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GP827 - ROTA, N.: Piano Solo Works (Complete), Vol. 1 (E. Hodgkinson)
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NINO ROTA (1911–1979)

Giovanni (Nino) Rota was born in Milan on 3 December 1911 and died on 10 April 1979 in Rome aged 67. Being surrounded by a musically literate and culturally inclusive family environment, the young Nino demonstrated an affinity for composition from an early age. When Rota was twelve his family enrolled him at the Conservatorio di musica di Milano, and the influence of composition tutors such as Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880–1968) in Milan and Alfredo Casella (1883–1947) in Rome, when Rota enrolled at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, clearly shaped Rota’s musical language. The compositional fusion of a multiplicity of stylistic influences into a cosmopolitan functional language clearly expressed by Pizzetti and Casella resulted in Rota’s own musical dialectic being one that projected a similar approach to tonal functionality supplemented with modality, a reinterpretation of ‘old’ and ‘new’ within a neo-Classical (or at times Classical modernist) approach. In 1931, Rota enrolled at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, encouraged by Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957), chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic and a close friend of Rota’s grandfather, the composer Giovanni Rinaldi (1840–1895). Whilst at the Curtis Institute, Rota was able to gain access to leading American composers such as Samuel Barber, while also gaining a greater understanding of the compositional aspects of the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams who he talked at length with when Vaughan Williams was a visiting lecturer at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, in the autumn of 1932. In 1937, after completing his PhD thesis in Milan, Rota accepted a teaching post at the Liceo Musicale in Taranto before becoming a lecturer, in 1939, at the Conservatorio Niccolò Piccinni in Bari, becoming its director in 1950, before retiring in 1977.

The core aspects of Rota’s compositional ‘fingerprints’ include the attention he gave to his pre-eminence of melodic line, a harmonic language that supports and drives the music to structural points, multiple stylistic influences that exist within an intertextual framework, and an immediacy in the projection, and importantly in the communication to the listener, of differing emotions in the music. Rota’s works could be placed within a broad neo-Classical perspective, though certain works are clearly neo-Romantic or neo-Baroque.

Rota’s Fanatsia in G (1944–45), can certainly be situated within his neo-Romantic stylistic approach. The opening section of the Fantasia demonstrated the continuing influence of Rota’s compositional tutors in that, after an initial gesture in G minor that communicates a level of restrained tension which grows in intensity, Rota juxtaposes a cadential sequence that is reminiscent of the late Renaissance, followed by two bars that are situated syntactically in the music of Schumann. The Fantasia is constructed using seven themes which are modified in textural ways as the piece progresses. Two of the themes have a more important structural function: firstly, a modal theme heroic in nature, which is heard after the initial opening section, when we change from a predominantly alternating metric pattern to a fixed one; and secondly, a tonal theme in B flat minor which exhibits a lyrical character. A fourth theme in D flat major that has a sweet folk-like character over a lilting harmonic progression moves chordally to a fifth theme of a jovial scherzando character. After a short reprise of the modal theme combined with the fifth theme, a rhythmically more active, chordally based, and idiomatically Romantic sixth theme is stated. After an interplay between themes, a final seventh theme is heard. This theme is slightly comedic in manner, firstly stated in a major key and repeated with darker colouring in a minor key, after which the heroic second theme is interspersed with the comedic theme in a modulatory sequence. The second and sixth themes are then juxtaposed and textually varied until we arrive at a reprise of the opening section, once again in the key of G minor initially. A key change to the tonic major, and the synthesis of both the opening thematic material and the heroic theme clearly communicates the optimism of a new dawn.

In 1964, Rota composed a set of 15 Preludes for piano that stylistically shares various affinities with the compositional approach of Prokofiev, a composer who Rota had long admired. The 15 Preludes explore differing implementations of ascending and descending chromatic lines, both melodically and harmonically within a lucid and articulate harmonically functional language, whilst also illustrating certain emotional traits that are key elements within Rota’s stylistic approach. Themes that are melancholic in nature (a key aspect of Rota’s style in both concert works and film) are illustrated in preludes Nos. 2, 4, 6, 9, 11, 13 and 15, sometimes in a restrained emotional sense such as in Nos. 4 and 6, or more beautifully wistful as in Nos. 2, 11 and 13, and those that have a much darker melancholic approach such as No. 9, whilst in No. 15 the darker qualities in the music impart an overwhelmingly obsessive characterisation.

Other emotional aspects include preludes that are joyous in character, No. 12, or comedic and witty, No. 7 which certainly inhabits stylistic traits of Prokofiev’s Fourth Piano Sonata in the way the harmonic underpinning of the melodic line projects functional ambiguity through the use of chromatic displacement. The comedic and witty (bordering on sarcasm at times) can also be felt in No. 3, which begins though with a four-note motif in the right hand that is reminiscent of the opening motif in Stravinsky’s ballet Apollon musagète, and in No. 14, which again has clear textural references to Prokofiev’s compositional style. A further Prokofiev influence can be felt in Prelude No. 10, the strident chordal opening interspersed with a more lyrical section that, in its continuation, seems to elicit Mahler.

Of the remaining preludes that complete the set, Nos. 1 and 8 are emotionally unsettling and agitated, each projecting an underlying tension that is never completely released, whilst No. 5 paints an impression of floating restlessness.

The 7 Pezzi difficili per bambini (‘7 Difficult Pieces For Children’), written in 1971, demonstrate Rota’s ability to combine simplicity of texture with his directness of emotional communication melodically and/or harmonically.

The whimsical and playful character of the first two pieces in the set—Salti e giochi (‘Skips and Games’), and Capriccio (‘Caprice’)—are interesting. Whilst Salti e giochi uses a semiquaver figuration surrounded by chordal movement emphasising a secundal approach, the nature of a caprice is perfectly illustrated via a polychordal implication (B minor combined with a G major chord) that leads to a chordal alternating cadential statement.

The third piece—Cantilena (‘Lullaby’)—presents us with a beautiful melodic (Aeolian mode) theme juxtaposed with a descending chromatic line situated over a recurring dominant note, a sadness underpinning the piece at the start that in the middle section moves to the brighter Dorian mode which dislocates time before returning to the opening material.

The fifth piece—Grillo notturno (‘Cricket in the Night’)—is a sublime miniature, the repeating F sharp at the start representing the cricket metrically offsetting Rota’s evocative melodic line in the left hand that illustrates the night, with the final chord engendering a feeling of inconclusiveness.

The sixth piece—Puccettino nella giungla (‘Puccettino in the Jungle’)—musically explores the fairy-tale nature of Puccettino, musically delivering comedic figuration, again reminiscent of Prokofiev.

The two largest pieces in the set—No. 4. Le scalette (‘Little Scales’) and No. 7. L’acrobata (‘The Acrobat’)—both retain the quintessential waltz figuration. In Le scalette, modality is interspersed with tonal cadential functionality. In the middle section the descending chromatic line supported by a harmonically static chordal implication does communicate a feeling of stasis as a counterbalance to the opening. Whilst in L’acrobata, chordal chromaticism underpins the simplicity of the melodic line at the opening, emotionally delivering an unsettling feeling, which is increased when the right hand plays a descending chromatic figuration before leading to a bright C major cadence.

Dr Carl Alexander Vincent

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