The Creators: Nino Rota

In this instalment of our issue 9 feature, we look at the career of celebrated Italian film composer, Nino Rota

Nino-Rota, courtesy of Archivio Nino Rota,Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venezia
Nino Rota, courtesy of Archivio Nino Rota, Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venezia

I was born into a family of musicians and I studied from a young age. I performed my first oratorio before my 12th birthday, so I suppose you could say I was a child prodigy, but really it just made me happy to play and to study – first in Milan, and later at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. It was there I was introduced to several of the passions in my life: George Gershwin’s music, American folklore, and film.

If all I’ve expressed through my music is a little nostalgia, and lots of humour and optimism – well, that’s exactly how I’d like to be remembered. My music explores emotions and relationships. Listen to any of my music – the score I wrote for Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, for example – you can hear my fixation with the emotional. Hopefully, I’ve managed to give each of my audiences a moment of happiness, whether they’re listening to one of my chorus pieces, one of my operas or the music to one of the 143 films I’ve scored.

I was blessed to work with some of the 20th century’s best directors, from my friend and long-term collaborator Federico Fellini to Zeffirelli, Renato Castellani to Francis Ford Coppola. It was a huge learning curve: my first film – Raffaello Matarazzo’s Treno popolare in 1933 – was a critical flop. After that, I didn’t work in film for over a decade. But eventually the lure of the silver screen proved too much to resist.

I always thought it was a shame that music is a secondary element in film, subservient to the image. I never composed a score to accompany the action on screen; the music always comes from the emotional subtext running beneath. That’s why I never really needed to see the scene to know the feeling: the director – Fellini, Coppola, Luchino Visconti or King Vidor – would tell me about it, and from there I’d feel it, and write it. I guess that was my greatest strength – and enjoyment. Composing did not seem like work to me.

Ultimately, my work in film rewarded me well: my score for The Godfather and The Godfather Part II gave me some of the greatest accolades of my career – a Golden Globe, a Grammy, and an Oscar too. And, in retrospect, some of the scores I’ve written have proven to resonate as much as the film sequences themselves. The mandolin opening in The Godfather, or the floating flute of the Romeo and Juliet theme tune conjure an emotional landscape as cinematic as the visuals themselves. In fact, they’ve probably proven to be my most recognisable work.

This piece was written by Betty Wood incorporating quotes from Nino, whose other films include La Dolce Vita and La Strada