Ennio Morricone and His 'Mystical and Sacred' Music

Composer Talks about His Career, the Emotions That Inspire His Soundtracks and Regret Over the Abandonment of Gregorian Chant

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“I cannot help but write; it’s a ritual that every day I feel the need to return to with dedication and passion.” The adventure to put notes and scores to the test gives no respite to Ennio Morricone, not even now that the famous Roman composer has reached the threshold of 88 years.
His prestigious curriculum does not satisfy him – more than 400 soundtracks to his credit and more than 50 million records sold – and the more or less known prizes that are constantly attributed to him in Italy and abroad.
ZENIT Interviewed Ennio Morricone on the occasion of the publication of Inseguendo un sogno: La mia musica, la mia vita [“Pursuing a Dream: My Music, My Life”], an autobiography in the format of a written dialogue together with the young composer Alessandro De Rosa. The Maestro talks about his brilliant career, the history of music – also liturgical – as well as the “mystical and sacred” aspect that hides behind his compositions.
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ZENIT: Maestro, you began your career as trumpet player in various Roman orchestras. How important was that experience in your formation? What memories do you have of the Rome of those years?
Morricone: I joined some orchestras even before receiving my diploma in Composition and, in fact, before the Diploma in Trumpet, which I obtained in ’46. I began during the period of World War II, when I flanked my father Mario, a trumpet player before me, in a small orchestra. We played first for German and then for American soldiers. They were difficult years, where everything was lacking. They were important experiences, also later, when I began to play in synchronization orchestras. It was, to a degree, the start. Gradually I also began to arrange tracks and then, to write my own.
ZENIT: Among the many soundtracks you have signed, is there one to which you are particularly linked?
Morricone: This is a question I’ve been asked numerous times. It’s impossible for me to answer other than by saying that every film I’ve made was important for me. The music I’ve written is like children that I love in the same way. Some films that I put to music became very famous and are known by all, somewhat less, perhaps, the more experimental ones that, unfortunately, for various reasons did not get the consensus they deserved. Of the latter I remember in particular Vittorio de Seta’s “Un uomo a meta” and Elio Petri’s “Un tranquillo posto di campagna.”
ZENIT: Has the way of composing music for films changed much over the years?
Morrricone: It has changed very much. The use of synthesizers and electronics has modified many of music’s productive and consumption systems. Sometimes these changes have enabled some amateurs to make music that, in the past, would have required a very attentive and complete study of the composition. In sum, good and less good phenomenons have been generated.  Electronic <music> has been very interesting to me since its dawn, but I think electronic progress and timbres must permeate acoustic music.
ZENIT: The notes of many of your memorable soundtracks — I’m thinking of “Gabriel’s Oboe,” “The Mission,” and “Deborah’s Theme of “There Was Once in America” — foster contemplation. Is it right to hold that there is a sort of sacred thread that runs through your music?
Morricone: This question stirrs a memory in me. In the ‘70s Luciano Salce (for whom Morricone signed the music for “The Federal,” ndr), said that I was a mystic and sacred composer. I was not in agreement with him on the spot. Then, in subsequent years, I thought of many of my works, old and new, of Westerns with Sergio Leone, of “The Mission,” but also of the mysticism of evil represented by Dario Argento’s film … Well, to be frank, Salce’s consideration was and still is a source of reflection for me.
ZENIT: What sort of reflection? Is there, perhaps, a religious inspiration behind your compositions?
Morricone: Perhaps there is something religious, in the approach I have to a composition. It is an approach marked by profound respect for an activity that is fundamental to me. I can’t help but write; it’s a ritual that every day I feel the need to return to with dedication and passion.
ZENIT: A year ago you composed and then directed the Missa Papae Francisci. How was this project born?
Morricone: I had never written a Mass before this one. One morning, in December of 2012, I met a Jesuit priest I know, Father Libanori, at Piazza del Gesu, in Rome, where I was going to buy newspapers. He said to me that soon  the <two hundred years> of the Society of Jesus would be observed and he suggested I write a Mass for this event. To his question I answered that I would try, but that I would have accepted it only at the moment I completed it. In fact, I wasn’t sure I would bring it to completion. Then, during the months I was composing it, there was the advent of the new Pontiff, Pope Francis, the first Jesuit Pope in history; the dedication to him was spontaneous. Then I was able to meet him in the Vatican and show him the score.
ZENIT: After writing this Mass, would you like to put another sacred page to music?
Morricone: Certainly, but I must acknowledge that it is strange, because more than expecting the pleasure of putting something to music, I usually bump into myself. Perhaps it’s a text that strikes my attention. If I get enough ideas from there, I continue.
ZENIT: How important was Gregorian chant in the history of music?
Morricone: It was essential in Western music. Year zero — if it had not begun from there, polyphony, counterpoint, harmony, the first forms of “sacred” music  would probably not have been developed … Gregorian chant is linked to the history of our European culture and constitutes its important musical roots.
ZENIT: Hence you are unhappy that the Gregorian tradition as been somewhat lost in the Church?
Morricone: After Vatican Council II, my attention paused on the changes that music underwent following that event. Well, I was very unhappy when it was decided to be detached from the musical tradition that came from the Church’s past. Perhaps they sought to meet the dominant tastes, proposing more popular musical styles, and close to the tendencies of today’s popular music. It seemed to be that an important and millennial musical identity was being undermined.
[Translation by ZENIT]

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