Tuesday 25 June 2019

Meet the Maestro... Ennio Morricone

George Hamilton talks to Ennio Morricone about football, sharing a classroom with Sergio Leone and creating his unique sound ahead of September's farewell show at the 3Arena

Italian composer Ennio Morricone. Photo: Tiziana Fabi
Italian composer Ennio Morricone. Photo: Tiziana Fabi
Ennio Morricone
Italian composer Ennio Morricone poses during an interview in Rome

George Hamilton

Ennio Morricone sits in his spacious and elegant apartment in central Rome in the company of Gioia, his interpreter. On the threshold of his tenth decade, he remains firmly rooted in the city of his birth and prefers the familiarity of his native Italian to the English that dominates the industry where he has made such an indelible mark.

Whether it's the ocarina breathing - those two menacing notes that mimic a coyote's howl to introduce the American Civil War epic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - or the haunting woodwind that suffuses The Mission, the magic of Morricone's movie scores is unmistakable.

The boldness and unconventionality of his music has marked him out and made him instantly recognisable on the global stage. He is still at the top of his game, and well worthy of his favoured style of address - Maestro.

He's invited the Irish Independent for a chat in advance of his return to Dublin in September. Just about to turn 89, it'll be his final performance for an Irish audience whose passion for his music has moved him in the past.

Ennio Morricone
Ennio Morricone

By way of introduction, I explain the somewhat unconventional pairing of the two hats that I wear, and suggest that maybe he, too, has a particular enthusiasm that extends beyond his music.

After all, this is the man who composed the theme for the 1978 football World Cup (which just happens to be where I came in, as far as tournament commentary is concerned).

"Ah yes, I do like football," he confirms. "I'm a Roma supporter. And have been all my life."

So was it as a football fan that he came to write 'El Mundial', the official song of that World Cup in Argentina?

"Actually, it wasn't my idea. The record label I was working with at the time asked me to compose a piece, and they wanted to feature a choir as well. It was a purely commercial decision."

It's unquestionably Morricone, with its percussive opening placing it alongside The Good, the Bad and the Ugly theme before a chant of "Argentina" takes it off in another direction altogether as a piece for a marching band.

Italian composer Ennio Morricone poses during an interview in Rome
Italian composer Ennio Morricone poses during an interview in Rome

Throughout, his trademarks abound, not least his use of the human voice as an instrument, without words.

You get the impression, though, that this wasn't an area he wanted to explore. "After I'd done the World Cup theme, I was asked to compose a new anthem for my football team - Roma - but I said no. I told them they already had a perfectly good one."

So no Morricone-inspired chants rolling down from the stands in the Olympic Stadium then. It's those film scores that got him noticed.

"I started out playing the trumpet," he tells me. "My father had made a good living as a trumpeter and he suggested I should follow suit.

"So I enrolled in the conservatory, and it was while I was there that it became clear that I could do well composing music. So that became my focus."

It was a gradual progression.

"Little by little was how it started," he explains. "I'd get a call from a radio station. They'd want me to write arrangements for pop songs.

"The more I became known, the more I'd be asked to do. Orchestrations for TV shows, for musicals, for record companies. Little by little, I'd get more invitations to write."

We've reached the 1960s. Ennio Morricone, in his 30s by this stage, gets a call from someone he used to know.

Sergio Leone - now a film director - once shared a classroom with the maestro. "Just for a year - third year in elementary school.

"When we met to discuss his project [A Fistful of Dollars - their first collaboration] we didn't recognise each other. It had been twenty-five years. We were just children then."

That was the beginning of an alliance that would define a genre - I hesitate to say "spaghetti western" for it's not a term the maestro likes, and I kept it out of our conversation.

Leone and Morricone worked together for over two decades, writing cinema history as they went, one of those pairings inextricably linked. For A Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly would follow.

Once Upon a Time in the West and A Fistful of Dynamite were two more which Leone directed and Morricone scored.

So how does this marriage in movies work out? "Usually the co-operation with the director starts with the director describing the story, the script, and then at a later stage, he'll describe in detail some scenes.

"For me, then, it was a question of sitting down and watching the film, to think about how the music should be."

Ennio Morricone's modus operandi might be described as unusual. Not for him picking out tunes at a piano. Rather he sits at his desk with the music in his head, and writes down what he has worked out.

It's clearly this thoughtfulness, this careful consideration that has created his unique blend - the evocative invoked by the unusual.

So you'll hear pan pipes, you'll hear electric guitars, there'll be the sound of whips cracking, yodelling even (the human voice as an instrument in its own right, without words), even what appear to be coyotes howling. "I always liked the idea of a mixture of the sounds of life, of reality with the music," he tells me, "so that it is part of the experience."

All of which creates a unique soundscape, pitched perfectly against the pictures, unmistakably Morricone.

His scores have adorned many more movies than Leone's alone. The hauntingly beautiful music that accompanied Roland Joffé's The Mission (1986), and featured the unforgettable 'Gabriel's Oboe' is an enduring highlight for many.

It's almost invidious to attempt a shortlist, but there are those that deserve honourable mention, not least the soundtrack to The Untouchables (Brian de Palma, 1987). Cinema Paradiso and The Legend of 1900 (both by Giuseppe Tornatore, from 1988 and 2000 respectively).

There were Golden Globes for the latter movie and The Mission, but despite multiple nominations from half a century of composing over 500 soundtracks, the honour first bestowed around the time he was born in 1928 - the Oscar - stubbornly refused to come his way. The closest to it was the honorary award he picked up in 2007 saluting the fact that so much of his music had become, in the words of the Motion Picture Academy President at the time, Sid Ganis, "beloved and popular masterpieces".

"Maybe it was the fact that I was composing a lot of music for the so-called Italian westerns," the maestro muses. "They were considered 'B' movies at the time.

"Still, the music I was writing was quality music. I was really happy with it."

His public also, as evidenced by the huge demand - latest estimates put his overall record sales at well over 70 million, and only last year, Decca signed him up to a new recording contract. It put the seal on a memorable year for the octogenarian composer, for that elusive Academy Award finally came his way when he was presented with his Oscar statuette in recognition of the original score for Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight.

Unlike his work with Leone, the music for the Tarantino epic had been written based on a reading of the script alone, neatly encapsulating the Maestro's versatility.

Ennio Morricone's innovative output isn't restricted to the cinema alone. His musical reach extends into the classical sphere, and includes piano concertos, and symphonic pieces too.

One of his popular songs - 'Chi Mai' - which was used as the theme for a BBC TV drama The Life and Times of David Lloyd George reached No 2 in the UK chart in 1981.

Ennio Morricone's forthcoming concert at the 3Arena follows three visits to Dublin in the last four years, when he sold out not only that venue but an open-air event at the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham as well.

This will definitely be his final visit. Over 60 years on the road is enough for Maestro Morricone. But he feels unable to bring down the curtain without another performance for his Irish public. He puts it quite simply. "I must play one final show in Dublin before I retire."

It'll be a typically bold production, featuring over 200 musicians and singers on stage, and he's anticipating a rousing send-off.

"In Dublin, I expect it'll be exactly as I've always found it," he says. "A great concert, and a great reaction from the audience.

"The Irish are always very generous, and they always pay close attention. I've always had a tremendous reception in Ireland."

Ennio Morricone performs a farewell concert at the 3Arena in Dublin on Saturday, September 23

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