This Time, Morricone Is an Oscar Lock Forty years ago, Italian composer Ennio Morricone rode into America with the soundtrack for a Western titled A Fistful of Dollars. This year, for only the second time in its history, the Motion Picture Academy will present a film-music composer with a lifetime achievement award.

This Time, Morricone Is an Oscar Lock

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If you've been an avid moviegoer at any point in the past five decades, there's a good chance you've heard a lot of Ennio Morricone's music. "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"?


ELLIOTT: Ennio Morricone. "Days of Heaven"?


ELLIOTT: Ennio Morricone. "The Mission"?


ELLIOTT: Ennio Morricone. "The Untouchables," "1900," "Cinema Paradiso," "Bulworth," "The Thing." The list goes on and on because this composer has written close to 500 film scores. Ennio Morricone traveled to New York City this week from his home in Rome to make his American concert debut. He led a performance at the United Nations last night for the new secretary general. And tonight he conducts an orchestra and chorus at Radio City Music Hall. Later this month, he'll be honored with an Oscar award for lifetime achievement. We spoke with Ennio Morricone at our New York studio with the help of his translator, Roberta Rinaldi(ph). Maestro Morricone, welcome to the program. Thank you for coming to speak with us.

ENNIO MORRICONE: (Through translator) Thank you for having me.

ELLIOTT: You will soon be recognized with a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars. I'd like to take this moment to ask you to reflect on your philosophy of the role of music in film.

MORRICONE: (Through translator) Well, I understand and I know that a movie kind of belongs to the director. So what I do is actually follow his indications and follow him and I know that this is a complimentary art to directing movies. When I start composing, when I start writing, I usually have an idea or more than one idea, so I know the characters, I know the plot, I know the film. And then I start composing.

ELLIOTT: Where do you work?

MORRICONE: (Through translator) In my house - in my, what I call my study, where there is no piano but where there is a desk and when I usually compose.

ELLIOTT: How do you work without a piano? When I think of a composer, I picture someone sitting down at a piano.

MORRICONE: (Through translator) Well, this is a very romantic thought, but a composer doesn't usually write at a piano. He simply sits at his desk and starts writing, starts composing. It is very uncomfortable to write when playing the piano.

ELLIOTT: Maestro Morricone, many other composers for film scores will do the melody, will get the basics down, and then hand off the project to another person to do the orchestration, to actually do the conducting. You do not work this way. Why not? Why is it important to you to carry through?

MORRICONE: (Through translator) Because a real composer has to take care of all his music. And those who actually just write the melody and then hand it on to someone else are not - to me they're not real composers. Or if they are composers, they are lazy composers. Or if they are doing it right at composing but that they don't like writing scores, then it means that they don't really like their job or what they're doing or they're too busy.

ELLIOTT: We recently did a story about George Gershwin and the first time he did a Hollywood picture. And they actually had him do the score before they shot the movie. Do you ever work that way?

MORRICONE: (Through translator) Yes, I have worked like that. And I've got to say this sometimes gave great results. But I believe that if you do have a feeling with a director and you know the way he's going to work, you know the story and you've talked with him long enough, then you know how the movie's going to be and you can write and you can compose before, as the film is being shot. For "Once Upon a Time in America," some of the themes were composed beforehand.


ELLIOTT: You are so well known for your themes from the 1960s westerns "A Fist Full of Dollars", "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." And when you listen to that music, it evokes this wide open space, this Wild West feel. You can almost see the tumbleweed rolling across the plain when you hear it. Do you think that at that point in time you were capturing something that was very American, or do you think you in some ways created the American Wild West with your music?

MORRICONE: (Through translator) Well, I did not create the Wild West. The director did it with his images, really. What I think I have done is I have specified and made it clearer what the characters, the main characters were feeling and doing at the time in those scenes.


ELLIOTT: Is there a particular piece that you are most fond of?

MORRICONE: (Through translator) I think this is the new one I'm going to compose. The one I haven't composed yet. That's my favorite.

ELLIOTT: Do you ever envision taking a retirement?

MORRICONE: (Through translator) I have been thinking of this for about 50 years. And every 10 years I say to my wife, okay, when I'm 40 I'm going to stop. And then when I'm 50 I'm going to stop. And when I'm 60, and then so on and so forth.

ELLIOTT: I don't think she believes you.

MORRICONE: (Through translator) And of course this does not happen because I'm asked to do things. I'm asked to work.

ELLIOTT: And that's good. You're passionate about your work. I can tell.

MORRICONE: (Through translator) That's why I never get bored.

ELLIOTT: Maestro Ennio Morricone, thank you so much for coming in to speak with us.

ELLIOTT: Congratulations also on your Oscar.

MORRICONE: (Through translator) Thanks very much.

ELLIOTT: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

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