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.
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