Carlo Rustichelli

A Biographical Essay by Enzo Cocumarolo
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine No.10, 1977
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher, Luc Van de Ven

Carlo RustichelliThe name of Italian composer Carlo Rustichelli is inseparably tied to the career of film director Pietro Germi. Rustichelli wrote the scores for all of Germi’s pictures (except IL TESTIMONE, 1946), including AMICI MIEI, which had to be interrupted because of the director’s illness. Fellow director Mario Monicelli completed the movie, using Germi’s copious notes.

The relationship of composer to director, and their practice of discussing the music to reach a better treatment of the picture’s subject – not a day-to-day discussion but one spread over a period of a dozen years – permits many musicians to express themselves to the best of their ability. For example the partnerships Cicognini – De Sica, the two Rossellini brothers, Rota – Fellini and so many others outside of Italy, such as Delerue – Truffaut in France, Walton – Olivier in England or Herrmann – Hitchcock in the United States. It is necessary to make this premise in order to effectively evaluate Rustichelli’s work in films.

Carlo Rustichelli was born in Carpi (Modena), a large village in Emilia, on December 24, 1916. His family didn’t have a musical tradition, but he soon became interested in music along with his brothers and sisters. After a period as lead singer in the local church, he began studying violoncello and later piano at the Accademia Filarmonica in Bologna. Young Rustichelli felt that his studies were still insufficient, and he left Bologna for Rome in 1940 in order to study composition and conducting under Dobici.

So began his career as a conductor, with engagements as a musical director in opera houses at Reggio Emilia, Carpi, Modena, Spoleto and Pescara. By 1941 he had already been approached to compose the main themes for GLI ULTIMI FILIBUSTIERI and IL FIGLIO DEL CORSARO NERO, the first of which was scored for a chorus. It was then he met Pietro Germi, then a screenplay writer, for the first time. Several years later, Germi recalled Rustichelli’s work on these two movies and asked him to compose the score for GIOVENTU’ PERDUTA (1947). That year Rustichelli became a full-time film composer.

In 1948 Germi directed IN NOME DELLA LEGGE, one of the first pictures which treated the Mafia as a social instead of as an individual problem; set in Sicily, where primitive passions would result in violence and anonymous crime, Rustichelli’s music was a symphonic commentary with rich themes and rhythms which depicted a secluded Sicily, forever set in its timeless ways and traditions. In this first full-length film score, little was allowed towards sentimentality. During the picture a kind of Spanish – Arabian serenade was heard in the background, which Rustichelli later re-used with different orchestrations in DIVORZIO ALL’ ITALIANA. It was wholly based on a symphonic movement with percussion representing a vision of tragedy – a personal interpretation of Sicily in musical terms.

Germi’s next movie was IL CAMINO DELLA SPERANZA, depicting the odyssey of several expatriated Sicilians trying to enter France illegally and look for work. A very human picture, with a melancholy theme that supports the characters throughout the film and represents their nostalgia for the country and for the village they have left forever. The screenplay is effective and highly realistic, right up to the ending where some superstitious emigrants try to cross France’s Alpes Maritimes during a snow storm. At this moment the entire orchestra cuts in, depicting the snow storm by means of an organ, horns, tambourines and violins, the whole sequence written in a symphonic style. From a musical point of view, this scene remains the most beautiful as well as the most moving one of the entire picture, both score and direction jelling perfectly.

The profitable association with Germi continued in 1951 with LA CITTA SI DIFENDE and IL BRIGANTE DI TACCO DEL LUPO, and two years later the director returned to Sicily for GELOSIA; Rustichelli gave this movie an uncanny sense of threatening tragedy, which came naturally to him in view of his earlier film assignments. Unfortunately no soundtrack albums of these films were ever released, though it is of course still possible to see these pictures on TV and perhaps tape the entire movie. In those days the bad habit didn’t exist (nowadays largely followed by new composers of few ideas) of writing one or two themes and repeating them throughout the movie in countless variations – until boredom sets in – by using different musical instruments; a film score supports a movie from beginning to end and implies a complete dedication of the composer as well as a meeting of the minds between composer and director. A picture should be scored scene by scene. It is inconceivable that a movie be scored without having seen the entire film; it is equally inconceivable that a composer permit himself the luxury of working on five or six assignments all at once, often the case in Italy.

When Germi directed IL FERROVIERE in 1955, Carlo Rustichelli composed a beautiful score for guitar which expressed an endless melancholy – a theme he later re-used as leitmotiv in orchestral form for those of Germi’s films in which he needed to express family problems. It would be hard to assess to what extent the score contributed to the success of this picture, but the music certainly caused Rustichelli’s reputation to spread outside of Italy, at the same time furthering the career of many Italian film composers who also became well-known in other countries. In composing this score, Rustichelli offered proof of his versatility by tying story to characters, and painting a clouded atmosphere in pure musical terms. The main theme of IL FERROVIERE, once released on a single (a vocal sung by the composer’s daughter, Alida Chelli, and conducted by a then unknown Ennio Morricone) years after the movie, appeared for the first time – in a re-orchestrated version – on the album ‘Carlo Rustichelli: Colonne Sanore di Film di Pietro’ (CAM SAG 33 LP 9059).

Three years later Germi directed L’UOMO DI PAGLIA, and Carlo Rustichelli again composed an exemplary score which went extremely well with the mood of the picture – not unlike his music for FERROVIERE in some respects, but with both different instruments (organ, guitar) and a different musical approach: an extremely sober score, genuinely Italian without concession to that commercialism used by some colleagues (Lai, Cipriani…) to describe impossible or tragic love. For this music, Rustichelli was awarded the ‘Nastro d’Argento’ (Silver Ribbons) in 1959 for Best Film Score. The ‘Nastro d’Argento’, soon commercially exploited, is comparable to the American Oscar for Best Music Score.

To analyse one by one all the scores Rustichelli wrote for Germi’s films would require a dozen pages. Also, not all of Germi’s pictures have been shown outside of Italy and a detailed discussion might not be advisable. The scores already mentioned are of definite cultural value, written by a composer who has been able to integrate situations and events into that imaginary world conjured up by director Pietro Germi.

A year later, Rustichelli once again teamed up with Germi on a psychological thriller called UN MALEDETTO IMBROGLIO, this time composing a lively score which spawned a song called ‘Sinno Me Moro’ – which went on to become Italy’s best-selling hit song in 1959-1960; the main theme would change from a symphonic poem into a light and sunny Mediterranean melody which sounded completely “Italian”. If a comparison were possible, I’d suggest the well-known symphonic poem ‘Fontane di Roma’ by Respighi, which creates a similar Mediterranean mood.

There was no Italian composer comparable to Carlo Rustichelli when it came to scoring films with such dedication and such feeling. KAPO, DIVORZIO ALL’ITALIANA and LE QUATTRO GIORNATE DI NAPOLI are revealed beyond the shadow of a doubt as exemplary scores which cannot be divorced from the movies. They are compositions which can be listened to “cold”, of considerable intrinsic value far beyond the original musical purpose. Rustichelli gave KAPO a score in complete accordance with the picture’s unhappy events: the story is set in a concentration camp, where a young girl (turned collaborator in order to survive) falls in love with a Russian prisoner and earns redemption by sacrificing herself in order to save the other prisoners during an escape attempt. The electric current running through the concentration camp’s surrounding fence is musically conveyed by a drawn-out and dissonant theme that stresses the horrible daily life of the POWs. A solo for clavecimbel takes the young heroine back to her youth and a theme patterned after Bach, still written for clavecimbel, is heard in the background when the girl falls in love with the Russian prisoner. Definitely one of Rustichelli’s most accomplished scores.

DIVORZIO ALL’ITALIANA ushers in an obvious change of course for Germi, who turns to the subject of Italian mores as a source of funny and satirical movies which are at the same time constructive. The director’s intention was to point out the various defects of a society and thereby change its customs. I have no idea to what degree a movie like DIVORZIA was understood by foreign audiences; at the time, the early sixties, it was a first attempt to say something new about a forbidden subject like divorce laws in Italy. For this picture Carlo Rustichelli wrote some really superb compositions like ‘Canto d’Amore’ or ‘Marcia Funebre’. The movie, once more set in Sicily, shows us people that are victims of an unwritten law, steeped in tradition, highly unfair, above all anachronistic and bypassed by modern times. It was an international box-office hit and United Artists released an LP in the States. In those early sixties, Rustichelli was one of few Italian composers whose soundtracks were released in the highly competitive foreign market – along with Lavagnino (LOST CONTINENT, EMPIRE OF THE SUN), Nascimbene (SOLOMON AND SHEBA, A FAREWELL TO ARMS), Cicognini (THE BLACK ORCHID, INDISCRETION OF AN AMERICAN WIFE) and Rota (WAR AND PEACE, LA DOLCE VITA, ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS).

LE QUATTRO GIORNATE DI NAPOLI was set during the Second World War and concentrated on a cell of the resistance. The main theme lasts over five minutes, a short symphony composed for tambourines, percussion, and violin; near the end the entire orchestra joins in – one of Rustichelli’s most beautiful compositions. Originally released on an LP called ‘Musica e Immagine’ and later reissued as ‘I Grande Maestri e la Musica: Carlo Rustichelli’, the main theme is now available in re-orchestrated form on a double album pressed in Japan: ‘The Best of Carlo Rustichelli’ (Seven Seas FMW 25/26).

In 1964 the composer found himself in the center of hectic activity, with more than 25 film assignments by the end of that year. He produced several purely “routine” scores which bowed to commercialism, some of which remain impressive and are still well worth acquiring: LA CALDA VITA, LA RAGAZZA DI BUBE, FINCHE’ DURA LA TEMPESTA, I PROMESSI SPOSI and BUFFALO BILL, L’EROE DEL FAR WEST all fall into this category.

LA RAGAZZA DI BUBE opens with a theme for trombone, setting a melancholy mood which perfectly suited the movie and returns later in the film performed by solo guitar. This method of writing two motifs – a sentimental theme and a more dramatic theme – is one of Carlo Rustichelli’s trademarks, and can be found in most of his scores. LA CALDA VITA is really a love story about two adolescents staying on a small island in the Mediterranean and the music again perfectly fits the subject – an exceptionally beautiful melody which conjures up sensations of sun, sea and sky forming the background to the story. The soundtrack album is extremely difficult to track down, another of Rustichelli’s scores in a symphonic vein.

Two years later, Rustichelli became – for the first time, in Italy – a composer of considerable popularity outside the restricted world of film music; the popularity was cause by L’ARMATA BRANCALEONE, a story set during the Crusades. The main theme, a kind of mocking whistling, was very ear-catching and was subsequently recorded by various artists as well as sung in the street by the general public: an understandably satisfying experience for the composer in both a financial and an artistic way, as it gained him a second ‘Nastro d’Argento’ for Best Music Score in 1966. One of those cases in which the success of a mediocre picture depends entirely upon the score, composed to fit the movie like a glove.

This predilection for using motifs and instruments of a popular nature like the guitar, or the mandolin, really shows the Italian character of this composer, and gives a personal stamp to many of his scores based on the Mediterranean melody n for example in UN ESTATE IN QUATTRO. Rustichelli worked with dedicated directors like Pasolini, Vancini, Monicelli, Bolognini, whose movies he enriched with original compositions which were far from run-of-the-mill assignments. For AGOSTINO the composer wrote a slow waltz for piano, which vaguely reminds us of Georges Delerue’s inimitable style. This aristocratic and slightly brooding theme returns in countless variations throughout the picture, perfectly suited to the idyllic mood.

Rustichelli continued to work with Pietro Germi, now a close friend, on films like SEDOTTA A ABBANDONATA (which was once more set in Sicily), SIGNORE E SIGNORI, L’IMMORALE, until Germi’s rural period with SERAFINO, LE CASTAGNE SONO BUONE, ALFREDO ALFREDO; a co-operation which lasted until the director’s untimely death in 1974.

In the early seventies, Rustichelli composed some scores for other directors which are worth mentioning as well: BUBU, DETENUTO IN ATTESA DI GIUDIZIO, LA BETIA, and IL RICHIAMO DELLA FORESTA. Carlo Rustichelli is equally well at home when composing for westerns, epics, thrillers, comedies or serious pictures with a message. SALVO D’ACQUISTO represents this composer’s most recent symphonic score – melodious and, when the film takes a tragic turn, highly dramatic – and is in my view one of the best soundtrack albums of the past three or four years.

Over the years, Rustichelli has written music for various important TV productions like L’ENCICLOPEDIA DEL MARE, L’ODISSEA (his most beautiful symphonic score), TINTORETTO and GARIBALDI – each of which are exceptional compositions, masterpieces of mood, extremely delicate themes.

Apart from Ennio Morricone, who retains the absolute record, Carlo Rustichelli is definitely the most often recorded Italian film composer, with about forty albums and dozens of singles and EPs to his credit. His discography confirms the value, richness and variety of his oeuvre. Unfortunately, as so often happens, some of his best scores remain unrecorded and several of his best soundtrack LPs have long been deleted – leaving an important gap which will never be filled.

Those who are fortunate enough to know Rustichelli personally are aware that he is exceptionally modest as well as very communicative. Among Italian film composers he is the only one whose music sounds characteristically Italian, giving to his music (whether simple or complex) a profound sense of smell of the land or of the sea, of the scorching sun or of the azure Italian sky. His personal style is immediately recognizable.

Rustichelli’s output totals over 400 commissions for films and TV. It stands to reason that a number of these are no more than competent movie scores, but about fifty of his compositions are of lasting value to Italy’s history of film music.

You may point out that Rustichelli is influenced by Puccini and by Verdi, but it seems to me a restrictive way of judging a composer who has personality and individual style compared with other composers. It’s significant when Rustichelli says, “I hope that my music simply accompanies comments on or hints at the projected image in a way that can be understood by everyone. You should remember that I am musically expressing myself to everyone in the cinema audience – and at the same time to each film fan – whether movie critic or housewife, intellectual or laborer.”

Carlo Rustichelli holds film composers of the past in high esteem and considers their scores invaluable. He sincerely admires Miklos Rozsa (a unique composer!) and knew him personally when his Hungarian colleague spent a while in Rome back in ‘58, while working on BEN-HUR. In addition, he knows the brothers Daniele and Massimo Amfitheatrof quite well – both lived in Italy for many years. One of his two daughters, Alida Chelli, is a well-known actress and singer who now lives in the United States. The Rustichellis live in Rome.


I am very grateful to James Marshall, who revised my translation of Enzo Cocumarolo’s manuscript. – LVDV.



No comment posted yet.

Leave a Reply