The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are two of the greatest movies ever made. The films have won Oscars, Golden Globes, Grammys, and BAFTAs, and are featured on pretty much every single one of AFI’s countless lists of the best films ever made. And while the films feature incredible performances by stars like Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, Francis Ford Coppola’s extraordinary direction, and some of the best, most quotable lines in film history (“Leave the gun, take the cannoli,” “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse”), the incredible score by Nino Rota elevates the pair of films to modern-day opera. As Awesӧme Orchestra prepares to perform The Godfather Suite on Sunday, October 8, allow Canon Fodder to be your guide through this epic story about family, power, vengeance, loyalty, and a whole lot of food. (For the purposes of this post, we’re just going to go ahead and skip Godfather Part III, which we wish Coppola had done, too.) In case it’s not already clear, I love these movies like I love a good Bolognese, so let’s dig in!
PIECE: The Godfather Suite
COMPOSER: Nino Rota
ERA: 20th C
GOOD FOR: Vengeance, Glaring sullenly out of your office window alone, Drinking Chianti moodily
The movies tell the story of the Corleone family, a fictional organized crime family based in New York. The Godfather starts just after World War II, at the wedding of Don Vito Corleone’s daughter. Vito’s devotees call him the godfather: the head of the family who controls a powerful network of underworld soldiers, lieutenants, and otherwise baaaaad people. As the film progresses, the Corleones face threats from rival families and betrayal within their own organization. It also traces the journey of Vito’s youngest son, Michael, who goes from an idealistic young man who rejects the family business to becoming its ruthless and unstoppable boss. Part II continues Michael’s journey, but intertwines it with the story of how the young Vito ascended from impoverished immigrant to powerful crime boss at the turn of the century.
Coppola turned to the brilliant Italian composer Nino Rota to bring the Corleones’ dark world to vibrant life. A prolific and iconic composer, he wrote over 170 film scores, as well as dozens of other works including operas, ballets, and symphonies. He is most recognized for his long partnership with the legendary Italian director Federico Fellini, which included his films 8 ½, La dolce vita, La strada, and Amarcord. Fellini himself once called Rota “the most precious collaborator I have ever had.” His style was a pastiche of many forms and genres. By incorporating folk songs, jazz, and other nonclassical musical forms, his scores imbued films with a strong sense of time and place—his music informed the plot as much as the movies’ costumes and sets.
Rota’s scores to The Godfather films are among his more serious—they don’t have the carnival-like atmosphere that his work for Fellini often possessed. But the music establishes the mood and setting of The Godfather from the blackout before the titles even appear. Rather than using his score to directly narrate the action of the plot, Rota composes leitmotifs (or musical themes) for characters and concepts that return throughout the films. These themes help illustrate the larger issues and emotions behind the action taking place on screen. The Godfather Suite features five of the most important themes of the films. Let’s take a listen, shall we?
Number 1: The Godfather Waltz
The “Godfather Waltz” is the primary theme of the movies. It represents not only Vito, but the power and loneliness that comes with being the Don. It starts with a single melancholy trumpet melody in C minor, the plaintive key often associated with the so-called heroic struggle (thanks, Beethoven). From the get-go, the melody is constantly repeating itself: the trumpet plays its first phrase once, then again a bit lower, then a third time, when it is finally able to progress and resolve. The single, plaintive trumpet embodies the singularity of Vito’s—and then Michael’s—existence. At the end of the day, the godfather stands alone.
The waltz then abruptly shifts into another key, D minor, and the trumpet is now accompanied by a mandolin, harp, and percussion that establish the oompah-pah of the waltz’s traditional three-four time signature. The inclusion of the mandolin and, in the full film score, the accordion gives the piece a pastoral, folksy sound, instantly evoking the Corleones’ Sicilian heritage. As the waltz continues, the theme continues to repeat and journey from instrument to instrument, creating a sense of circularity. Combined with that oompah-pah, the waltz becomes reminiscent of a never-ending carousel, and embodies the relentless, never-ending pull of the family enterprise. In the end, the waltz simply comes to a stop after one last repetition of the theme, and you’re left with the sense that somehow, somewhere, the music is still playing.
Number 2: The Immigrant
If the “Godfather Waltz” represents Vito Corleone as the established head of a powerful syndicate, “The Immigrant” is his younger self: a young orphan traveling to America by himself in The Godfather Part II. But where “The Godfather Waltz” began with its single, lonely trumpet, “The Immigrant” creates an immediately more lush and populated world. It’s kicked off by an oboe herald that is immediately joined with a much more substantial string section than the waltz. It then slips into a short, jazzy interlude featuring clarinets, flutes, and oboe that fits with young Vito’s arrival in New York. “The Immigrant” then returns to its lush string sound.
The dense instrumentation evokes the duality of the massive migration that took place in the early twentieth century: that America was vast and spacious, but the day-to-day existence of migrants was extremely close-quartered. Once again, “The Immigrant” features the mandolin, which immediately transports us to the small Sicilian town of Corleone, where Vito’s parents were brutally murdered by the local crime boss, and reminds the viewer that for the Italian immigrants confined to and isolated in small sectors of the city, New York was in many ways just an extension of the villages and towns they had left behind.
Number 3: Kay’s Theme
Michael’s wife is what we in the business would call “long-suffering.” When she marries the youngest Corleone, she has absolutely no idea what she’s getting into: she doesn’t realize he’s become a powerful force within the family business, she doesn’t know that he abandoned her two years ago because he had murdered two people in public and run away to Sicily, and she definitely doesn’t know that while he was there, he married another woman who was subsequently blown up in an attempt on his life.
By the time this theme appears in The Godfather Part II, their marriage is—understandably!—in shambles. Her theme opens with a repeated interval that strikes fear into the hearts of counterpoint students everywhere: parallel fifths.
The emptiness of the chords, played by the flutes and celesta, reflects the isolation of Kay’s existence: she’s stuck in an unhappy marriage, tied to a dangerous and cold husband whose lifestyle inevitably endangers both Kay and her children.
The instrumentation and style of Kay’s theme doesn’t evoke Italy the same way the other pieces do, a nod to Kay’s WASP-y background. From the entrance of the piano midway through, the theme takes on a much jazzier feel than the other movements. But of course, inevitably, the “Godfather Waltz” interrupts and hijacks the rest of Kay’s theme, once again demonstrating the invasive, all-consuming nature of Michael’s position. Kay is set on an unavoidable collision course with her husband.
Number 4: Love Theme
In many ways, the “Love Theme” is more associated with The Godfather than its actual main theme. It was so popular, it inspired not one but two chart-topping singles: the first an easy-listening piano version by Roger Williams, and the second a full-on pop song by Andy Williams with lyrics and everything. The theme appears midway through the film, when Michael escapes to Sicily. There, he meets and instantly falls in love with Apollonia, and the “Love Theme” accompanies both their courtship under the ever-watchful eyes of the village elders and their happy but ultimately tragic marriage.
This piece is just crazy romantic. Rota here brings to life the passion that instantly consumes Michael; the theme is much sweeter than any that precede it. It sounds like something that would be playing in the background of a really romantic Italian restaurant (one that presumably doesn’t know how this love affair ends). It’s a gorgeous piece—but man, you really feel bad for poor Kay now when she’s compared to this, don’t you?
One other interesting tidbit about this theme: Rota had used it in a previous score, for Fellini’s Fortunella. Because it was reused, the Academy Awards revoked Rota’s nomination for best score, which, like, come on…
Number 5: End Titles
The end titles of The Godfather Part II start with a theme we haven’t yet heard in the suite: Michael’s. And it’s fitting, as the end of the movie portrays Michael’s now-solitary existence: his brothers are dead (hell, he just had the last one murdered) and his wife has left him. This theme first appeared in The Godfather after Michael brutally kills two enemies in a restaurant, the first domino that falls on his way to becoming the head of the Corleone family.
The titles then shift through the main themes of the film, touching upon “Kay’s Theme” and the exuberant themes of Vito Corleone’s early life before becoming the godfather, and finally, inevitably, the original “Godfather Waltz” returns with its relentless oompah-pah. But the theme abruptly cuts before it’s able to fully resolve, and the oompahs fall away unfinished. We’re left with an unanswered question, knowing that, somewhere, the carousel is still going.
Note: In the version above, the main title theme (aka the “Godfather Waltz”) plays right before “The Immigrant.” “The Immigrant” starts after the waltz is finished at 1:00.
Canon Fodder is partnering with Awesöme Orchestra to bring you content about their upcoming performances. Awesöme Orchestra Collective brings together Bay Area music lovers for orchestral adventures. They hold drop-in reading sessions that are open to all musicians and free for everybody in an informal setting. You can hear them perform The Godfather Suite, along with Tara’s Theme from Gone with the Wind and Bernard Herrmann’s totally bad-ass Vertigo Suite, on Sunday, October 8, at BAMPFA, 2155 Center St., Berkeley, CA 94720.