By Edward Pentin
ROME, SEPT. 10, 2009 (Zenit.org).- You may not recognize his name, but you will almost certainly be familiar with his music.
Maestro Ennio Morricone is widely regarded as one of Hollywood’s finest film score composers. Best known for the memorable and moody soundtracks to the “Spaghetti Westerns” of the 1960s, such as “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” “A Fistful of Dollars,” and “Once Upon a Time in the West,” to many Catholics he is perhaps best loved for his moving score in “The Mission,” a 1986 film about Jesuit missionaries in 18th-century South America.
But his contribution to the movie industry extends far beyond his most famous works, having scored around 450 films and worked with Hollywood’s leading directors, from Sergio Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci to Brian De Palma and Roman Polanski.
And at 80, he’s still going strong. The legendary composer has just completed the soundtrack to Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Baaria,” an Italian picture which opened this year’s Venice Film Festival, while Quentin Tarantino invited him to write the score for his latest film, “Inglourious Basterds” (scheduling difficulties prevented Morricone from doing so, but he allowed Tarantino to use clips of his previous work in the film instead).
The renowned Italian composer also continues to pick up highly prestigious awards: earlier this year, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, appointed him to the rank of Knight in the Order of the Legion of Honor — the country’s highest honour. That’s in addition to a lengthy list of other major awards including an Honorary Academy Award, five Oscar Nominations, five Baftas, and a Grammy.
Yet Maestro Morricone, who was born in Rome, prefers to keep out of the limelight and rarely gives interviews. So it came as a surprise when he kindly agreed to make an exception one August morning, and invited me to his central Rome apartment to talk principally about his faith and his music.
His home is much as you would expect: An immaculate black grand piano sits beside the window of a grand and tastefully decorated sitting room, artistically lined with murals, classical paintings and mahogany panels. But Morricone, who has a wife and four grown up children, is a humble man without airs, and he responds to questions in typically Roman fashion: directly and to the point.
I begin by asking him if his music, which many consider very spiritual, is inspired by his faith. Although he describes himself as a “man of faith,” he takes a very professional yet simple view of his work and says his faith doesn’t inspire him in most of his writing. If the movie is not about religion, he won’t think about God and the Church, he says. “I think of the music that I have to write — music is an abstract art,” he explains. “But of course, when I have to write a religious piece, certainly my faith contributes to it.”
He adds that he has inside of him a “spirituality that I always retain in my writing,” but it’s not something he wills to be present, he simply feels it.
“As a believer, this faith is probably always there, but it’s for others to realize it, musicologists and those that analyze not only the pieces of music but also have an understanding of my nature, and the sacred and the mystical,” he explains. However, he says he believes that God helps him “write a good composition, but that’s another story.”
He gives a similarly professional and straightforward answer when asked if he has any qualms about writing music for gratuitously violent films. “I am called to serve the film,” he says. “If the film is violent, then I compose music for a violent film. If a film is about love, I work for a film of love. Perhaps there can be violent films in which there is sacredness or have mystical elements to the violence, but I don’t willingly look for these films. I try to strike a balance with the spirituality of the film, but the director doesn’t always think the same way.”
Ennio Morricone began his music career in 1946 after receiving a trumpet diploma. The next year, he was already composing theatre music, as well as playing in a jazz band to support his family. But his career in film music, which began in 1961, took off a couple of years later when he started working with his old school friend Sergio Leone and his brand of “Spaghetti Westerns.”
He’s perhaps most famous for that genre, yet he says they make up only eight percent of his repertoire, and he has turned down a hundred other such movies. “Everyone asks me to make Westerns,” he says, “but I tend not to do them because I prefer variety.”
A technical miracle
Turning to “The Mission,” he says the great thing about that film score was its “technical and spiritual effect.” By that, he means the way it managed to combine three musical themes related to the movie. The presence of violins and Father Gabriel’s oboe represent “the Renaissance experience of the progress of instrumental music.” The film then moves on to other forms of music that came out of the Church reforms of the Council of Trent, and ends with the music of the native Indians.
The result was a “contemporary” theme in which all three elements — the instruments that came out of the Renaissance, the post-conciliar reformed music, and the ethnic melodies — harmoniously come together at the very end of the film. “The first and second theme go together, the first and third can go together, and the second and third go together,” Morricone explains. “That was my technical miracle which I believe was a great blessing.”
But the Italian composer says he doesn’t have a formula for a successful film score. “If I knew, I would always write more music like this,” he says, adding that the quality of the music depends on whether he is happy or sad. “When I’m less happy, I’m always saved by professionalism and technique,” he says. He also won’t mention any favourite pieces, or favourite movies. “I love them all because all have given me some kind of torment and suffering when working on them, but I mustn’t and won’t make a distinction,” he says.
We turn to the subject of another keen musician: Pope Benedict XVI. Morricone says he has a “very good opinion” of the Holy Father. “He seems to me to be a very high minded Pope, a man of great culture and also great strength,” he says. He is particularly complimentary about Benedict XVI’s efforts to reform the liturgy — a subject about which Morricone feels very strongly.
“Today the Church has made a big mistake, turning the clock back 500 years with guitars and popular songs,” he argues. “I don’t like it at all. Gregorian Chant is a vital and important tradition of the Church and to waste this by having guys mix religious words with profane, Western songs is hugely grave, hugely grave.”
He says it’s turning the clock back because the same thing happened before the Council of Trent when singers mixed profanity with sacred music. “He [the Pope] is doing well to correct it,” he says. “He should correct it with much more firmness. Some churches have taken heed [of his corrections], but others haven’t.”
Maestro Morricone looks fit and considerably younger than his age, which enables him to continue to give concerts around the world. In fact, he is in more demand than ever: next month he’ll be performing his soundtracks at the Los Angeles Hollywood Bowl.
Yet despite all his fame and accolades, this famous Italian composer hasn’t lost any of his Roman earthiness and humility. It’s perhaps this, as much as his stirring and unique compositions, which makes him one of Hollywood’s greats.
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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: [email protected].