Notes on "The Godfather Waltz"

Having re-watched The Godfather last weekend I’ve been going around humming snippets of Nino Rota’s score ever since—the Sicilian love theme, of course, which Francis Ford Coppola has joked he is doomed to hear every time he enters an Italian restaurant, but also the waltz, which is arguably just as well-known (even to those few people who have never seen the film).  At the time that he wrote the score for The Godfather Rota was probably the most prominent living Italian film composer, having written scores for every one of Fellini’s films as well as for others by Rossellini, Visconti and Zeffirelli.  His music for The Godfather is both more romantic and darker than his scores for the Fellini films, with their bumptious jazz rhythms, or for sweeping historical epics like Visconti’s The Leopard (1963).  Rota would go on to win an Oscar for scoring The Godfather Part II after being completely ignored by the Academy for his work on the first Godfather film—a somewhat shocking statistic, given that it now stands as one of the all-time classic film scores.

Father and daughter: Don Corleone and Connie perform the "Godfather Waltz."

The waltz theme is introduced innocently enough at the conclusion of the wedding sequence.  Through with his business for the day, Don Corleone joins the wedding party to dance with his daughter Connie.  The waltz theme is thus associated with tradition—with the religious and familial rituals that punctuate the film.  At this early point we see the waltz from the perspective of outsiders; even though we have already been allowed a glimpse at the family’s inner sanctum, we believe, much like the still-innocent Michael, that whatever dirty business the family conducts is kept at a safe distance from the “sunlight world” outside.

At the end of the film’s next chapter—Tom Hagen’s visit to movie producer Jack Woltz—the waltz theme returns.  But this time it signals the Corleone family’s capacity for violence and perversity.  As Woltz awakens to find that his prize racehorse has been decapitated, the theme is heard in the form of several competing musical lines that overlap to create a demented, mischievous effect.  A hideous joke has been played on Woltz by Don Corleone, with the music acting as a kind of aural calling card (even if we are the only ones who can hear it).  

Jack Woltz's rude awakening.

Much later, in the pivotal scene between Don Corleone and Michael in the garden, the waltz theme—played first on violin, then on clarinet—is reintroduced quietly and slowly.  It sneaks onto the soundtrack much in the same way that Michael’s imminent role as godfather has crept up on him.  As Michael considers his father’s advice and sinks into his chair with an air of defeated resignation, the music tells us that his fate has been sealed. 

Michael in the garden.

By the end credits, when the waltz theme is reprised for full orchestra, it has bloomed into something seductive and macabre, particularly in the bridge (quoted below), with its churning arpeggios.  The Godfather Waltz inevitably catches everyone in its sway—a danse macabre from which no one makes it out alive.    

The waltz's bridge.

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