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Rota was born in a musical family. He was a child prodigy. His first oratorio, L'infanzia di San Giovanni Battista, he composed at the age of eleven and was performed in the early 1920s. He was first taught by Ildebrando Pizzetti at the Conservatory of Milan, and later moved to Rome, where he attended at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.Between 1930 and 1932 lived Rota in the United States, where he studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Here, he studied in Orchestration at Fritz Reiner and composition with Rosario Scalero.
In the 1940s he was mainly active as a film composer. He composed the film music for some of the Italy's most important film directors, including Luchino Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli and Mario Monicelli. The most fertile was his collaboration with Federico Fellini. He was responsible for the music of all the movies that Fellini made between 1952 and1978. He was also the composer of the first two Godfathermovies. He was for both films nominated for the Academy Award for best original music, but his first nomination was withdrawn when it became apparent that he had used the music partly from a previous film. For The Godfather II , he won the Oscar together with Carmine Coppola .
Nino Rota died in 1979 at the age of 67. His music has been used for several films yet posthumously.
He composed both works for Orchestra (among other four symphonies and several concerto's) as opera's (eight operas, including other Torquemada (1943) and Aladino e la lampada magica (1968)), five Ballets, songs and chamber music, but was mainly known for his film music by, among others, Le notti bianche (1957), War and Peace (1956), Rocco e i suoi fratelli (1960), Il gattopardo (1963), Romeo and Juliet (1968),The Godfather (1972) and all movies of Federico Fellini. He also composed for the theatre.
Of all his other works have only kept two repertoire: the ballet La strada (1966), an adaptation of the music of Fellini's famous film from 1954, and the opera Il cappello di paglia di Firenze (the Florentine straw hat), a musical farce in four acts, which had its premiere on april 21, 1955 in Palermo, conducted by Jonel Perlea. Il cappello di paglia di Firenze was performed all over the world, thanks to the famous production of Giorgio Strehler for the Piccola Scala in Milan, Grand announced for the premiere on 29 may 1958 under Nino Sanzogno. Composing Rota had cost some 15 years. The work is based on Un chapeau de paille d'Italie, avaudeville by Eugène Labiche and Marc Michel from 1851. Rota wrote the libretto with his mother Ernesta Rota. He was finished writing the piece in 1945, but completed the orchestration only ten years later when he guaranteed was sure that it would be staged in the Teatro Massimo in Palermo. One of the best performances is that with Magda Olivero, the diva of the Verismo, a 1976 recording, made in Brussels, with the Petit Salle to Elio Boncampagni as conductor.