Ennio Morricone, composer with a lot to say about the Church

Matthew Schellhorn explores the life of Ennio Morricone.
For a composer whose main sphere of influence was in that most secular of institutions – the Hollywood film industry – Ennio Morricone, who has died aged 91, had a lot to say about the path taken by the Catholic Church in the 20th century.

His fecund musical voice, which produced over 400 film soundtracks and 100 concert scores, was influenced by the natural lines and free rhythmic forms of Gregorian chant – “a vital and important tradition”. A deep respect for the past fed into Morricone’s musical tastes. “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.”

Significantly, after the Second Vatican Council, and just at the point when Mor­ricone might have had the most influence on Rome (his 1966 release of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly went on to sell more than 3 million copies), he dec­lined an official invitation to advise Church authorities on new sacred repertoire. “The Church and Christians have Gregorian chant, but they said now we need to have this other music, so I refused.”

Morricone was in many respects, like the title of another of his films, “the out­sider”. He never learned to speak Eng­lish and he positioned himself outside the American-dominant film industry – “I was offered a free villa in Hollywood, but I said, ‘No thank you, I prefer to live in Rome.’” Where formulaic plots dog­­ged screenplays, particularly in the so-called Spaghetti Western genre to which he contributed and vastly enhanced, Morricone’s creative orchestrations, expertly betokening nocturnal shrieks and wailing hyenas, show that he was never susceptible to musical stereotypes.

Ennio Morricone was born in Rome on November 10, 1928 to a textile-selling mother and a father who was a professional trumpeter. It was at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rome that he became friends with classmate (subsequently director, producer and screenwriter) Sergio Leone: they would later collaborate over A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).

Studying trumpet, composition and choral music, his completion of a four-year harmony course in under six months augured his further distinction in the Composition diploma. A stint in writing for radio dramas was foreshortened when in 1958, on his first day working for Radio Audizioni Italiane, he quit in protest that employees could not have their compositions broadcast. A new role as arranger for RCA Victor sat alongside his work in the avant-garde composer collective, Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, which contributed to some of his scores.

After success in comedy, such as La Cage aux Folles of 1978 and its sequels, and in “giallo” and horror – the deranged liturgical overtones of The Devil is a Woman (1974) and Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) being particularly telling – Morricone settled into a lucrative flood of commissions. His music became firmly positioned as a means of evangelism with The Mission (1986), which relates the experiences of a Jesuit missionary in 18th-century South America. The soundtrack was nominated for an Academy Award, winning a Golden Globe for Best Original Score and a BAFTA for Best Music.

Latterly, Morricone turned his attention towards the Mass, having previously stated he did not “feel the need” to exp­lore the genre. The Missa Papae Francisci (2015) – scored for double chorus, orchestra and organ and dedicated to Pope Francis to mark the 200th anniversary of the restoration of the Society of Jesus – ­was a nod to Palestrina’s great homage to Pope Marcellus II. Morricone stated he had only ever cried on two occasions, “when I first watched The Mission and when I met the Pope”.

Morricone dedicated his Mass, and his honorary Oscar for “magnificent and multifaceted contributions to the art of film music” (1997), to his wife, whom he married in October 1956 and who assisted him as a lyricist. “To her, the most painful farewell”, Morricone wrote as he confronted his mortality. Maria Travia Morricone survives him, along with a daughter and three sons, among whom are conductor and film composer Andrea Morricone and filmmaker Giovanni Morricone.

This article was published in The Catholic Herald, 06/08/2020