A veteran of nearly 400 film soundtracks, Italian composer Ennio Morricone has died at the age of 91. It was his music for the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone – including ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ – that first made his name. But in a career of extraordinary stylistic diversity, he later forged significant creative partnerships with directors including Giuseppe Tornatore, Brian De Palma, Dario Argento and Quentin Tarantino. He was nominated for five Academy Awards, and won one for 2016’s ‘The Hateful Eight’.
This century he had widely toured his scores on the international concert stage, including at London’s Hammersmith Apollo in the summer of 2006. Here’s an interview we published just before that show, discussing his incredible work rate, his collaborative style and his late shift towards live concerts.
Are there advantages to listeners not having seen all the films whose scores you’re performing?
‘I think it’s better that the audience doesn’t know the films, so they can enjoy the music on its own terms. But this means that the music has to stand up by itself.’
A lot of the music you’re performing now comes from the late ’60s and early ’70s, when you were turning out 15 or 20 scores a year, an extraordinary level of creativity.
‘When you compare it to the great classical composers, I still didn’t write that much. Rossini wrote “The Barber of Seville” in 15 days, so beside that my efforts look pretty meagre. Actually, I refused a lot of assignments at that time, because if I’d kept on just doing the same type of films I’d have been suicidal.’
What’s more important, technical accomplishment or an emotional response to the material?
‘I’d say they were equal. You need that initial response, but you have to have the technical skills to take it further. If a project comes to you all of a sudden, your technique helps you save yourself. The fact that you might have more time on a different occasion and believe that your work is emboldened by your emotional response isn’t enough – emotion can lead to uncertain outcomes when it outweighs your professionalism.’
How would you describe your ideal collaboration with a director?
‘It has to be a matter of mutual trust, so it’s easier to find a connection. If the director trusts the composer, they do find these points of union more easily.’
And have some filmmakers come closer than others?
‘Nearly all of them. Sometimes it’s tougher, sometimes it’s easier, but even though it’s easier that doesn’t necessarily make the result better.’
Are there any filmmakers who have a particularly musical sensibility?
‘Giuseppe Tornatore [“Cinema Paradiso”] is a very musical person, and he’s really improved a lot in understanding about music. He has a genuine response to certain chords and musical structures that have moved him.’
Did Sergio Leone encourage you to push the envelope in the classic scores you created for him?
‘I have to say that he didn’t really tell me anything, because he didn’t have the musical imagination necessary to give me any directions. What he did have was the fundamental quality for a director of understanding what was right for his films, and we got along really well because he realised that my music worked for him.’
You’ve recently scaled down your film score work to take on live performances; is that direct public acclaim more satisfying for you?
‘I just like it. I like to feel and understand people’s contentment with what I’ve done.’
And any unfulfilled ambitions?
‘Yes, to compose music.’
Original interview by Trevor Johnston.
Discover Morricone’s most famous scores among the 50 greatest westerns of all time.