Chamber Music

Critic: “Do you like playing?”
Nino Rota [aged 12]: “Whenever I can … It is hard to write for a newspaper?”
C: “It’s not easy to do a good article”
NR: “Have you come from Brussels specially to hear my oratorio?”
C: “I certainly have, my little friend.”
NR: “That’s really funny. I won’t conducting it tonight. Yesterday the double bass snubbed me” [1923]
Who's patronising who? Nino Rota - "the next Mozart", composer at eleven of the oratorio The Childhood of John the Baptist, conducting it first in his home city Milan and now at Tourcoing in northern France - already knew how to turn the tables on tiresome critics. A knack he never lost - usefully, since the musical establishment spent most of his adulthood trying to tag him with two disparaging labels.
First - like all child prodigies - that he'd never grown up. Second - that he was "just" a cinema composer. Wasn't Rota internationally famous for it? Alongside his 150 "serious" works he wrote as many film scores, averaging four every year from 1942 until his death. "For me, Nino is music," said the great Italian director Federico Fellini - over a quarter-century, through La strada, La dolce vita and 8 1/2 he'd never used music by anyone else. Rota's string of hits -starting with Obsession and The Glass Mountain (whose love theme remained his favourite) - also attracted directors like Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather- "Part two" won Rota his one-and-only Oscar in 1974), King Vidor (War and Peace), Luchino Visconti (The Leopard) and Franco Zeffirelli (The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet - plus famous Shakespeare stagings at London's Old Vic).
If Rota never lived the labels down, did they have elements of truth? An air of elusive innocence pervades his life, music and words. Ingenuous, or disingenuous?

“I’ve a certain fluency of invention, but is what I invent good or bad? I’m a dreadful judge. But that’s served me well in film - good directors make suggestions. I don’t see cinema work as ‘second-class’ - actually, it’s benefited my development, psychological and musical.”

From age eight, music poured from Rota's pen. Anytime, anywhere - he travelled with manuscript paper. His astonishing gift for memorable melodies and improvising at the piano was perfect for last-minute film adjustments. Yet Fellini recalled Rota seemingly oblivious to the screen - “his strongest quality was a strange kind of lightness, of disappearing, being there but absent at the same time”. Rota wore no watch; for years he thought time was decimal. Missing a plane in his forties, he was astonished to learn that 20.00 wasn’t 10pm. Aged 21, testing timings on his first film score - celebrating the fascist Treno popolare (The people’s train, 1933) - he'd been similarly amazed that a minute has 60 seconds, not 100. Retrospectively embarrassed by a banal tune he'd produced for it (“in perfect fascist style”, said his biographer Pier Marco De Santi), Rota claimed his brother had written it. Treno popolare proving unpopular, Rota is steered clear of cinema for almost a decade; later, though, he happily reused film music in operas. Did he feel this validated his screen scores? Others reversed the argument to rubbish his “serious” music.

“I knew how to make a piece work when I was II. My teachers enlarged my musical horizons greatly, my technique not much. I already had the tools for making a piece ‘mine’. Home - the ‘Rotary’ -was full of music-making. I absorbed enormous amounts of chamber music. Operas only much later. I wrote one aged 14, but Verdi and Puccini weren’t even discussed. My cousin sang Pizzetti and Ravel hot off the press, never operatic numbers.”

In truth, Rota could already parody Verdi at the piano aged eleven. Returning from La Scala's staging of Dèbora e Jaéle - the work which made Ildebrando Pizzetti Italy's foremost opera composer - Nino retreated under a table to write it out from memory! His highly-musical mother Emesta, daughter of composer Giovanni Rinaldi (“The ltalian Chopin”), ensnared Pizzetti as what Rota called his first “regular” teacher. The 14-year-old's opera The Swineherd Prince (after Hans Christian Andersen) was composed under Pizzelti's eye.

“I did counterpoint with him - but he only taught Pizzettian counterpoint! He didn’t stop me composing my own way...”
“Pizzettian counterpoint” was inspired by the Italian Renaissance; Rota’s Milan University thesis (1937) studied the 16th century Venetian composer-theorist Gioseffo Zarlino - who pioneered the integration of contrapuntal theory and practice. There’s plenty of Pizzettian counterpoint in the earliest piece here - Rota's Quintet, dedicated "to my mother" - witness the entwining, aspiring melodies of the beautiful slow movement. Pizzetti's contemporary Gian Francesco Malipiero had recently written his Sonata a cinque for flute, harp and string trio; Rota replaces Malipiero’s violin with an oboe.
“This ensemble seemed to fit the quiet, conversational character of this work, which I still feel one of my but. It was the first time I’d used the harp, whose colouristic and impressionistic potential had never attracted me; here it’s in dialogue with the other instruments, among equals, blending their different timbres, giving subtle, transparent support to the harmony.”

That's equally true of the Sonata for flute and harp - "perhaps Rota's most perfect piece: said Gianandrea Gavazzeni; "archaic, intimate -flowing with the voice of an Italian Ravel." After Pizzetti, Ernesta had failed to persuade Ravel to teach her precocious boy; 15-year-old Nino went instead to Alfredo Casella.
“An exceptional person, objective, full of understaniding towards his pupils, however different their natures were from his own.”

On Casella's death in 1947, Rota commemorated him in a moving canlicle - accompanied by trombone, guitar and organ(!); earlier, he’d dedicated to Casella his "Little musical offering" for capering wind quintet -horn trying to keep the others in order? Casella would have approved the title's nod to Bach and the music's neo-classicism. The pure textures and clear contrasts of Rota's Quartet re-echo this affinity with the Baroque era Casella (like Pizzetti and Malipiero) revered.

The two Trios reveal Rota's broadest sympathies. Flute, violin and piano hint dramatically at Bartók, bitonality, and another great neo-classicist Casella introduced to Rota.
“Stravinsky was fun; his mind struck sparks. Age was no barrier - ours became a true friendship, despite distance and meeting ever more rarely.”
Still rarer, maybe, are Rota's musical meetings with Stravinsky. Though the darker sound-world of the trio with clarinet and cello extends his Russian encounters to Prokofiev, even Shostakovich - who in 1973 was ill, nearing death.
“When I’m creating at the piano, I tend to feel happy;but - the eternal dilemma - how can we be happy amid the unhappines, of other? I’d do everything I could to give everyone a moment of happines. That’s what’s at the heart of my music.”

In the Sixties Rota based an opera on H. G. Wells' The Wonderful Visit. An angel falls to earth; innocent, ingenuous, he just doesn't fit in ... but there's a happy ending. Rota's cousin, showing him the novel, had said: "It's the story of your life!”

“They reckon my music’s just a bit of nostalgia plus lots of good humour and optimum? Well, that’s exactly how I’d like to be remembered: with a bit of nostalgia and lots of optimism and good humour.”

David Gallagher, 2000