Bassoon Concerto (1977)
Nino Rota (1911–1979)

Although he is most popularly remembered as the composer of movie scores, including fifteen Fellini films and Coppola’s The Godfather, Nino Rota left an important legacy of concert music in an astonishing variety of genres. His catalog includes 13 operas, 5 ballet scores, 10 incidental scores for stage plays, 3 symphonies, 11 concertos, and dozens of other pieces for orchestras, solo piano, chamber ensembles, chorus and solo voices. Rota’s bounteous creativity and fast-paced work ethic were the qualities that made him so desirable to film directors.

Nino Rota was born in Milan in 1911 into a musical family—both his father and grandfather were professional pianists. At the age of eleven he was already receiving accolades for an oratorio he composed, and proceeded to enter prestigious conservatories in Milan and Rome before studying at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia from 1931–32, at the urging of Toscanini. While in America he developed a friendship with Aaron Copland and grew fond of American popular song and cinema, all of which impacted his musical style.

Still in his twenties, Rota returned to Italy and established himself as a composer of note, but fell out of critical favor in the 1940s because of his “anachronism”—i.e., his avoidance of serial technique and his faithfulness to melodic, accessible music.

Rota spent most of his professional career at the Bari Conservatory, first as a lecturer (1939–1949) and later as director (1950–1977). The bassoon concerto was composed from 1974 to 1977, in the midst of an onslaught of savage criticism directed at his musical conservatism. It was first performed at the Lanciano Festival in 1977, and was written for a professor of bassoon at the Bari Conservatory. Though the concerto is in the typical three-movement structure, the movement titles are unusual—Toccata, Recitativo and Tema e Variazioni.

Toccatas (from the Italian word for “touched”) are most often keyboard compositions showing the performer’s dexterity. Though the movement is in traditional sonata form (exposition-development-recapitulation), “toccata” fits as a title, as both the composer’s and the performer’s skill is tested. The diverse timbres of the bassoon are on display, as we hear both a high, jaunty first theme and a sinuous, chromatic and slower second theme which stretches an 11-note range. A clever development combines music from both themes, while the rhythmic motif of the first theme is almost always present. The recapitulation brings back the main material in different keys, and introduces various forms of imitative counterpoint, before ending in a bright coda.

The brief Recitativo—again, another term not common to the concerto repertoire, but coming from opera—is anchored around the main theme heard after the exploratory bassoon cadenza, which repeats four times; the tonal language feels as if it comes from American jazz and French impressionism, while at the same time maintaining a cunning chromatic nature.

The finale, a theme with six variations, is the longest of the three movements. The main theme presents a melody that appears simple on its introduction, but contains much harmonic subtlety as emphasized by Rota’s harmonic sleight-of-hand in taking us through several different keys. Each of the ensuing variations uses a different dance form as the motor for change. First is a delightful waltz that enjoys being off-kilter and confusing the beat. The second is a polka with the woodwinds first presenting the melody, the bassoon adding in colorful turns and melodic phrases. Third is a siciliana, a slow jig in a minor key, in which the harmonies delight in going far afield. The fourth, Scherzo, takes its Italian title (“joke”) seriously; toward the end the main theme is inverted, before we enter the fifth variation, a sarabande, a slow court dance in three with an emphasis on the second beat. This variation is the most harmonically confusing, leaving open the question of whether the center is B or B-flat. The concluding variation is a galop, a form which originated as a country dance and was brought into fashionable Parisian and Viennese society in the 19th century. A frenetic pace propels the soloist to the end of this long variation, the composer making sure to highlight the bassoonist’s stamina and agility throughout.

- Harrison Russin, Duke University Music Department