An Exclusive Interview with Composer Ennio Morricone
In a 2009 interview with Register correspondent Edward Pentin, the Italian composer reflects on his life of writing for the movies — and his faith.
Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted in Italian and translated by Edward Pentin. It originally appeared Nov. 9, 2009, at the Register and is presented here on the occasion of Morricone’s death on July 6, 2020.
Ennio Morricone is considered by many to be one of Hollywood’s finest film score composers.
In a career spanning nearly 50 years, he has written around 450 unique, stirring and atmospheric soundtracks for some of the world’s most memorable films. They include the Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s, such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars; the memorable score for The Mission, a 1986 picture centered on Jesuit missionaries in 18th-century South America; and the gangster films The Untouchables and Once Upon a Time in America. He has been nominated for an Oscar five times and won an Honorary Award at the 2007 Academy Awards.
At 81, he is still going strong, writing soundtracks for new films and conducting more of his own music than ever before. And, he’ll be taking part in Pope Benedict XVI’s meeting with artists Nov. 21, 2009.
In a rare interview, he spoke with Register correspondent Edward Pentin at his home in Rome about his faith, his music, his concern for the liturgy, and his high opinion of Pope Benedict XVI.
Maestro Morricone, how much does your faith inspire your music?
I am a man of faith, but faith doesn’t inspire me. I do not think about my faith when I write a piece of music. I think of the music that I have to write — music is an abstract art. But, of course, when I have to write a religious piece, certainly my faith contributes to it. I recently wrote a secular cantata on the Gospel, the Bible, and the Quran for baritone and orchestra. I don’t have to think of God and, in general, if the text isn’t religious, there’s no reason to apply religious music to it; and so, there’s no reason to think about religion. Of course, I have inside of me a spirituality that I always retain in my writing. But I keep it there not because I want it, so to speak, but because I feel it.
Was there a special spiritual component to your film score for The Mission?
In The Mission, they called me to do the music for a film where the protagonists were Jesuits, the Jesuits who went on a mission to South America to be among the Indians, to make the Indians become Christians. What they brought with them was the Renaissance experience of the progress of instrumental music. This is the first thing you see in the opening scenes of the movie, when Father Gabriel teaches the violin to the two boys. Then they brought with them a post-Council of Trent experience — the reform of the music at the Council of Trent in the 15th century. They brought this music not only because they were the central characters, but also because, if they were to serve as religious, they had to offer the music that came out of the Council of Trent. Third, after these [scenes], I was obliged to present the music of the Indians. What was the music of the Indians? I didn’t know, so I had to invent it. The miracle of the music of this movie was the influence of the oboe. So I wrote a theme for the oboe. The post-conciliar motet was very important, because when Cardinal Altamirano came to the mission, the Indians welcomed him with this Occidental, European song. And, of course, writing all of this into the film, you hear the first theme of the film, that of the oboe, then the second musical theme, the post-conciliar music, and then the third, ethnic music. So you hear these three themes — one, two and three. The great thing about this movie is its technical and spiritual effect: that the first and second theme go together, the first and third can go together, and the second and third go together. At the very end, all three themes are contemporary. That was my technical miracle, which I believe had been a great blessing.
What other elements inspire your music?
As I explained before, if I have to do something religious, certainly my faith inspires me. If I work on a romantic film, I don’t think of religious things. When I have to write a historical piece, or a political film, I do not think “religion” or “God.” Of course, as a believer, this faith is probably always there, but it’s for others to study, musicologists and those who analyze not only the pieces of music, but also understand my nature — and the sacred and mystical. I think God helps me write a good composition, but that’s another story.
So you don’t pray before starting to write a composition?
No. That’s for other problems.
Some movies that you have composed music for have been quite violent. Is this ever a problem for you?
The music is at the service of the film. I am called to serve the film. 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 there is 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.
You’ve probably often been asked this question: What makes a great film score?
I don’t know. If I knew, I would always write more music like this. I don’t have a formula for the music; I just write at any given moment, and, therefore, it depends on an inspired or less inspired moment. In any case, when I’m less inspired, I’m always saved by professionalism and technique.
Which is your favorite piece?
I never answer this question.
Neither do I say what my favorite movie is because 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.
What is your opinion of Pope Benedict XVI, who is also very musical?
I have a very good opinion of Pope Benedict XVI. He seems to me to be a very high-minded Pope who has a great culture and also great strength. He has a great wish to correct [liturgical] errors that have existed and continue to exist, and he tried to fix them just a few days after being elected. Today, the Church has made a big mistake, turning the clock back 500 years with guitars and popular songs. 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. The same thing happened before the Council of Trent, when singers sang profane songs with sacred melodies and sacred words. He [the Pope] is doing well to correct it. He should correct it with much more firmness. Some churches have taken heed [of his corrections], but others haven’t.
Do you prefer the Mass in Latin?
I understand that Mass in Italian and in a national language is very useful and very important because people can follow it very well. But I also understand the tradition of the Church to set aside a language like Latin which is so important and serious for the Church itself. This was also a decision of the Second Vatican Council. So I support either Mass in Latin or in a country’s national language.
But I don’t agree with, and feel very strongly about, mixing profane, secular music with religious words in Church, or mixing religious music with a profane and secular text.
After the Second Vatican Council, I was asked to be a consultor to the vicariate for two pieces of sung Church music, and I refused. The Church and Christians have Gregorian chant, and they said we had to now have this other music, so I refused. All the musicians in Rome also refused to work with it.
Do you plan to compose something for the Church in the future?
My wife always asks me to write a Mass, but I haven’t done it. But two years ago I wrote a cantata, which was commissioned for the millennial anniversary of Sarsina, a village in Emilia Romagna. They commissioned this cantata with a very beautiful text, and I wrote a religious-secular cantata because its title was “Vuoto D’anima Piena” (Emptiness of a Full Soul). It’s a contradiction — an empty soul that is full means that the fullness is like the emptiness. Infinity is full, but it’s also empty, right? So this text was very beautiful, combined with texts by mystics from all over the world, not only of Catholics. There was “John of the Cross” and other world mystics; it was excellent. It’s a collection of texts by philosophers, theologians and spiritualists from all around the world, not just Catholics, but people of all religions.
Why have you not written a Mass?
I do not feel the need to write a Mass.
What are your plans for the future?
I have a film for television based on the diary of Anne Frank titled Remember Anne Frank. Then I go to Venice Sept. 2 because the film festival there will open with Baaria, a movie by Giuseppe Tornatore, which covers two-thirds of a century in his city, Bagheria in Sicily. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful film. Also Anne Frank is very nice, but Baaria comes close to the limits of perfection, of beauty. There is Italy; there is political struggle; there are the lives of families; there is the life of a family; there is the life of the main character. It’s a completely beautiful movie, a sort of epic.
What is your favorite music, in general: pieces composed by Mozart, for instance, or Beethoven?
I prefer good music written by professionals and by good composers — when one senses at once whether they are good or not. So I prefer this sort of music and not others. I don’t say I like this style or that style. If it’s written well, I don’t discriminate.
You’re famous, among other things, for the work you did for spaghetti Westerns. Are you a fan of these movies?
I have made some 450 films, and, of those, 8% are Westerns. Not that I like them — I was asked to make these films, and so I made them. I turned down at least 100 Westerns during that period. Everyone asks me to make Westerns, but I tend not to do them because I prefer variety.
Did you turn down writing the score for Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie, Inglourious Basterds?
I didn’t turn it down; I would have done it, but he had to go to Cannes and finished shooting in February. At the time, I was working with Giuseppe Tornatore on Baaria, and so it was impossible for me to work with him. But he took pieces from my other films, paid for them, and put them in the film.
Do you see a film before you write the music for it?
If I say yes, and I do the film, then there’s no need to go and see it beforehand. It’s about professionalism and the esteem I hold for the director. It would be wrong if I went to see the film, and then refused to write for it because I didn’t like it.
Also because when I see a movie, I don’t have to like it, or see the complete version. What I see is a rough cut, with provisional sounds, and one doesn’t understand very much. You can’t give a critical assessment, and I don’t have to give a critical assessment when I’m called upon to help such a film. It’s not right for me to refuse a film having seen it. I can refuse it early on. I can say: “I cannot make this film because I have other things to do.” It happened once that I went to see a movie and decided not to do it because it was really disgusting, but that was many years ago.
What are your views on Clint Eastwood? Is he a great friend of yours?
He’s not a great friend. I met him twice, once when he was with [Sergio] Leone, and another time for the Oscar. So he’s not a friend, but he’s a lovely person and very kind. Above all, he’s a great director. He has become not only a good actor, but, above all, a great director.
Does the quality of your work depend on a good director?
It’s important that the director is good and has made a good film, but the film should be good after I’ve written the music, not before. Before that, I can’t say anything.