scorecardresearch Skip to main content

A cinematic symphony from Nino Rota

Composer Nino Rota, circa 1972.Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

From its earliest days, cinema has borrowed from the canon of Western classical music for soundtracks; eventually, film scores began to make their way into the concert hall. But on Dec. 9, the Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra presents a work with an unusually serpentine path between and around such distinctions: Nino Rota’s “Sinfonia sopra una canzone d’amore” (“Symphony on a Song of Love”).

Born in 1911, Rota was a prodigy who composed his first opera at the age of 13; by the late 1930s, he had completed two symphonies. In the early 1940s, he began to sketch another, in a decidedly romantic vein, but never finished it; the music, he recalled, left him “unconvinced, stylistically.” Meanwhile, Rota had begun composing for films — and his workload mushroomed with the post-World War II rejuvenation of the Italian film industry. Rota ended up mining the sketches for two early efforts: “La donna della montagna” (directed by Renato Castellani) and “The Glass Mountain,” director Henry Cass’s popular 1949 British melodrama.


Rota’s working relationship with another director, Luchino Visconti, fully resurrected the dormant symphony. Visconti liked having musical classics in his films, and he would sit and listen while Rota played through warhorses on the piano, waiting until inspiration struck. In the early 1960s, Rota and Visconti were going through the exercise in preparation for the director’s latest project, his adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel “Il gattopardo” (“The Leopard”). Rota, on a whim, began playing the slow movement from his long-abandoned symphony; Visconti announced that the theme had been found.

Rota thought the music worked for the film because, like Visconti’s other, classical-repertoire soundtrack choices, it too was pre-existing — an artifact layered on what Rota called the “abstract duration” of Visconti’s scenes. (Rota’s wasn’t the only old-but-new music used in “Il gattopardo”: The climactic ball scene featured an unpublished waltz by Giuseppe Verdi.) Released in 1963, “Il gattopardo” was a success, so much so that Rota fashioned a concert suite from the score. But the working-out of the old themes, perhaps, reminded Rota of their symphonic potential; and finally, in June 1972, the completed, fully-orchestrated “Sinfonia sopra una canzone d’amore” received its first hearing.


The performance closely followed the March 1972 premiere of some of Rota’s most familiar music: his score to Francis Ford Coppola’s film “The Godfather.” That music, too, was partially recycled (Rota had previously used the main theme in a 1958 film called “Fortunella”), resulting in controversy when Rota’s Academy Award nomination was pulled because of it. But, like so many dramatically inclined composers before him — Handel, Rossini, Verdi — Rota knew a good melody, and was determined to get as much use out of it as he could.

The Arlington-Belmont Chorale and Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra perform music of Charles Gounod, Nino Rota, Robert Shaw and Robert Russell Bennett, and Javier Busto, Dec. 9, 3:30 p.m., at the First Parish Unitarian-Universalist Church, 630 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington. Tickets $15; students and seniors $10; children $5.

Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at