The Godfather of music: Nino Rota's Oscar-winning score coming to Dubai Opera

We shine a light on Italian composer, whose contribution to the enduring legacy of Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Godfather’ is so often overlooked

E10EYH Sep. 09, 1972 - Composer Nino Rota, author of the theme from the film The Godfather seen at his home manifestly satisfied of the success that the music of the film is having in all the world.
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A cast of suitably macho men is associated with the genesis of The Godfather, that free-­wheeling, hot-blooded ­Hollywood epic frequently hailed as one of the greatest films ever made.

Born amid infamous infighting and industry antipathy, maverick director Francis Ford Coppola was the ­autocratic auteur at the helm, drawing liberally from the pages of a pulp-ish novel he didn't particularly like, by Mario Puzo. But, an unknown Al Pacino made his name as Michael Corleone. He starred alongside the grace-fallen gravitas of Marlon Brando as his ­father Vito – a younger version of whom was played by Robert De Niro in the sequel.

The result of these two cinematic masterpieces – from 1972 and 1974 – was a film saga that spawned a zillion imitators and revitalised the tired mafia genre for ever more, making a fan-boy legacy, which is remembered for gifted performances, gritty plotting and nuanced family drama. The Godfather's long takes, epic scope and uncompromising, audience-snubbing ethos was arguably the epitome of the fabled Hollywood Renaissance – or American New Wave – of serious cinema that peaked in the 1970s.

But there's one key element that doesn't quite fit in this all-American jigsaw. One more tenacious talent – an Italian outsider – whose contributions to The Godfather saga's enduring legacy are too often overlooked: Nino Rota, the veteran composer who scored parts one and two with those piercing, Sicilian-­flavoured melodies so memorable, their only fault being that they are parodied so often, and invoked so thoughtlessly.

A genius at work 

Rota's genius was in blending the rustic, solo instrumentation of his homeland with the symphonic orchestration of his employers, creating ornate and interwoven textures that UAE audiences have the chance to appreciate performed live by a full orchestra, with The Godfather, the latest classic to be presented "in concert" at Dubai Opera on Thursday.

The players will be under the baton of CineConcerts' founder Justin Freer, who has previously conducted the New York Philharmonic through Rota's score (and will also stick around for two performances of John Williams' music accompanying Harry Potter and the Chamber of ­Secrets, on Friday and Saturday).

Given the timelessness and melodrama of its score, The Godfather might seem the perfect movie for such an undertaking, but there's every chance concertgoers might leave feeling short-changed by the experience – ­precisely because there's so little music to hear. Re-watching the film, it's noteworthy how very little of The Godfather's epic, three-hour runtime is scored at all – and those bits are remarkably repetitive.

Aside from incidental ambient music heard at Connie's wedding and a few inconsequential mood moments (the dated jazz-noir pastiche The Pickup and pious organ of The Baptism) the bulk of Rota's work is based on just a handful of musical snippets, a few core bars of melody which, un-­orchestrated, might be sketched on a single page.

A powerful musical score

Listen carefully, and you will detect just three key themes that are repeatedly recycled and reworked, coloured and shaded. And that's the power of The Godfather's score: in blunt contrast with contemporary cinema – in which nearly every scene is semi-deliberately underlined with music no viewer will remember – Rota's score introduces and ­extrapolates themes so big, bold and brash, and wallops you over the head with them so unrelentingly, they become as memorable as any character in the drama.

Indeed, many writers have diagnosed a Wagnerian tendency in Rota’s score, identifying the three main themes as leitmotifs used to underscore contrasting characters, ideas and philosophies.

When you think of The Godfather, it's likely Speak Softly Love, aka Love Theme, comes to mind first. That's the one crooner Andy Williams scored a hit with, ­rapper Mac Dre used to channel ­gangster swagger in the track Mafioso, and rock legend Slash likes to wail on a screechy guitar.

Ironically, this longing lament is the least consequential of Rota's three main melodies – there isn't a lot of love to be found in The Godfather. It first appears halfway through the movie, cloaked in a syrupy orchestral shimmer, to introduce Michael's nostalgic escape to Sicily. Later, the tune's folkish romanticism is stripped down to bucolic guitar and accordion to signify Michael's growing affection for village beauty Apollonia, and his Old-World Italian roots.

Tellingly, Rota recycled his (considerably jauntier) score for 1958 Italian drama Fortunella for the Love Theme – a fact that caused his Oscar nomination to be withdrawn at the last minute. Oddly, despite using the same melody in The Godfather Part II, Rota was nominated – and won – the Academy Award for Best Original Score in 1976.

The Godfather Waltz

Before we see a single picture, it is Rota's score that sets the tone for the entire, 10-hour saga: The Godfather begins with an ominous pitch-black screen from which a solo trumpet emerges, wafting that unmistakable seven-note minor phrase, snaking upwards in sinister semitones. After twice rising and falling – or failing – only on the third attempt does the phrase reach its goal; a haunting high E, a palatable representation of the Corleone family's struggle to the top.

Notably this legendary introductory piece – simply The Godfather Waltz – appears here in incomplete form. Recurring repeatedly throughout the series, later revisions reveal an extra seven bars – but at the outset, the audience is left dangling by an unresolved melody, cut short by conversation impending tumult. Soon, they will remember every note of its lilting waltz, which in its form and character is said to represent the tradition and honour of the old ways, or, as many have dubbed it, Vito's Theme.

At a key scene around an hour into the film, when Vito Corleone is at his weakest – unguarded in a hospital bed, with assassins en route – his theme is again played incompletely, interrupted by a second, auxiliary melody: a gloomy, foreboding phrase, punctuated by a solemn funeral drum, which has been dubbed Michael's Theme. This juxtaposition is not ­coincidental – the transfer of power within the family is implied in the music long before the drama is played out on screen.

A stark contrast to the restrained waltz of Vito's Theme, Michael's ­shadowy dirge will come back to haunt the viewer – and the family. Rota ­continues to interweave this darker theme with Vito's, as Michael grapples his conscience into ascension as the new Godfather.

At the movie’s close, after lying to his wife about a crucial plot detail we won’t spoil, Pacino’s Michael settles into his father’s study, surrounded by well-wishers, to the strains of Vito’s waltz – but notably, as the door shuts, the tune ends suddenly mid-phrase, again unresolved. Harmony will no longer be found behind those walls.

A meeting of minds

In, 2005, The American Film Institute ranked Rota’s score for The Godfather as the fifth best in the history of Hollywood – trailing only Bernard Herrmann’s music for Psycho, Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia, Max Steiner’s Gone with the Wind and, in the top spot, John Williams’ Star Wars.

That doesn’t necessarily make The Godfather Rota’s crowning achievement, because by 1972, Rota was already well established on the other side of the Atlantic as in-vogue Italian cinema’s most distinctive, in-demand film composer, having already clocked some 180 credits over a four- decade career.

Despite this frantic work rate, Rota was in no way a jobbing journeyman, regularly alongside masters such as Luchino Visconti and Franco Zeffirelli. More so even than Coppola, Rota’s name will be forever associated with Federico Fellini, the revolutionary genius who once called Rota “the most precious collaborator I have ever had”.

Beginning with 1952’s Lo Sceicco Bianco, Rota would work on every Fellini picture until his death in 1979 – an incredible run that includes seminal masterworks such as La Strada, La Dolce Vita, 8½, Roma and Amarcord – cornerstones of world cinema which are unimaginable today without Rota’s irreplaceable contribution.

The Godfather in Concert is at Dubai Opera on Thursday, 8pm