In Memoriam: Ennio Morricone
Photo: Gonzalo Tello/David Lapetina

In Memoriam: Ennio Morricone

RoaringPawn
RoaringPawn
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Maestro Ennio Morricone (1928 - 2020), a genius, composer, musician and conductor passed away in Rome this Monday at the age of 91.

A Pact Made with Mephisto: Over a Game of Chess

This is the title of Chapter 1 of Morricone's In His Own Words book. There he admits, "When I was a kid I had two ambitions, to become either a physician, or a chess player, not a musician."

But his father, Mario, a professional trumpeter who performed jazz and opera and worked on movie scores, did not share his views. And his son started to write music... at the age of six (Jay Cocks, Time magazine, 1987). The Father enrolled Ennio in the conservatory, in the trumpet class. Later he ended up in the composition.

Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone in the primary school, 1937 (Leone is an Italian film director, producer and screenwriter, the creator of the Spaghetti Western genre)

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So has Morricone dedicated his entire life to music. Over sixty years of career he has signed over 500 soundtracks, sold in over 70 million copies. He has been the go-to composer for Sergio Leone, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Brian De Palma, Quentin Tarantino and many others. He’s especially renowned for his spaghetti western themes, which helped establish the mood of the genre. Morricone is two-time Oscar winner, in 2007 for Lifetime Achievement and in 2016 for the soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight.

A scene from The Hateful Eight

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When I was composing the music for Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, as I went through the script, I recognized the tension that silently grows among the characters, and I thought of that like the feelings one develops over the course of a chess game.—Ennio Morricone

Even though he may be thought of as a composer of film music, the other facets of his sophisticated personality were always at display. As Sweeting observed for The Guardian "Quiz him on his musical roots and he tips his hat to some of the most uncompromising figures of the 20th c. music, including Boulez, Stockhausen, Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono. Not that he has set out to terrify his listeners with atonal atrocities. It's more a matter of absorption and evolution."

Indeed, Morricone's music can be modern and dissonant, but still quite tonal and modal, as well as very melodic at the same time, making it accessible to the average listener as well as the average moviegoer. One can discover some of these modern elements in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

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Highly successful in music, Ennio didn't forget chess. He remained a great fan of the noble game, an amateur player who on several occasions admitted he was "sorry for not being able to dedicate the time he wanted to chess!"

In an interview, after receiving the Lifetime Achievement Oscar, they asked him this question "A wish you haven't fulfilled?" He replied "To become a chess champion, better than Kasparov!"

He even trained with the twelve-time Italian champion, IM Stefano Tatai. Despite his commitments to music, which absorbed him completely, he still reached the second national category and a rating of 1700.

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When asked what is it about chess that made him so passionate, Morricone replied,

"Sometimes it is its lack of predictability. A move exceeding the routine is indeed more difficult to foresee. Mikhail Tal, one of the greatest chess players in history, won many games thanks to moves that baffled his opponents and left them with no time to reflect. Bobby Fischer—a real ace, perhaps my favorite—invented sudden and surprising moves. They took risks playing by instinct. I instead pursue the logic of calculation.

"Well, I would say that chess is the best game precisely because it’s not a mere game. Everything is put at stake—the rules of morality, of life, the wariness and the determination to fight without bloodshed, the resolution to win and do so correctly—with talent, rather than sheer luck. In fact, when you hold these tiny wooden statuettes in your hands, they become powerful as they absorb the energy you are willing to transfer to them. In chess, there is life and there are struggles, too. It’s the most violent sport one could think of, it can be compared to boxing, although it is much more chivalrous and sophisticated."

Ennio has played chess with many of his director and composer friends. Here with Terence Malick, the Amercan director, screenwriter and producer.

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He also had the chance to face various champions (Kasparov, Karpov, Judit Polgar, Peter Leko), either in simuls, or playing light games. The peak of his chess career, as he put it, was in November of 2000 when Spassky held a simul on the occasion of 90 years of chess in Turin. Among 26 participants was also Ennio's son Andrea.

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He faced various champions who performed simultaneously but also faced others in small 'half-light' matches. He played with Karpov and Kasparov, but it should be remembered his draw in November 2000 with Spassky, when the famous (ex) world champion was invited to Turin to hold a simultaneous (26 opponents including Morricone's son, Andrea) for the celebrations of the 90 years of the establishment of the Turin Chess.

Chess is silent music, and playing is a bit like composing for me,—Ennio Morricone

"It was a great game, according to some of the people attending. The whole audience of the tournament gathered behind us—only the two of us continued to play. Later, he confessed that he had played without trying too hard. It was evident, otherwise it would never have ended that way, but still, I was very proud of myself. I still keep the transcript of the whole game on the chessboard in my studio."

Spassky played the King's Gambit.

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"I have always admired Ennio Morricone", posted Judit Polgar on Twitter Monday.

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Morricone composed the “Inno degli scacchisti” (Chess Players’ Anthem) for the Chess Olympiad in Turin 2006.

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Time to wrap it up. Chess games may be tense, express joy, anguish and determination; chess moves may be beautiful and elegant. Here is how Morricone feels about it in The Dance of the Chess Game.

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Rest in Peace, Maestro.