Ennio Morricone: the Italian film composer on reassessing his role as ‘king of the cowboy genre’

Ennio Morricone’s iconic film scores evoke images of the great American landscape like no other. But, in an exclusive interview with BBC Music Magazine back in 2016 at his house in Rome, he proved his horizons stretch well beyond that

Film composer Ennio Morricone

Words by Nick Shave. This article first appeared in the November 2016 issue of BBC Music Magazine.

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It’s one of music’s intriguing ironies that the composer who most vividly captures the sound of the American Wild West – from the coyote-styled howls of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to the lone harmonica of Once Upon a Time in the West – is from Italy. Though his classic collaborations with director Sergio Leone have significantly influenced Hollywood’s vision of its mythical past, Ennio Morricone has never been seduced by California: he doesn’t go looking to work with Hollywood’s directors (he even made the decision early on his career not to communicate with his American collaborators in English); rather, he surmises, the directors will come to him. And so it is that Morricone has continued to work from his home in the Italian capital, while casting shadows over his American contemporaries with the single-minded ease of a lone cowboy cantering at sundown.

If anything, Morricone’s distance from Hollywood has made him more prolific over time, as he has formed close collaborations with directors at home and abroad, working across every kind of film and musical genre. Eighty-eight years old in November, and after 60 years in the business, he has written more than 500 film scores – surpassing all other composers in the sheer quantity and versatility of his work. It’s rare for a composer to achieve the same fame and acknowledgement as a film’s actors, but a Morricone score is like no other: it is a distinctive brand that carries a hallmark of quality, adding kudos and style to the credits, so often living beyond the film for which it is written.

In recent years, Morricone has been touring venues across Europe, hitting record box office sales with concert performances of his themes, from his Baroque-styled score to The Mission to ‘Man with a Harmonica’ from Once Upon a Time in the West to the sentimental string-and-piano melodies of Cinema Paradiso. The themes are to appear on a Decca album, showcasing the diversity of his style. So how has he whittled down his 60 years in music to just 23 tracks? ‘They are my favourite themes,’ he says, when we meet at his Rome apartment. ‘Evidently my repertoire is so broad that it can’t really fit on to a single compact disc – we’ll make others in the future perhaps.’

As well as reaffirming his status as the king of the cowboy genre – westerns are the dominant genre on the disc – it is a reminder of the belated recognition that Morricone has enjoyed in Hollywood this year. In addition to a BAFTA award, his dread-filled soundtrack for Quentin Tarantino’s high-tension western The Hateful Eight won him a Golden Globe and his first Academy Award for an original score. But he laughs when I suggest he might take his tour to the Hollywood Bowl. ‘I’m not even thinking about it,’ he says. ‘I don’t feel like flying and going all the way to America. I didn’t even want to go and pick up the Oscar. The producer and the director asked me to please go.’ He throws open
his arms in a broad show of generosity. ‘OK, I would go to America if they pay me loads of money.’

Morricone‘s career began in humble surroundings, though not so far from the luxury residence he lives in now. He was born in Trastevere, Rome – the performances by his father, a trumpeter, in the city’s night clubs and music halls provided the family’s only source of income. At the age of six, Ennio began composing under his father’s tutelage, beginning by writing down music he’d heard on the radio, such as the overture to Weber’s Der Freischütz. ‘Perhaps those hunting themes helped me to write westerns, music for the great outdoors – they do have some links with music I wrote for Leone,’ he says. In his teens he entered the Conservatory of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia as a trumpet student and combined his instrumental lessons with studies in composition. By day he would study hard at the conservatory; in the evening he would play the clubs as a jazz trumpeter.

When he graduated, Morricone had aspirations to become a composer of serious avant-garde music, and his early works show his yearning for atonal experimentation, but it was his deft ability as an arranger that would keep him in pocket during his early career-forming years. In the late 1950s and early ’60s he arranged hundreds of songs, initially keeping his identity a secret with a view to still making his name as a classical composer. But his reputation soon spread – and it was not his film scoring that would impress his elementary-school classmate Sergio Leone when they reunited to discuss A Fistful of Dollars, but his and Californian folk singer Peter Tevis’s arrangement of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Pastures of Plenty’. With the song reworked into the film’s title theme, A Fistful of Dollars – whipcracks, bells, gallops and all – became Morricone’s first big soundtrack, written under the pseudonym of Dan Savio. ‘I took a pseudonym because the producers wanted the film to appear to be an American production,’ he explains. ‘I couldn’t use my name.’

Leone’s partnership offered both director and composer tremendous scope to showcase their talents. Morricone would write the music first, with Leone later setting it to images. In A Fistful of Dollars and the two later instalments of the trilogy – For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) – the composer’s characteristic use of soprano voices and male choir perfectly matched the epic sweep of Leone’s dramas and his influential use of wide-screen film production.

The characters, too, are overblown, their caricature-like quality heightened by Morricone’s foregrounding of close-up sound: whether the braying of a horse or the ticking of a clock, sound is used not only to give a sense of place, but to create a reality that’s larger than life. ‘I am not a specialist in American folk music, so what sense was there in my treating the characters like Americans?’ says Morricone. ‘If that is required, use an American composer. The caricatured treatment of the characters encouraged me to introduce strange sounds into the score so that they would have the charisma Leone wanted.’

The drawing room where we sit, on long white sofas beneath a vast crystal chandelier and gold-gilded ceiling, offers tasteful clues to Morricone’s success in the pop charts and the movie industry over the years. The walls are lined with classical tapestries and beautiful artworks – Morricone is a serious art collector – and its tall windows that look down on to the grand Victor Emmanuel Monument in the centre of Rome. Spread over three floors, the apartment, previously belonging to film producer Carlo Ponti and his wife Sophia Loren, has been Morricone’s residence for more than 30 years. It includes a roof garden and several terraces from which the views of the city, I’m told, are breathtaking. At one point he disappears into the room next door to find two CDs of his work to give me, letting me know that he never gives his music away to journalists, before checking his watch to remind me that our time is almost up.

Given the size of Morricone’s output, he understandably prefers not just to discuss his Leone projects, pointing out the cowboy films for which he was once typecast make up ten per cent of his output. (Between 1963 and ’80, during the heyday of his western-scoring, a mere 35 of his 300 films were westerns.) But it was his loyal collaborations with Leone (he scored all of the director’s films after A Fistful of Dollars) that would allow him to pursue other projects: long-term collaborations with Italian directors such as Giuseppe Tornatore, all of whose films he has scored over the last three decades, and Pier Paolo Pasolini.

He has had the freedom to experiment with electronics in the horror films of Dario Argento and John Carpenter, such as the classic 1982 horror The Thing, while still being wooed by Hollywood to work on historical dramas such as The Mission, Roland Joffé’s 1986 Jesuits’ journey epic, or Brian De Palma’s late-’80s Chicago gangster movie The Untouchables, for both of which Morricone received Oscar nominations. 

Despite the influence his collaboration with Leone has had on America’s directors – such as Sam Peckinpah, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg – full Academy recognition has been slow. More than 30 years have elapsed since The Mission’s release, but he still appears disgruntled when I ask him whether his Academy-nominated score should have won the award for best original score. ‘What can I do – they didn’t give me the award,’ he says. ‘I left feeling angry because I felt that they had misassigned that Oscar award. I think they made a mistake because the movie they awarded for the best music [Round Midnight] was in the wrong category – the music [by Herbie Hancock] for that film was not entirely original. It shouldn’t have been considered in that category.’

But the film did mark a turning point for Morricone, in terms of pay. ‘With The Mission, I started reconsidering working with Hollywood, because prior to that I had decided to quit and never work there again,’ he says. ‘In Italy there were different levels of pay – I got the highest, but in the States, it should have been tenfold that amount. When I got this information through my interpreter in the States I said, “You know what, I’m not going to do any more movies.”’

I suggest that not working in an essentially risk-averse industry could have saved him from making creative compromises, but he disagrees. ‘I always felt free, and obviously they called me because they held me in the highest esteem.’ So did he ever run into any difficulties with directors there – or was it all plain sailing? ‘There was only one instance in which my music wasn’t liked in a film by a director, and that’s because they listened to the music on their own without my being present; it was intended to be played very softly and instead they cranked up the volume.’ He laughs, and diplomatically declines to name the film.

And that is one of Morricone’s great talents, striking a balance between meeting the needs of each director he works with and honouring the musical problems that arise from each score he writes. In addition to his film works, he has written more than 100 concert pieces which enjoy nothing like the same level of exposure – the ‘homemade’ recording, which he thrusts into my hand as he shows me out, turns out to include a collection of lesser-heard concert works for choir and orchestra.

Where most composers might become frustrated with this hidden double life, Morricone has searched for the most effective way of reach out to his public with simpler ideas. And he has succeeded. As he embarks on his seventh decade in cinema, he is not only still top of his game, a master craftsman among musical hacks, but wears the knowing smile of someone who has found a use for Hollywood.

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