Avril-Mai 2003
[An analysis of Orchestra Rehearsal, 1979]
by Alexandre Tylski


With the current state of affairs in the world and the recent death of Italian composer Carlo Savina - also conductor for Philippe Sarde (Polanski's Tess, 1980; Annaud's The Bear, 1989) and Nino Rota (Coppola's The Godfather, 1972; Fellini's Casanova, 1976), one movie deserves to be unearthed at last. This unfairly forgotten film is Federico Fellini's Orchestra Rehearsal (1979). It depicts the artistic and political struggle between a (German) conductor and his (Italian) orchestra. A movie about music, absolute power, terror and humanity.

 This film is also Nino Rota's last score (he passed away after the recording sessions) and it is consequently the ultimate work of Felini-Rota - after several masterpieces such as 8 1/2 (1963), Roma (1972), Amarcord (1974). "The most precious collaborator I have ever had, I say it straightaway and don't even have to hesitate, was Nino Rota," Fellini claimed, "between us, immediately, a complete, total, harmony."* Orchestra Rehearsal takes place in a music studio from beginning to end, and all the characters are musicians. Could there be a better supreme achievement ?

 Usually, even in fiction or documentary movies about music, the orchestra and musicians are just part of the set, merely background. Here, they are the heroes, they all have their lines and each one of them has an importance in the story. This movie is a rich and vibrant tribute to music and its performers (Carlo Savina was in fact hired on this film to show the main actor how to conduct the orchestra). Fellini's truly underrated Orchestra Rehearsal is likely one of the most exciting films ever made on the art of music - a topical movie able to enlighten us all in these turbulent times.

 The chaos as the beginning

 Showing the musicians in an orchestra was the desire of Fellini in making this motion picture. Fellini, in effect, confessed to French film critic Michel Ciment: "When I attended the scoring sessions of my own films, I was always struck, amazed and also moved because I felt each time like I was the witness to a miracle. Very different persons would arrive in the music studio with their various instruments but also with their personal problems, their bad mood, their illness, sometimes their radio." **

 As soon as the opening titles of Orchestra Rehearsal come through, the idea of chaos appears to us as the very main theme. Fellini did not begin his movie with the traditional musical overture (as he often did with Rota), or the sounds of musicians warming up their instruments before the show. While the names of the performers and technicians are presented on the screen, one can hear the noises of urban traffic (although none of the film takes place outside).

It is thus a sort of "melting pot" made of city sounds, with firemen's sirens, roars of motorcycles, car tires skidding noisily on the asphalt, tramway bells, the motors of planes. Fellini makes us imagine here an army prepared to go off to war. All these sounds are eventually mixed up. Fellini compares in a way the circus of contemporary life to the circus of movie making and scoring sessions.

 The impatient drivers that we hear in the opening credits of Orchestra Rehearsal are in a sense the musicians of the orchestra we are about to discover and the means of transport are the musical instruments.

Immediately, the magic of the sound/image relationship is already effective. In a long interview given to Giovanni Grazzini, Fellini admitted: "As for me, I feel a personal need to give the same importance to sounds and to images, creating a sort of polyphony."* But it does not mean, like in most of today's films, that it must have as many sounds as there are images. It is in fact not the idea of chaos that really interests Fellini, but, more probably, the idea of polyphony, the true Ariane's thread in Orchestra Rehearsal.

 The film opens as a war alert; an announced danger and an upcoming apocalypse. But this opening "war of sounds " (it is something of a techno-like musical overture) reveals perhaps also the difficult relationship between master Federico Fellini and the grand world of sounds.

 Fellini and Rota, two worlds

 When you research Fellini, it clearly appears that Music had never been vital to him, a rather surprising fact for such an Artist. "In private", Fellini said, "I must confess I prefer not listening to music. Music conditions me, worries me, possesses me as a reproachful voice that tortures me because it shows me a dimension of peace, of harmony and completion in which I feel excluded, exiled. Music is cruel."* Fellini's Orchestra Rehearsal deeply tackles this personal suffering, as the amazing confession of over-sensitivity vis-a-vis music from one of the most musical film makers ever.

 "I cannot listen to someone tapping a table with his or her fingers: I am immediately disturbed, struck by this sort of breath led by rhythm." Fellini continued : "As for Nino Rota, he was able to hear another tune in the middle of an empathic fanfare of his. He was in a way an overwhelming fakir."*

 In contrast to Fellini, Nino Rota (composer on Fellini's films since 1952) had, as for him, a "non-relationship" with the world of images - hence maybe the absolute complementarity between both men! Fellini explained: "He [Rota] had a "geometric imagination"; a musical approach worthy of "celestial spheres". He thus had no need to see images from my movies. When I asked him about the melodies he had in mind to comment one sequence or another, I clearly realized he was not concerned with images at all. His world was inner, inside himself, and reality had no way to enter it."* Rota seemed to be so far from the film itself that it might bring him a total freedom of creation.

 This amused Fellini who, after the editing of his films, recorded Rota's music; their artistic duo then turned into a charming old couple: "After having put so many feelings into my movie, so much emotion, so much light, he [Rota] would turn back to me and ask me (about the main actor of the film): "Who is this guy?" "It is the main actor", I answered. And he would say, on a reproachful tone: "And what does he do? You never give me explanations." Our friendship was really based on sounds." *

 Many critics have talked about the artistic harmony between Fellini and Rota, but this unique, colorful harmony was actually based on a huge artistic conflict: Fellini and Rota belonged to two different families, the world of sounds and the world of images. Can love and friendship be explained ?

 The worlds of the instrumentalists

 One sometimes hears anecdotes about the more or less important differences between certain movie makers and their film composers, but there are at times also some inner problems among the musicians of the orchestras, as Fellini shows in Orchestra Rehearsal. "Before writing the script", Fellini noted, " I interviewed a lot of musicians, a good hundred maybe. I met the greatest Italian soloists. I managed to keep in mind their crazy identification with their instrument." (1) Here are a few extracts from some musicians' thoughts.

 THE FLUTE. In the film, the woman flutist sees the flute as the closest instrument to the human voice. "Ironically", she says, "the chorus consider themselves as a very instrument." To another woman, "the flute can tame wild beasts", and she reminds everyone that Apollo "awoke the dead with a flute." "It is the instrument of spells, a solar and lunar instrument", she claims.

 THE TROMBONE. "An irreplaceable instrument used for accompanying the clowns when they fall on the ground" the trombone player indicates. "It is also the angels' instrument. In the Renaissance paintings, there were often angels playing the trombone sent by God Himself perhaps."

 THE PERCUSSION SECTION. One percussionist complains about the other musicians because they take too much time warming up their instruments. The timpanist blames the piano for being a "chatterbox". "In Italy", says another player, "one pays too much attention to the singers and not enough to rhythm. Neapolitan people, though, have a good sense of rhythm, they are the best percussionists! Who invented the tarantella? The Neapolitan!"

 THE FIRST VIOLIN. "It is the brain, the heart of the orchestra." a man claims. "And the clarinet is the penis!" another musician cries. "No, the violin is the most virile instrument of the orchestra because it is penetrating, phallic! It is not feminine but lovesick, vibrant and always actual ; it is still the favorite instrument at conservatoire. It is the diva of the orchestra, the star! "

 Fellini and Rota at work

 After all these "mini-portraits" Fellini films the arrival of the conductor. The musicians sit down and start to play. Four superb pieces have been composed by Nino Rota for the film: "Twins in front of a mirror"; "Little, melancholic laughs"; "Little waiting" and "Grand galop." Fellini confessed: "Working with him [Rota] was a true joy. You could feel so well his ability to create that he would communicate to you a sort of exhilaration. That was so powerful of a feeling that it gave me the impression of writing the music on my own." *

 Fellini of course has never written music, but he used to shoot his films with it, as if music was to him like a non-verbal explanation for his actors and actresses. "When I shoot a film", Fellini admitted, "I am accustomed to playing certain discs on the set. Music can condition a scene, bring a certain rhythm to it, suggest a solution, or a character's attitude." Fellini often used for instance "Titine" song from Chaplin's Modern Times (1936). "These melodies are linked to precise emotions, to secret themes of mine."*

 But how did Rota write his original scores for Fellini's movies ? In fact, Rota used to improvise some "tunes" on the piano according to Fellini's first impressions. Sometimes, after a couple of hours, the director would suddenly cry: "Yes! This is it, this is the music! "Fellini explained: "That was how the new motifs of the film came to life. I was immediately captivated and I forgot what the old songs I used on the shooting had suggested me."* In other words, Rota was each time far better than any "temp-track"!

 "He [Rota] was someone who had a rare quality belonging to the world of intuition. Just like children, simple men, sensitive persons, innocent people, he [Rota] would suddenly say dazzling things"* Fellini claimed. "As soon as he arrived, stress disappeared, everything turned into a festive atmosphere; the movie entered a joyful, serene, fantastic period, a new life."*

 A definition of music: quest for the lost world

 In one scene from Fellini's Orchestra Rehearsal, you can see the conductor (played by Baldwin Baas) bringing "life" and "breath" to the music. After several takes, the musicians eventually manage to perform the piece with intensity. The music is performed with such passion that there is an impression of fever everywhere in the studio. Some musicians even get up to remove their sweaters very fast while the others keep performing wildly Rota's energetic music. In fact, the musicians remove their clothes and transform themselves, "sloughing" their skin and changing their voice, metamorphosing and coming back to life.

 In his book La Leçon de Musique (2), French essayist Pascal Quignard, often concerned with music origins, wrote: "Music composition, and its charm, notably lies in a passionate and very intimate quest for the lost voice, the lost key, the lost tonic." For Quignard, writing music is nothing but a metamorphosis, or the will of returning to one's original voice, a sort of lost Paradise. "Women are seldom composers", Quignard writes, "they are not physically concerned by voice changing, contrary to men."

 Quignard forgot to note that there are also historical and sociological reasons preventing for a long time women from composing music, he may forget also that the quest for metamorphosis is not only peculiar to music composition but peculiar as well to music performance. This is one of the lessons of Fellini's Orchestra Rehearsal, in which you can see the musicians (men and women) changing their behavior and body moves through music. They are shown in a trance; they almost dance while performing Rota's music. Besides, "orchestra" originally meant "place where to dance." Fellini's film may be the most beautiful and compelling movie ever made on music's secret grounds.

 " The orchestra is the terror, the conductor is death "

 The conductor in Orchestra Rehearsal is first shown as a mother enabling music to come into existence and the musicians to come back to life; he is also shown by Fellini as an authoritarian father. The conductor in this film is in fact a severe German conductor (whereas the musicians of the orchestra are Italian). When the movie was released in 1979, many critics saw that as a symbolic revival of Nazis in Italy, but the President of the Republic of Italy declared: "[Fellini's film] tackles not only Italy but also the whole world." **

 Fellini explored in Orchestra Rehearsal the inner world of the musicians but also, gradually, a social, universal and current reality. "Musicians are workers like others", the orchestra union leader claims. Fellini shows then the conductor's dissatisfaction about that : "If Wagner had to obey to the strikes and union leaders' demand, he would have never succeeded in writing his operas and symphonies." A musician then retorts that " It is not, in any case, the union leaders' fault if Wagner wrote pompous music!"

The war announced in the opening titles eventually breaks out. After an enforced break, the conductor returns to the music auditorium and sees an authentic and spectacular mutiny. The musicians have painted obscene graffiti on the walls, some musicians play horrible and noisy music and others cry vehemently: "The orchestra is the terror and the conductor is death!" At times, the musicians' fury seems to provoke small earthquakes in the studio.

 Electricity has been cut; several candles now light the whole studio, as in a prehistoric cavern. Fellini films the musicians' shadows on the wall and on the music sheets. It is an army of shadows. In the noisy and dark chaos, you can see a musician sleeping, a couple making love under the piano, a man listening to soccer with his radio, and a woman saying to the camera : "A child once asked me where does music go when music ends? "

 Listening to the unconscious

 Some rebelling musicians replace the conductor's music stand with a giant metronome similar to a coffin, but it is quickly destroyed by other musicians refusing any kind of leadership. But suddenly, one of the walls crack, and dust and small rocks fall onto the musicians. Then, coming from outside or nowhere, an enormous bowl in steel destroys the wall in front of the musicians. The fury is replaced by the sound of wind. The sudden intrusion of this mysterious giant bowl has the impact of a nuclear bomb. This subconscious image reminds us of the big fish on the beach at the end of Fellini's Dolce Vita (1960), or the big rhinoceros in And The Ship Sails On (1983).

 When Orchestra Rehearsal was released, Fellini said something that seems strangely compelling today in 2002: "All the horrible events we are living are not politics, but confusions, disasters and deeper rifts. I don't know what can be done to change society, what I want to show is always directed at the individual. Then, instead of exchanging pieces of political information, let's share the information of our unconscious. The film [Orchestra Rehearsal] talks about the consequences of that "super-consciousness" which is politics, instead of taking care of our own unconscious." **

 " Music saves us, let's hang on the notes "

 The harpist has been killed by the collapse and evacuated. The conductor gets up and says to everyone in the studio: "Music saves us, let's hang on the notes." Without a word, one of the rebelling musicians gives the conductor's music stand back, and all the musicians take their instrument in silence. Everyone starts performing Nino Rota's music in homage to the dead (fateful omen). Rota's music has a subtle gypsy perfume, in an ironic opposition to the Nazi-like conductor.

 Rota's music (as often with Fellini) also reminds you here of the music written for circus and silent films, as a return to the origins of cinema, questioning its roots and thus the present day. Rota's music is the innocence and childhood in Fellini's films. But for this last piece, Rota used most of all a rather tragic theme and a tragic orchestration as well. Behind the clown-like music, a deep darkness, a cry as a secret, fateful farewell, the ultimate demonstration of Rota's musical genius.

 Despite the collapse and the dust in the auditorium, the musicians play vehemently, all standing in the middle of the chaotic studio. Some are crying while playing Rota's music. Fellini: "I was just astonished to note that after many takes, this heterogeneous group eventually formed a unique, abstract, whole, which is music. That organization made out of chaos just overwhelmed me." **

 Rota's music is sublime and very few directors have filmed music performance with such emotion and respect. The conductor, the fakir, moves his hands like endless waves, he is again the priest in front of his believers. Fellini has never filmed the sky once throughout the movie, but the celestial opening is in fact nothing but the music itself, as the light, the air, and perhaps the true reality.

 This is the end

 Fellini did not choose what he called "an easy sentimentality" for the end, though. The conductor takes his authoritarian voice back and says to the orchestra, on a crescendo tone : "You must put less colors in the music, noise is not music, nor a tramway!" He starts yelling at them (fade in on the screen, we continue hearing this Nazi-like voice in the darkness) : "Do you think you are on a soccer field ? Am I a referee ?? Where are your lungs ? your breath?! " The conductor's last words: "Da capo!" (Again).

 The end of the world may not exist: it does not stop repeating itself as a sad leitmotiv. What occurred in the States in September 2001, or what happens in the Middle East is more evidence. Fellini's Orchestra Rehearsal tells a part of the story of our world, but Fellini prevents himself from being too explicit at the end. Are all the leaders necessarily monstrous? Are the people always innocent? But are they born to obey? Who has to cultivate freedom: the leadership or the individual? Both? How can we remain ourselves inside the orchestra of life? Is the death of our relatives the only way to make us understand the grandeur of life, the beauty of tolerance and the necessity of listening?

 "I refuse happy endings", Fellini claimed, "because it prevents the audience from having any responsibility. On the contrary, I prefer ending my film with a question mark ; it is then to the viewer to find the right end to my story. In all my films, I have been faithful to these suspension points in the conclusion. Besides, I have never written the word "End" on the screen." ** Fellini does not bring a "final solution", he leaves us with our own imagination, leaving us to interpret.

Alexandre Tylski is the editor of Cadrage. He has written numerous articles on the art of film music for filmscoremonthly and traxzone and he also has directed two short-movie portraits on film composers Philippe Sarde and Antoine Duhamel. 

* in Fellini par Fellini, Ed.
Flammarion, 1987.
**  in "Positif", n° 217, April 1979.
(1) Song originally written by Bertal, Maubon and Daniderff.
(2) Pascal Quignard, in La Leçon de musique, Hachette, 1987.
Thank you to TraxZone and Filmscoremonthly.
And our special thanks to Nina Rota (the maestro’s nice and talented daughter).


Alexandre Tylski, Cadrage avril/mai 2003


© Copyright Cadrage/Arkhom'e 2005. International Standard Serial Number: ISSN 1776-2928