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ClassicsOnline Home » ROTA, N.: Clarinet Sonata / Clarinet Trio / Improvviso / Toccata / Fantasia (Gojevic, Kenedi, Lynn Kuo, W. Zelenka, Sweeney)
Although he is best known for his film scores and The Godfather in particular, Nino Rota’s concert music combines traditional tonality and forms with characteristically heartfelt melodies and appealing clarity. Contrasts abound in this selection of chamber works, from bassoon buffoonery in the Toccata to the Brahmsian eloquence of the Clarinet Sonata, and from the dramatic Improvviso and melancholy moods of the recently discovered Fantasia, to the jocular instrumental exchanges in the exquisite Trio.
By John Terauds
Nino Rota (1911–1979)
The name Nino Rota generally evokes little response, even amongst concert-goers and musicians. Nevertheless, the moment the music of The Godfather is mentioned, a glint of recognition often takes place.
Nowadays this seems to be the destiny of many fine composers (for example Korngold and Rózsa) whose output is known mainly through their film music. Rota’s simple, clear writing in his concert music, however, has a direct appeal to the listener in a way that is vastly different from that of his film scores. This does not mean that it is necessarily simple in its harmonic or formal structure. In fact the sinuousness and abruptness of his harmonic variations are at once astonishing and beguiling.
Rota was definitely aware of international musical trends of his time, and one can recognize glimpses of them in his music. Although his writing is based on nineteenth-century sensibility and aesthetics, his works cannot be conceived without the influence of many of his twentieth-century contemporaries. One example of this, is the Fantasy on Twelve Notes of “Don Giovanni” written in 1962. Although the work is based on a twelve-tone row that Milhaud discovered in the opera’s finale, Rota writes a deeply touching work based on the series, not in a serialist manner, but in his own unique style.
Though friends with Stravinsky, Copland, Barber, Menotti, and other composers, and educated in the aesthetic of the times, Rota remained faithful to his own personal inner vision. His music is often characterized by dreamy, heartfelt melodies, tinged with yearning and melancholy, suddenly interrupted by boisterous, circus-like passages, breaking the spell woven previously.
Although criticized for his immediate, simple appeal to the listener, as if it were a fault, Rota responded in an interview:
“Look, when they tell me that in my works I am only concerned with bringing a little bit of nostalgia and a lot of good humour and optimism, I think that this is how I would like to be remembered: with a little bit of nostalgia, a lot of optimism and good humour.”¹
These are the words of a truly humble, self-effacing man, who in fact was a great classical composer of hundreds of works, including chamber, symphonic, and sacred music, songs and operas.
Nino Rota was born in Milan in 1911 and died in Rome in 1979. He was a prodigy, fostered by a musical environment. His mother Ernesta Rinaldi was a pianist, and his grandfather Giovanni Rinaldi, a composer. Like Mozart, he was composing already at the age of eight, and at the age of twelve his oratorio L’Infanzia di S. Giovanni Battista was performed in Milan and Paris to great acclaim. In the same year he was accepted at the Milan Conservatory, and three years later into the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia in Rome, where he studied with Alfredo Casella. Toscanini recommended that he should study at the Curtis Institute, which he attended from 1931 to 1932 acquainting himself with American popular music at the same time.
When Rota returned to Italy, he composed numerous works, primarily orchestral and chamber music. His writing at this time, original yet retaining traditional lyricism and form, is in sharp contrast to the Italian aesthetic then prevailing. In 1939 he became a lecturer at the Bari Conservatory, and later its director from 1950 to 1977. After World War II, however, criticism of his work grew. His music was considered to be out of touch with contemporary trends, his film music used as partial evidence. In 1952 he began his association with Fellini, and this partnership lasted until the composer’s death. They collaborated with great success on sixteen films. Rota worked with several other directors, among them Francis Ford Coppola, for whom he wrote the distinctive Godfather theme (1972) and the Academy Award-winning Godfather II score.
Throughout his successful career of writing for films, Rota kept composing theatre pieces, oratorios, concertos and chamber works, each genre enriching the others, thus producing a wonderful legacy.
Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano (1973)
The opening movement Allegro of Rota’s Clarinet Trio is in staccatissimo, chromatic in nature. The mood dissolves into a more lyrical second theme, presented as a piano solo. Exchanges among the instruments occur throughout, leading to a climax that seems to wind down, and yet ends with a bang. The second movement Andante is a lyrical duet between clarinet and cello, accompanied by rich, sometimes quirky harmonies from the piano. A slightly more unsettled section precedes the calm ending, which dies away with the clarinet’s touching melodic comment.
The third movement Allegrissimo is a full of humour, reminding one of the circus-like atmosphere of some of Kabalevsky’s writing, also reminiscent of the music Rota wrote for Fellini’s films. Arresting interruptions occur to this mayhem, ultimately returning to the lyrical theme found in the first movement. The coda becomes a free-for-all to the finish.
Improvviso in D minor for Violin and Piano (1947)
The dramatic and virtuoso Improvviso in D minor is based on Rota’s score for the movie Amanti senza amore. Rhapsodic in nature, it describes the violent emotions generated from its programmatic basis, Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata.
Toccata for Bassoon and Piano (1974)
Towards the end of his life Rota composed a bassoon concerto, and his Toccata for Bassoon and Piano is adapted from the concerto’s first movement. The characteristic contrasts of the bassoon, its ability to sound both exquisitely lyrical and mischievously humorous, seems to have motivated Rota to compose these works. The writing involves swift changes from one character to the other, the contrasts being presented in a persuasive, elegant manner.
Sonata in D major for Clarinet and Piano (1945)
Rota’s Clarinet Sonata is reminiscent of the sonatas by Brahms. Interestingly, this sonata also exists in a version for violin and piano, but the colours and timbre of the clarinet seem more suitable to the writing. The first movement, Allegretto scorrevole, is a peaceful, calm piece, introverted and reflective in mood. Flowing arpeggios and melodies help to support this feeling. The second movement, Andante, is extremely lyrical, tinged with a dark undertone. The pianissimo arpeggios in the piano, and the low register triplets which occur later, imbue the movement with an ethereal shimmer. The third movement, Allegro scorrevole, balances the first, flowing in a happier atmosphere. The warmth of the previous movements permeates this finale as well.
Fantasia in G major for Piano (1945)
The Fantasia in G major for Piano was found only recently at the Cini Foundation in Venice, where Rota’s manuscripts were in such disarray, that, by his own admission it would have taken him ten years to sort them out. The work, written in 1944–45, reflects the mood of the times in its darker, melancholy mood. It opens with a chorale-like passage, which at its conclusion dissolves into a build-up to a happier melody, its slow progression of dynamics resembling Debussy’s Prélude, the Cathédrale Engloutie. Contrasting passages abound, leading to a magnificent, lyrical Adagio, whose melody typically vacillates between keys. After a triumphant, major chordal and arpeggiated version of the melody reappears, the original melancholic theme returns, concluding with an ethereal, wistful Coda. Despite the piece being in the key of G major, it rarely stays there for any length of time, except in the Coda.
This last piece clearly shows the philosophy and generosity of the composer. In his own words: “When I am at the piano and I look for inspiration for my music, it may be that I am happy. But, as a man, how can one be happy amid the unhappiness of others? If I could make everyone around me have a moment of serenity I would do all I can. Basically, this is the sentiment that animates my music.” ²
¹ From notes by Marco Iannelli. Used with permission.
² The Other Rota (John Simon, The New Criterion 19 No 1 53-9S, 2000) Used with permission.
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