When Ennio Morricone was awarded the prestigious Polar Music Prize in 2010, he was honored for compositions that “lift our existence to another plane” and for “making the mundane feel like dramatic scenes in full Cinemascope.”
The award is normally given each year to one classical and one contemporary musician — Morricone was paired with Björk — but Morricone himself could have qualified for both, for he has always straddled, or, more accurately, embraced these two worlds with rare poise. This duality is what makes him one of the most remarkable figures in music. His career took flight in the movie house — he has written some of the landmark film scores of the past 50 years — but at the same time, he has never left the concert hall behind.
Bernardo Bertolucci, the celebrated director of 1900 (1976), for which Morricone wrote the score, has said: “He is someone with two identities. One is the composer of contemporary music, and the other is this composer of big epics, this popular music for movies. All his life he has been trying to nourish one identity with the other one, and it is as if the two voices were enriching each other. He has a great capacity of harmonizing in himself.”
Morricone, whose Voices From the Silence will receive its CSO debut on Feb. 6-8, himself shrugs it off as the most natural thing in the world. “I mingle things,” he told the New York Times in 2007, “and sometimes I turn into a chameleon.” But the unusual way he mixes thing up, embracing the high and the low, the serious and the comical, the sublime and the horrid — and in particular, the popular and the “classical” — is very much a reflection of our society. “We are living in a modern world, and in contemporary music, the central fact is contamination — not the contamination of disease, but the contamination of musical styles. If you find this in me, that is good.”
Morricone became famous around the world in the 1960s as the composer of iconic scores for Sergio Leone’s Italian-made Westerns, later known as the first of the so-called spaghetti Westerns: “A Fistful of Dollars”; “For a Few Dollars More,” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Morricone has now scored more than 450 films (he has lost count, he says), and the list includes many landmarks: “The Battle of Algiers” (1966), “Cinema Paradiso” (1989), “The Untouchables” (1987), “Days of Heaven” (1978), “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968), “The Mission” (1984). He has worked with the greatest directors of our time, including Bertolucci, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Roman Polanski, Brian De Palma, Lina Wertmüller, Terrence Malick and Pedro Almodóvar. Morricone was nominated for an Oscar five times, and five times he was passed by; the academy finally honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007. (Clint Eastwood, “The Man With No Name” in the “Dollars” trilogy, translated Morricone’s acceptance speech from the stage.) Just last month, in conjunction with the annual Grammys, the Recording Academy presented Morricone with its Trustees Award for his work as a “true master.”
Morricone grew up playing the trumpet, his father’s instrument. He sometimes stepped in for his father, playing jazz or in the opera orchestra. By the time he studied trumpet and composition at the Conservatorio Santa Cecilia in Rome, he was already arranging and writing pop songs. He received his diploma in 1954, after working under the influential composer Goffredo Petrassi (the CSO has performed two of his works). The earliest scores in Morricone’s catalog are songs and piano pieces from the late 1940s; he continues to add new works to this day. Even at the height of his film career, Morricone never stopped writing his “absolute” music: a sextet, a concerto for orchestra, choral works, pieces for solo cello, a double concerto for flute and cello, a setting of a text by Primo Levi, an opera titled Partenope.
Morricone’s concert music exhibits the great lyricism of his film scores — and he has composed some of the movies’ most unforgettable melodies. (Yo-Yo Ma, the CSO’s Judson and Joyce Green creative consultant, made a memorable recording of some of Morricone’s most lyrical movie music in 2004, with the composer conducting.) Conversely, his film music reveals a serious composer’s penchant for exploring unexpected sonorities and timbres. (Working on “Once Upon a Time in the West,” he even convinced Leone, the director, to open not with music per se, but simply with amplified natural ambient sounds — the squeak of a swinging sign, chalk scraping on a blackboard, a creaking door.) The fluid give-and-take between Morricone’s two musical worlds is central to his identity as a composer, and in fact, a haunting four-note motif from “The Mission” score returns, to memorable effect, at the cathartic conclusion of Voices From the Silence.
It was Riccardo Muti who suggested Morricone compose a work that paid tribute to 9/11, which Muti would premiere at the Ravenna Festival. The Ravenna Festival began its series, “Paths to Friendship,” in 1997, by taking concerts to crisis points around Europe and beyond, including Sarajevo, Beirut, Jerusalem and Istanbul. Voci dal silencio (Voices From the Silence) now added another city, New York — one that had only recently been thought of as a crisis point — to the list. Four years after the Ravenna premiere, Voices From the Silence was performed at the United Nations, with Morricone on the podium.
Voices From the Silence is a cantata for chorus, narrator, pre-recorded sounds and orchestra. Morricone said he composed the score in response to “the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and all the massacres of humanity all over the world.” At the head of the score, Morricone writes: “Against terrorism, against racism, and all forms of ethnic persecution. For equality among all people.”
For his text, Morricone turned to a poem by the South African writer Richard Rive, who was born and raised in Cape Town’s District 6, a lively multiracial community that was condemned as a slum in 1966, bulldozed, and rezoned exclusively for whites. “I always feel when I am here in District 6 that I am standing over a vast cemetery of people who have been moved away against their will,” he said in 1988. “The legacy of District 6 is to show what avarice and political bigotry can do.”
The following year, Rive was found murdered in his house near Cape Town. He had been stabbed several times and beaten in the face. A solitary man without family, Rive lives on in his highly charged writings about oppression.
Phillip Huscher is the program annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.