(b Milan, 3 Dec 1911; d Rome, 10 April 1979). Italian composer. He grew up surrounded by music: his mother Ernesta Rinaldi was a pianist and the daughter of the composer Giovanni Rinaldi (1840–95). At the age of eight he was already composing, and in 1923 a well-received performance of his oratorio L’infanzia di S Giovanni Battista established him as a child prodigy. In the same year he entered the Milan Conservatory, where his teachers included Giacomo Orefice. After a brief period of study with Pizzetti, he moved to Rome (1926), where he studied with Casella, and took his diploma at the Conservatorio di S Cecilia three years later. On the advice of Toscanini he studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (1931–2) with Rosario Scalero (composition) and Fritz Reiner (conducting). He formed a friendship with Aaron Copland and discovered American popular song, cinema and the music of Gershwin: all these elements were grafted on to his passion for Italian popular song and operetta.
On his return to Italy, barely into his twenties, Rota attracted the attention of audiences and critics with a large body of music, predominantly chamber and orchestral works. At a time of open warfare between innovators and traditionalists (sustained by the mood established by the Fascist régime favouring warfare), Rota’s style, in part building on the example of Malipiero, displayed original characteristics. Works such as Balli (1932), the Viola Sonata (1934–5), the Quintet (1935), the Violin Sonata (1936–7) and his first two symphonies (1935–9 and 1937–41) show Rota’s trust in an unbroken link with the music of the past. This made Rota’s idiom exceptionally and uninhibitedly responsive to the widest variety of influences, supported, as it was, by a masterly technique, an elegant manner and a capacity for stylistic assimilation. His language at this time is strikingly different from the contemporary predominant directions in Italy. For example, the symphonies draw on a middle-European, Slav symphonic tradition (Tchaikovsky, but possibly Dvořák even more so), probably absorbed during his American period and already infused with cinematic mood. He contributed to the renewal of Italian music with a body of work that has an immediacy of gesture and is rooted in a rare lyricism, built on harmonic languages, formal structures and a rhythmic and melodic idiom which sound distinctive and original. Gianandrea Gavazzeni commented of the Sonata for flute and harp (1937) that he heard ‘the voice of an Italian Ravel, archaic, intimate, the voice of one who has invented a style that did not exist before’.
After World War II, Rota’s critical fortunes altered considerably when, in the wake of the post-Webern movement, his work was increasingly judged to be anachronistic. This opinion was strengthened by his growing establishment as a film composer, held by many to be insignificant and uninvolved in the contemporary music scene. He continued, however, to write music for the concert hall and the opera house, with a constant cross-fertilization between the two areas: for a European composer this was an oblique, pioneering approach. In film music he used his eclectic inclinations and treated the boundaries of the film medium as a challenge, so producing some of the finest music of the genre.
He became a lecturer at Bari Conservatory (1939), and later its director (1950–77). In 1942, Rota began his long collaboration with the Lux Film company, directed by, among others, Guido M. Gatti and Fedele D’Amico. He created the music for around 60 films in ten years by such directors as Renato Castellani (Mio figlio professore, Sotto il sole di Roma), Mario Soldati (Le miserie del signor Travet), Alberto Lattuada (Senza pietà, Anna) and Eduardo De Filippo (Napoli milionaria, Filumena Marturano). In 1952, with Lo sceicco bianco (The White Sheik), he began an association with Fellini which lasted until the composer’s death. Of their 16 films, some achieve an extraordinary marriage of music and image, such as I vitelloni, La strada, La dolce vita, 8½, Amarcord and Il Casanova di Federico Fellini. Although it is generally thought that the director dominated the composer, the situation was more subtle and problematic as the music was required to fulfil a narrative and psychological role, frequently featured at the expense of the text itself. Fellini’s film style owes a great deal to Rota’s virtuosity, adaptability and insight. Examples include the many circus marches inspired by Julius Fučík’s Einzug der Gladiatoren and the engaging parody of Weill’s Moritat von Mackie Messer in the theme of La dolce vita. In addition, Rota’s tendency to quote, sometimes to the point of plagiarism – the theme for Gelsomina in La strada is based on the Larghetto of Dvořák’s Serenade, op.22 – was a genuine inclination which converged with Fellini’s imagery, to the point where it identified with it and lent it dignity. Rota’s film career, amounting to over 150 titles, included collaborations with Luchino Visconti (Rocco e i suoi fratelli and Il gattopardo [The Leopard]) and directors such as René Clément, Franco Zeffirelli, King Vidor, Sergei Bondarchuk, as well as on the first two parts of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.
Rota composed in a wide variety of genres, writing pieces of an almost provocative simplicity. His Ariodante (1942), audaciously 19th-century in manner, was followed by works reminiscent of operetta and vaudeville, such as I due timidi (1950), La notte di un nevrastenico (1959) and the overwhelming farce Il cappello di paglia di Firenze (1955). These works show an ability to produce instant sketches which the composer himself described as the product of his familiarity with the rhythm of film-making. Another favoured genre was that of the fairy tale as in Aladino e la lampada magica(1968) and La visita meravigliosa (1970), considered perhaps his finest score for the theatre.
The most significant orchestral works are the 3 piano concertos, the Sinfonia sopra una canzone d’amore (1947), the Variazioni sopra un tema gioviale (1953), Symphony No.3 (1956–7) and several concertos for various instruments. His piano and chamber music includes many original compositions, such as the 15 Preludes or the Due Valzer sul nome di Bach for piano (1975; re-used in Casanova), the Violin Sonata (1936–7), the String Quartet (1948–54), two trios (1958 and 1973) and a nonet (1959–77). His vocal music includes the oratorio Mysterium (1962) and the rappresentazione sacra, La vita di Maria (1968–70), in which a style derived in part from the neo-madrigalist manner of such composers as Petrassi and Dallapiccola results in an operatic-sounding eclecticism, with influences filtered through Stravinsky but rooted in other Eastern European styles (Musorgsky, for example).
Rota had frequent recourse to self-borrowing, increasingly apparent in the later film music and stage works. As a whole, Rota’s work is a dense web of continual, multiple references where – in line with the composer’s declared intention – film music and art music are allowed equal dignity. As early as Il cappello di paglia di Firenze he drew together material from preceding works, but it is particularly in a masterpiece like the ballet La strada (1966) and in the opera Napoli milionaria (1977) where self-quotation becomes a point of synthesis and revelation of his essential style. His first film score for Fellini, Lo sceicco bianco, stands out as a source-composition, a model of one of Rota’s specific musical languages; other scores for Fellini as well as Il cappello di paglia, Il giornalino di Gian Burrasca and the incidental music for Much Ado about Nothing draw material from it. La strada makes use of themes from many works, including Lo sceicco bianco, Le notti di Cabiria, Rocco e i suoi fratelli, Concerto soirée and 8½, while Napoli milionaria uses quotations from Filumena Marturano, Plein soleil, La dolce vita, Rocco e i suoi fratelli and Waterloo. Rota’s uninhibited language corresponds in aesthetic terms to this flood of quotation, and the two aspects offer new definitions of such terms as ‘new’ or ‘originality’.