Waltz to the death…

Nino Rota’s music for The Godfather
By Michael Beek

A lone trumpet opens Nino Rota’s score for The Godfather, just a few bars of a slow waltz and then it’s gone.  The use of music in the film is indeed relatively spare, but that makes the moments where it is used all the more powerful.  His accompaniment is one of moody underlining, punchy stings (i.e. short bursts, like musical exclamation marks) and evocative romance.

By 1972 Nino Rota had already had quite a career, creating magical and memorable scores for the films of legendary Italian directors like Fellini, Visconti, Monicelli and Zefferelli, not to mention Hollywood films for King Vidor and Edward Dmytryk.  His contribution to Francis Ford Coppola’s epic remains one of his finest and most talked about, however, and his ‘Godfather Waltz’ is as evocative of the gangster idiom today as John Williams’ Jaws theme is for Sharks.  But his music for the film is so much more than that.  The waltz is the family theme, Vito’s theme for sure, but there are two other major themes in the score, ‘The Sicilian’ and the ‘Love Theme’.  Both are centred around Michael Corleone, the first underlining his transformation into the vengeful son and heralding his new role as head of the family, while the second harkens back to the old Michael, the pure Michael, as he settles down and falls in love in Sicily.  

Rota’s love theme melody seems so perfect for The Godfather that it is hard to believe it was actually written for another film entirely.  Eduardo de Filippo’s 1958 film Fortunella featured a score by the composer and for it he created a jaunty little brass theme which is, note for note, the ‘Love Theme’ from The Godfather.  It is for this reason that the Academy withdrew Rota’s 1973 Oscar nomination for ‘Best Original Score’.  While it is the same melody, its setting is very different, slower and romantic (but of course) and it doesn’t feature that glorious bridge…  The Academy did make up for it by awarding Rota the Oscar in 1975 for The Godfather Part II, which also featured that theme, incidentally. Go figure.

Away from the thematics, Rota accents action and conversation with brooding strings, urgent brass and low piano notes, but it is done sparingly so as to emphasise inherent danger or important plot detail.  He did compose a cue called ‘The Pickup’ which is featured on the original soundtrack album, but it wasn’t used in the finished film.  Written to accompany the arrival of Tom Hagen in Los Angeles, it is a typically infectious bit of Rota with a touch of jazz, but it was felt to be too different to the rest of the score and was replaced by the song ‘Manhattan Serenade’.  Other notable musical moments not by Nino Rota include the music heard at the wedding party at the start of the film; this was written by Carmine Coppola and is made up of dance tunes in the ‘Tarantella’ and ‘Mazurka’ styles.  It is featured on the original soundtrack album as ‘Connie’s Wedding’.  That party also sees the inclusion of the song ‘I Have But One Heart’, performed for the soundtrack by Al Martino (who played Johnny Fontane, a character supposedly based on Frank Sinatra, depending on who you talk to).  The song was written by Johnny Farrow & Marty Symes and originally released in 1945.  Another song connected to The Godfather is ‘Speak Softly, Love’ and based on Rota’s ‘Love Theme’ with lyrics by Larry Kusik. The song doesn’t appear in the film, or on the original soundtrack, but it became a hit for Andy Williams in 1972.

Before his death in 1979 Rota completed three more films with Fellini: Amarcord (1973), Casanova (1976) and Orchestra Rehearsal (1978), plus John Guillermin’s Death on the Nile (1978).  It was The Godfather and The Godfather Part II that truly crowned a long and illustrious career, though, his themes playing on in Carmine Coppola’s own score for The Godfather Part III.

This article was originally written for the Royal Albert Hall programme for The Godfather – Live, and has been used with the author’s permission.