Music married to film: The magic of Nino Rota

Damrosch Park, seen here, is the setting for July 27’s musical tribute to Italian composer Nino Rota. | Photo by Kevin Yatarola

BY GERALD BUSBY | Italian composer Nino Rota’s most haunting and iconic film scores are being presented in concert, July 27 in Damrosch Park, as part of the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival. “Hal Willner’s Amarcord Nino Rota” — a reference to music producer Willner’s 1981 tribute album, “Amarcord Nino Rota (I Remember Nino Rota)” — will feature music written for Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” and “Juliet of the Spirits,” as well as Coppola’s “Godfather” films. These classics are unimaginable without Rota’s music.

Setting moving pictures to music is like setting poetry to music, and Rota’s film scores for Fellini and Coppola are perfect examples. It vivifies the images on screen, while simultaneously creating a context within which the viewer perceives meaning. Nino Rota’s film music, provided it’s clearly amplified, loses none of its effectiveness when heard in the open air, as it will be in the Damrosch Park Bandshell. Rota’s music creates its own emotional environment.

In his Norton Lectures at Harvard, Leonard Bernstein said that the next note a composer writes in a musical phrase should be both inevitable and a surprise. Effective musical phrases are a reminder that perception itself is a creative act that transcends emotional reactivity. Rota demonstrates this vividly in his scores for the “Godfather” films, using just four pitches in a seven-note phrase to personify loss, suffering, and vengeance. An origin of this raw emotional music is, I think, Muslim calls to prayer that emanate from the voices of muezzins in minarets. This unrestrained singing from the gut, produced instinctively by tension in the throat and larynx, is like no other human utterance — it’s a primal scream that emerges from the viscera with twisted emotional drama.

Rota also draws heavily on circus music. Especially in his scores for Fellini, there’s a bouncing, playful, primal energy that propels the action forward.   It also reminds us that we’re just characters acting out our individual soap operas for others to mock or admire. Rota sets this mood perfectly in “Juliet of the Spirits” with an oom-pah, oom-pah bass line, moving at a steady walking pace. This familiar tuba figure alternates between “do” and “sol.”

“Hal Willner’s Amarcord Nino Rota” is musical tribute to the Italian composer, known for his work with Fellini and Coppola. | Photo courtesy of Lincoln Center

The instrumentation is simple: melodeon, trumpet, trombone, tuba, and percussion. Rota’s textures make use of musical clichés — phrases that everyone recognizes, but, as Leonard Bernstein said, even though you think you’ve heard it before, it still surprises you. The music suddenly takes off, double time, as if announcing a new circus act that is clamoring for attention as it enters the center ring. Calliope-like textures cascade chromatically down the scales, highlighted by the tinkling bell-like sounds of the xylophone. It’s breathless, almost frenetic, and it never fails to reach a climax at exactly the right time. The rhythms, though faster, are still in two.  You’re never out of step dancing to a duple rhythm.

As I write this, I’m listening to Rota’s film music for “Juliet of the Spirits.” Cues are built on a binary form: sequence and cadence, which gives them a definite sense of designation and completion. This isn’t equivocal music at all — it’s very specific with reference to the images it’s ornamenting. It incites an immediacy, a lively presence, that is irresistible. Rota’s cues are “theme” music, in the formidable tradition of Hollywood films, where the theme is often a song that becomes as famous as the movie. An example of this is David Raskin’s “Laura,” composed for the 1944 film of the same name, directed by Otto Preminger. Raskin freely quotes, within his original film score, from Ravel’s “Daphne and ChloéSuite No. 2.” Ravel’s music is the inspiration for “Laura.” It’s unforgettable.

Rota’s score for Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” is married to the film. Once the film enters your consciousness, you can’t hear the music without recalling the images, and vice versa. The same is true for Rota’s music for “The Godfather” — the quintessential expression of intense yearning. The ways the creative energies of Coppola’s film and Rota’s music intermingle isn’t easily understood or explained, but they’re felt as keenly as the most intimate, thrilling sex.

Fri., July 27, 7:30pm at Damrosch Park (62nd St., btw. Amsterdam & Columbus Aves.). Free. Seating is first come, first served, and gates open one hour prior to the performance. This event is part of Lincoln Center Out of Doors, a festival offering of world-class music, dance, film, and more from July 24 to Aug. 12. For the full schedule, visit

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