated without residues, never restored to theiroriginal spontaneity [...] Now Nino Rota achieves his own splendidout-of-touchness too, but by the opposite route, namely by ignoring thisprocedure. People think they are scandalized because they find in his musictonal relationships that are always explicit, melodic symmetries founded on thecanonical eight bars, etc; but they are wrong: the scandal is that such thingsare 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 clandestinesociety, that of coeurs simples, calmly testifying to the permanence ofingenuous sentiments and values, through styles and conventions that have beendeclared out of bounds.



That takes usback to ‘68, when the Avant-garde was still worthy of the name and theideological and aesthetic stakes with which it surrounded itself were wellsharpened. Now, after so many walls have come down and in a world of extremelyparcelled art in which no-one is scandalized by anything any more, such animpassioned defence seems like a historical document. Acquitted by such acourt, Rota’s art could at last be seen, freedfrom 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-centurymusic with a very different choice of aesthetic and language. Less than everdoes 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 noless authentically contemporary, in its abyssal diversity, than that of Berioor Stockhausen. It is absolutely true that Rota’smelodic writing moves mostly within the ambit of a tonal and phraseologicalsystem that is well-tested and familiar; but this is not all there is to say onthe matter. The fact is that his harmony, his modulating procedures and histimbric values are inconceivable without the influence of more than one of thegreats of 20th-century music, from Stravinsky to Prokofiev, from Ravel to DeFalla to Britten, as well as names that are less resounding but no lessintriguing such as Korngold, Gershwin, Berlin, Kern, Porter, Rodgers, and otherHollywood and Broadway composers who are certainly not to be dismissed; to saynothing of the world of classical and modern operetta. An extremely variedpanorama and not at all out of step with the times: on the contrary, it is alltoo firmly rooted in this dying century of ours.


So theoft-repeated classification of such music as pedestrian or meta-compositionseems utterly and obviously incongruous. But it is above all in the theatrethat Rota’s modernity, his inability to definehimself as other than a composer of the 20th century, are revealed in anexemplary fashion. Although they contain arias, duets, choruses and finales, Il cappello di paglia di Firenze or La notte di un nevrastenico cannotproperly be described as number operas: the scene, not the self-containednumber, gives rise in a thoroughly modern way to the generating idea of theirtheatricality, oscillating between the two poles of a narrative that is so tospeak 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 ofthe scene in the hat shop in the first act of Il cappello, traversed by the pungent throbbing of the littlefemale chorus which embroiders the theme àla Rossini: Rota calls it “intermezzo”, knowing perfectly well that manyothers, starting with Debussy and reaching Britten via Berg and Prokofiev, didnot conceive musical theatre other than through scenes which are structurallyautonomous and of short duration. Nevertheless he generally seems to favour aflexible and modulated narrative style which enables him to model his melodicacting on the mobile tracery of finely elaborated orchestral motifs: ready totake off in a conspicuously cantabileflight (which it would therefore not be correct to describe as a self-containednumber) and then return with souplesseto an exquisite conversational style.


Immersed in thisswirling flow of motifs and evocations, Rotamoved as if through the trees of a variegated orchard, picking - as Molièresaid - his profit wherever it presented itself. But in those little hands whichwere in the habit of distractedly tormenting the piano keys and extracting aceaseless stream of motifs, the apples of the Hesperides of two or morecenturies of music became something utterly personal, to which only those handswere able to give a new and unmistakable flavour. The ancient flavour of that “MusicaNaturalis” which knows no duty but to please, and which, beyond the ultimata of 20th-century aesthetics, andfreed from the cruel quotation marks of meta-composing, can still make itsamiable and friendly voice heard, and always will.


Giovanni Carli Ballola