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The Godfather Waltz: The Most Dangerous of Dances

Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four. She is now a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.

The Unmistakable Title of The Godfather

The Unmistakable Title of The Godfather

Who Wrote The Godfather Waltz?

One small phrase of the music, you’re instantly transported to deathly Sicilian rivalry. The music is as famous as the story, the actors, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, the author Mario Puzo. Go on then, who wrote that haunting music? Any takers? Nino Rota.

Rota was an old hand at writing film scores. He had already worked with Fellini, Zeffirelli and Visconti. His music for The Godfather was his first collaboration with Francis Ford Coppola. None have earned their place in film score history more memorably as with The Godfather Waltz.

On the grounds of instant recognition it ranks with the likes of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Psycho, Jaws. It’s also up there for creating the backdrop in front of which the film is acted. Rota must have written his music having watched the action, or read the script and perhaps the book. Whatever method he favoured he produced the perfect encapsulation of characterisation in a quirk of instrumentation.

There's More to Say

Film critics seem to have exhausted every written phrase possible about the Oscar-winning movie, and from every conceivable angle. Words dissecting, disseminating, praising, aiming to shine in the glory of the movie’s plaudits.

What is there that’s new to say about that iconic film, The Godfather? It’s been around for the last forty years. If you've never seen the film or read the book, or never even heard of it, one might say you must be a hermit living in a cave at the furthest limits of the back of beyond.

But there is something more to say, and it's about The Godfather Waltz. And yes you can find articles mentioning it, but how deep do they analysise it? The features tend to be short and avoid the real business of why it is such a moving and evocative piece of music. I am about to do just that but recommend you listen to it first.

The Trumpet is The Godfather

Just researching the original instrumentation was a struggle. It took hours sifting through arrangements and sheet music to finally alight on it.

Out of silence, a solo trumpet enters the scene. This is no heraldric fanfare. It is the most melancholy of statements. Totally alone it sings a mournful folk tune reflecting the peasant background of the main protagonist. The trumpet is the Godfather.

The film itself opens this way. The trumpet's lonely pronouncement stark against the blackness foreshadows deference, the implications of that deference and the veiled expectations that accompany it. The blood-red rose in the Godfather's buttonhole is no accident. Metaphorically he wears it all the time, even if it's not on outward display.

Nino Rota has chosen this instrument with extraordinary care. Its stereotypical association is with male players, even more so at the time it was written and it is the highest in pitch of the orchestral brass family. Strong, piercing through any amount of instrumentation a composer might throw at it, the trumpet can always be heard. Top dog. But top dog at a grave price. During the first phrase there is no-one else present in the soundscape. It's a solitary place to be, being a godfather.

Nino Rota with Riccardo Bacchelli, winner of the Nobel prize for literature and the conductor Bruno Moderna. Rota is on the left.

Nino Rota with Riccardo Bacchelli, winner of the Nobel prize for literature and the conductor Bruno Moderna. Rota is on the left.

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Awards For The Godfather

Nino Rota's score, featuring The Godfather Waltz, won several awards including Golden Globe, Grammy and British Academy Film Awards, If any work deserved recognition, this soundtrack is surely up there with the pick of the best. It has as many layers as an onion, and is just as likely to make you weep.

Keys in The Piece

For this trumpet solo, the key Nino Rota chooses is C minor. It is significant that it introduces the opening scene. An associate of the Godfather's is complaining about a judge's dismissive sentence handed down to his daughter's assailants and the Godfather's grudging agreement to restore honour to his family - with enough of a threatening hint to assure him that aid is not freely handed out, there may be a price to be paid in the future for this level of intervention.

This opening theme has all the hallmarks of an oppressive dirge. The key is C minor, a brooding key if ever there were one. Beethoven loved this key, using it for his Pathetique sonata for piano and his fifth symphony.

C minor is a key with three flats. Keys with flats sound darker than those with sharps. When you hear a piece of music even if you don't know what the key is, and most people won't, there is something in the physics of sound that causes the listener to feel as if they are being pulled down. When you listen to The Godfather Waltz you will almost certainly frown, your eyebrows and eyelids will be cast down to the floor.

But C minor also conveys drama in the same way as the first five bars of Beethoven's fifth symphony bears testament to, however, the dramatic quality conveyed in The Godfather Waltz is played out with a deftly subtle touch. The first note of the solo is the keynote, C, and lilts from side to side, down then up, Why then, does it not sound gentle?

What you perceive is the smell of Sicily, the oregano, the rosemary, the scorched arid landscape on which little will flourish. The theme has seeped in with a hint of menace, blood blotting the conductor's score.

If you play a scale of C minor, the next note up after C is D. An ordinary D. Not in this case. Nothing is ordinary here. In a cruel-sounding twist, the D has been flattened, a warning finger squeezing down on the C below, pressing down on all comers. The darkness of the key matches the gloom of the Godfather's office. C minor with an added minor, shifting the conventional out of true, bending it to the will of the padrone, a touch of stricture to let the listener understand this is a character to take notice of.

Of course, there is no conventional here. The Godfather Waltz is an anthem to a single rogue male who makes no concession to any principle other than the one he dictates. The principle of total loyalty at any cost. The ultimate cost.

Nino Rota, Child Prodigy

As is the case with so many composing child prodigies, Nino Rota's parents were musical. Not only was he writing music at a young age, and honing his craft under tutor Alfredo Cassella, he was also conducting. After winning a scholarship in 1930 to the Curtis Institute in the USA, Rota studied with the highly respected conductor Fritz Reiner but returned to his native Milan to take a degree in literature.

A photo of Nino Rota aged about 12 years of age playing the piano.

A photo of Nino Rota aged about 12 years of age playing the piano.

Instrumentation For The Waltz

When Rota orchestrated his Godfather Waltz you wouldn't expect the key to change. But it does, from C minor, up a tone to D minor, the key chosen by Mozart for his requiem, as did Schubert when he penned the Death and the Maiden string quartet.

As with C minor, D minor has an air of theatricality about it. Due to harmonics, it has a penetrating quality - listen to the opening of Beethoven's Ode to Joy and it's as terrifying as anything you might hear, or the finale of the opera Tosca by Puccini where the eponymous heroine flings herself off the battlements to her death. You'll be hard-pressed to beat that for a tragic climax unless you count Don Giovanni's descent into hell in Mozart's opera. Now a tone higher the trumpet pours out its edgy monologue, shortened to sixteen bars.

Slowly, deliberately, following the indefatigable austerity of the opening motif, Rota allows more instruments to join the trumpet.

Only three are invited. The mandolin and accordion, instruments associated with folk tradition, not worthy enough to be integrated into the sophistication of the orchestral ranks, are two of them. The mandolin nervously strums to all intents and purposes in the background, though when you listen intently, it is shadowing the trumpet - as is the accordion. They're on the same level, literally, representing the peasant origins of The Godfather, lining the trumpet melody with a hint of fear. Underneath, The Godfather's staunch ally, the clarinet, twirls around with a sombre folk-like countermelody like a snake under the stave of the trumpet, the perfect complement.

The pared-back instrumentation lends transparency to the music; the theme is everything. A full orchestra isn't getting a look in here. This is for the select few, not a world where anyone can join in. They have to possess the right credentials. Loyalty is unequivocal. Quiet pizzicato (plucked) strings provide a thin platform for the three instruments to swirl to on the dance floor, carefully, deliberately. The trio takes the tune to the next level, shifting upwards, almost imperceptively in terms of pitch. A highering of the stakes, perhaps.

The Godfather Soundtrack

Other Film Scores

Perhaps Nino Rota had a penchant for feuds. He composed the soundtrack for the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli film of Romeo and Juliet. The Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists awarded it the silver ribbon.

Resumption of the Main Theme

After the first part of the melody has been played, the penetratingly plangent timbre of the oboe is allowed to take the stage, restless, ill at ease. Rota pinches out the flattened E falling back to D from the melody to use it as a snatched motif, played over and over. It serves to screw down on the tension that is barely beneath the surface. If you were to convert it to a visual image it could be conjured up as a cat clawing, clawing, clawing with a front paw.

The original theme now resumes. This time the clarinet is handed the main role, high up in its reedy register, not lower down where it can nestle in mellower tones. Rota could easily have substituted an untrained female singer, a raw voice wailing without vibrato, straight out of a Sicilian wake. At the end of the phrase, the music slows down and comes to a halt.

When it resumes, the mood has shifted up a gear. The strings twang out an introductory um-pah-pah, um-pah-pah as loud as they can plucking on metal-covered gut with a sidekick of snare drum to chivvy them along. They continue with unbending rigidity, underpinning the slow swing of the waltz.

The accordion weaves in and out of the musical action as a background of barely imperceptible humming lays on a sense of the faraway. The trumpet has resumed its rightful place as leader. The setting may be America but the south of Italy is only a step away along with the pseudo feudal system where the Capo demanded total allegiance. The pact of silence - and it is telling that the Italians have a word for it, omerta - is a measure of that fealty; the reward is the protection of the family. Honour is sustained. In New York, they are continuing the same deadly game, dancing puppets on the end of the string.

The henchmen, the clarinet and oboe, quietly and reflectively wind this infinitely sorrowful waltz to a close, yet they leave the listener in no doubt that the hairs on the back of the neck it arouses through exquisitely beautiful harmonies could just as easily be heckles raised on The Godfather's.

Screenplay of the Godfather Part Two

Screenplay of the Godfather Part Two

Rhythm in The Piece

And I haven't even mentioned the rhythm yet. Waltz rhythms use three beats to a bar. Unlike music written in two or four where you can walk to it - two beats: WALK walk, WALK walk, four beats: WALK walk walk walk, WALK walk walk walk - where there are three you can swing: ONE two three, ONE two three. Swing like a pendulum from side to side. But the pendulum is above your head and you are standing in a pit every bit as terrifying as Edgar Allen Poe's. It is a rustic parody of a simple folk melody, though there is nothing simple about the craftmanship here. It is deliberate, calculated.

Under the guise of the solo trumpet, the godfather has set foot on the dance floor from which vantage point he is able to observe all interested parties arranged around the edge of the room. Family, associates, those who betray.

The tune swirls in with passionate cruelty, dangerously focussed, as if the protagonist is eyeballing every step you make on the dance floor of the Mafia world. A world about as far removed from the opulence of the Viennese ballroom, where ladies and gentlemen of the moneyed class float around with elegance and good manners.

The Godfather Waltz. Why a Waltz?

So why did Nino Rota choose a waltz? It takes two to complete the dance, one lead couple and a large space littered with lesser participants and the sitters arranged round the edge, waiting for their card to be marked. Tread on someone else's toes in the Sicilian quarter of New York and you're likely to lose your life.

What is so provoking about this theme is how Rota punctures the subcutaneous layers of the human psyche, carefully adding to the orchestration to increase the sound, drawing the listener into the privileged circle with menace bathed in exquisite beauty. The writing is so taut you could be mistaken for thinking the music gains momentum, but the speed remains absolutely constant. Every instrument is subjugated to a greater or lesser degree. It is the trumpet calling the tune in this tensest of waltzes.

© 2017 Frances Metcalfe

Please Comment on my Hub

Robert Sacchi on January 20, 2019:

You're welcome. It definitely is a great article.

Frances Metcalfe on January 20, 2019:

Thank you so much Robert. The Godfather Waltz is probably my favourite article and the tune remained as an earworm many months after I wrote it.

Robert Sacchi on January 19, 2019:

Wow! I don't know much about music but I love the way you explained the working of The Godfather Waltz. The music of Godfather I and II is fantastic. I goes a large way to putting the audience in the movie's setting.

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