There are few names more synonymous with the sound of cinema than Ennio Morricone. The cultural titan was so prolific that nobody can say for certain how many film scores he actually wrote, but we have talked to a man who has played and recorded all of Morricone’s compositions for solo piano.
Italian pianist Roberto Prosseda’s release of the late and famed composer Ennio Morricone’s complete piano music has earned a lot of attention since its release in June.The album includes all the (currently available) original piano pieces that Ennio Morricone composed, plus nine transcriptions of his movie music that he himself made. The piano was always an especially dear instrument to Morricone, as confirmed by the frequent piano pieces in his soundtracks.
Morricone often played his music at the piano for the directors and producers he collaborated with. Prosseda preferred to alternate his movie music with the other compositions in order to notice some unexpectedly shared features between pieces that are apparently very distant from each other and to emphasize how all of Morricone’s music derives from the same matrix. Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell talked to Roberto Prosseda about Morricones music and their collaboration.
Piano Street: Roberto, your new album is not only a complete collection of Ennio Morricone’s original piano music and film music piano transcriptions done by himself, but it’s also a documentation of your personal relation you had with the composer. How did it all start?
Roberto Prosseda: When I was a student, I often attended contemporary music concerts in Rome, as I was studying composition as well. Ennio Morricone was often present at those concerts, where his “absolute” music often was performed. So, for me, his name was connected to the contemporary music scene, more than to the soundtrack music.
Morricone studied composition with Goffredo Petrassi, who was the composition teacher of my piano teacher, Sergio Cafaro, and I was very familiar with Petrassi and his piano music, which I recorded on CD in 2000. So it was quite natural for me to consider Morricone’s non-for-movie piano music as part of that line coming from Petrassi (together with other Petrassi’s students, like Boris Porena and Aldo Clementi).
I met him in 2010, when I was awarded the Petrassi Prize at Parco della Musica in Rome, and by coincidence, Ennio Morricone was the one who consigned me this prize! One year later, when I started playing the pedal piano, I asked him if he was interested in writing a piece for pedal piano, and he reacted with great interest and curiosity. Some months later he sent me the score of “Studio IV bis per piano-pedaliera”, which he dedicated to me. He came to the premiere of the piece, at La Sapienza University in Rome, on 23 Feb. 2013 (the photos in the CD booklet are taken from that concert). Since then, I promised him that I would record all the rest of his original piano music, and I am glad, after 10 years, that I could realize this project.
PS: Does Morricone put a clear distinction between ”absolute music” and his film music?
RP: I am not sure that Morricone wanted a drastic distinction between his film music and his absolute music. Even if he had a different name for these two groups of his compositions, it doesn’t mean that he would consider them as two completely separated ways of composing. Indeed, we can find similar compositional techniques in both his absolute music and in his soundtracks. The distinction, of course, consists in the different destinations of the music. Morricone loved what he called “musica assoluta” (the music composed independently from any movie), as in this case he was free to experiment and to imagine music constructions and sounds without having to follow the instructions or requirement of a movie director or producer. But it is also true that Morricone was able to be very free and innovative also in his “musica applicata” (as he called his music for cinema). We know that sometimes he would compose the music even before the movie was filmed, just according to a general storyboard received from the director. In this case, as it happened with the western movies by Sergio Leone, the music was sometimes played on loudspeakers during the shooting, to help the actors to “enter the moods” of the story.
PS: How does he treat his film compositions in terms of arranging them for piano?
RP: Morricone was very jealous of his music scores, and did not publish any piano arrangement of his pieces. The many piano arrangements that we can find are not by him and sometimes tend to simplify the music, or to change some basic features to adapt the score to the piano writing. The original piano arrangements made by Morricone himself are only a few ones, and most of them are included in my Decca CD. He only gave those arrangements to very few pianists that he knew personally and trusted. Morricone was originally a trumpet player and, of course, he could play the piano, which he often did when he played his music for the film directors during the preparation of the movies. In his piano transcriptions, you can see how much he could sense the resonance possibilities of the piano. He never indulges in “reinforcing” the piano writing with tremolos or octaves (typical of many other piano arrangements from orchestras scores), and is very precise in the articulation and dynamic indications.
Morricone was able to create a particular magic or tension with just a few notes. Some of his best themes are made of two or three notes (reiterated, inverted and subjected to complex elaboration). This is the case of the “Playing Love”, from “The Legend of 1900” (originally for piano), where the theme is made of three ascending notes (D, E, F#) and one fourth note, one sixth lower. The themes are developed from this short group of notes, which are subject to several inversions, or permutation. He does the same also in “Il Deserto dei Tartari”, which exists in a beautiful piano arrangement by Ennio Morricone.
There are several connections between Morricone’s music and the Classical and Romantic piano. The main theme of “Investigation on a Citizen above Suspicion”, for example, is quite similar to the incipit of Mendelssohn’s Lied ohne Worte op. 53 No. 5, in the same key of A minor!
PS: In the film ”Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion” from 1970, Morricone looked for a sound with a grungy quality utilizing imperfectly tuned instruments. Tell me how you met this wish in your choice of instrument for the recording.
RP: Morricone was actually very innovative in using special sounds and even noises in his music. In the original soundtrack for this movie, Morricone prescribed the use of an out of tune piano, to give a sense of the grungy atmosphere. So, during my recording session, I asked Paolo Fazioli to let me use, only for this piece, the “Fazioli No. 1”, the first ever piano that he built (1978), that had a particular voice, quite different from the recent, polished and brilliant Fazioli grands, and I also asked the tuner to “un-tune” the piano. I am happy about the result, and consider it quite faithful to Morricone’s idea for this music. Of course also in my playing I emphasized the percussive aspect, using almost no pedal and looking for a dry, direct sound.
PS: Morricone’s last piano piece, ”Studio 4 bis per il piano-pedaliera”, was a request from you to the composer. You are well known as a pedal piano performer. How did you find Morricone’s attempt on this rare instrument?
RP: As mentioned earlier, in 2011 I contacted Ennio Morricone to hear if he was interested in writing a concerto for pedal piano and orchestra. He was very interested in this unusual instrument, and asked me to send him all the details about it (instrument range, technique, etc.). Only a few weeks later, Ennio phoned me and said: “I wrote a pedal piano piece for you”. It was not, of course, a piano concerto, but a short “Etude”, that he derived from his previous “Studio 4 per il piano-forte”, adding an extra line for the pedalboard. In this way, the piece is drastically transformed, and gets a real “3D” feeling thanks to the “3rd dimension” given by the pedalboard. The performance is quite tricky, as each voice has a different meter and accentuation (similarly to what happens in Ligeti’s Etudes) and requires a particular attention to the dynamic control as well. This is a clear example of the complexity of Ennio Morricone’s musical research. He was a great melodist and wrote immortal themes, but was also a wonderful experimenter of new musical techniques and languages.