The Cinema Paradiso of Ennio Morricone’s sacred compositions

“Music is definitely close to God,” said the the legendary Italian composer, who died on July 6, 2020, “[and] the one true art that truly draws near to the eternal Father and to eternity.”

Enrico Morricone receives the Per Artem ad Deum Medal ("Through Arts to God") from Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi in 2012. (Image: Czarmx/Wikipedia)

When I am falling asleep, I still imagine that I am responding to my mother’s Ave Maria … I pray for an hour every day, sometimes even more. It is the first thing that I do. Also throughout the day, when possible. In the morning I sit before that [image of Jesus] Christ. And also in the evening. I hope that my prayers are listened to.” —Ennio Morricone, in an 2015 interview in Italian Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana.

After more than six decades of making paradisiacal music for the cinema, the legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone left this world on July 6th of this year at age 91 after suffering complications resulting from a fall and subsequent broken leg. A statement from a spokesman for the family, who were at his side in his final days, confirmed that the movie music maestro “died with the comfort of faith.”

Besides his renown for putting the “opera” into horse opera, most famously spaghetti Westerns like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), one of Morricone’s most prestigious film scores was for the Academy Award-winner for Best Foreign Language Film, Cinema Paradiso (1988). He wrote film music for a great many directors from his native Italy, who in addition to Sergio Leone and Giuseppe Tornatore included Bernardo Bertolucci, Franco Zeffirelli, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and others. Morricone scored films for more than six decades, and worked with Old Hollywood directors such as Edward Dmytryk. In post-studio Hollywood, he produced film music for William Friedkin, Mike Nichols, John Boorman, Roman Polanski, John Carpenter, Brian De Palma, Clint Eastwood, Barry Levinson, Oliver Stone, and Quentin Tarantino (whose Hateful Eight earned Morricone his only Oscar, though he was nominated for many).

But Morricone told Italy’s Catholic daily Avvenire in 2015 that, in one way or another, in all his music, “I have always found something sacred and mystical, even in the soundtracks I wrote for Sergio Leone’s westerns.” The Catholic-born composer reminded the periodical that “I also wrote properly sacred pages,” a chapter of his life that is sparsely reported. “In 1966 a Requiem, in the early nineties I wrote a Via Crucis (Way of the Cross), in 1995 an Ave Regina Caelorum (Hail, Queen of Heaven), in 2008 Vuoto d’anima piena (Emptiness of a Full Soul) for the Cathedral of Sarsina” (the last a cantata partly inspired by the mysticism of St. Teresa of Ávila and St. John of the Cross). Then there is his Mass, dedicated to Pope Francis.

The most obvious place where the sacred and the secular converge in Morricone’s career is The Mission (1986), written by A Man for All Seasons (1966) scenarist Robert Bolt and directed by There Be Dragons (2011) filmmaker Roland Joffé. The Mission centers on the efforts of the Spanish Jesuit missionaries to save the Guaraní people of Paraguay, with Jeremy Irons as a character based on St. Roque González de Santa Cruz and Robert De Niro as a slaver-turned-priest. To prepare for the film, Morricone told Corriere della Sera in a 2018 interview, “I studied Claudio Monteverdi and Pierluigi da Palestrina.” Three choir pieces set themselves apart as music for the liturgy – the Te Deum Guaraní, Ave Maria Guaraní, and Miserere. The composition of these, he reasoned to The Journal of Jesuit Studies in 2016, could only take a page from “the Council of Trent, authoritative and in my view proper, which set the rules of the liturgical music at the time. Before the council, people used to sing religious songs with profane words, and profane songs with religious words. It is a practice that often returns in sacred music and one which recently [Pope] Benedict [XVI] rightly tried to correct.” Additionally there is his “On Earth as It Is in Heaven,” a theme used in the film’s closing credits and trailer, which mixes a Latin choir with tribal rhythmic percussions for a contrast and increasingly insistent blending of two cultures fated to coalesce.

Avvenire notes that in Italy “[t]he famous theme Gabriel’s Oboe [from The Mission] often resonates in our churches.” To this day, sheet music for The Mission is commercially available for choir use, and America contributor Father Jim McDermott, SJ says compositions from the film are “frequently featured at Jesuit institutions during Masses of the Holy Spirit, baccalaureate celebrations, ordinations, funerals and on the feast of St. Ignatius.”

Many of Morricone’s films are connected to faith in differing ways. Days of Heaven (1978), from director Terrence Malick, derives its title from Deuteronomy 11: 21 and is quoted by a priest offering prayers of thanksgiving at a harvesting of wheat. There is his “African-Flemish Mass” featured in The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977). More overtly, he scored the lives of saints in the hagiopic Francesco (1989), which starred Mickey Rourke as St. Francis of Assisi, as well as Padre Pio: Between Heaven and Earth (2000) and (with his son Andrea) Maria Goretti (2003).

Morricone contributed soundtracks to multiple miniseries produced by Vincenzo Labella, the man who brought Jesus of Nazareth (1977) to television – Moses the Lawgiver (1974), Jacob (1994), and Joseph (1995). Other biblically-based miniseries credited to Morricone include Genesis: The Creation and the Flood (1994), Solomon (1997), The Fourth King (1997), and Nicolas Roeg’s Samson and Delilah (1996). Before any of these he supplied director John Huston the music for the big-screen epic The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966).

Also for television were his scores for the World War Two drama The Scarlet and the Black (1983), with Gregory Peck as Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty, whose work for Pope Pius XII saved thousands of Jews and escaped POWs during the German Occupation of Rome, and the miniseries The Good Pope: Pope John XXIII (2003). Other small-screen papal biopic projects for which he contributed music were Karol: A Man Who Became Pope (2005) and its sequel Karol: The Pope, The Man (2006). Sources attribute, but do not name, a Morricone cantata set to text from Pope St. John Paul II’s writings, possibly a revised version of Tra Cielo e Terra (Between Heaven and Earth) that he performed in Targi Kielce, Poland when he received the Per Artem ad Deum Medal.

In 2015 Morricone debuted Missa Papae Francisci (Mass for Pope Francis), his first and last Mass composition. Morricone regarded the Mass, even in this modern age, as “still a fundamental step in the path of a composer, a fundamental passage as the great ones teach us from Mozart to Schubert to Bruckner.” Between his liturgical pieces from The Mission, including the Requiem glorioso (Glorious Requiem), which became “On Earth as It Is in Heaven”; the Kyrie, Gloria, and Agnus Dei from The Exorcist II’s “African-Flemish Mass”; and his Requiem per un destino (Requiem for a Destiny) ballet music, it was as if Morricone were inching towards composing a full-fledged Mass much of his career. Even as late as the 20th century, unlikely pop musicians continued to dabble in the Mass “genre” – Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem, the Mass and Missa Brevis by Leonard Bernstein (who was originally set to score The Mission), and the Elliot Goldenthal Juan Darién: A Carnival Mass but Morricone’s Mass distinguishes itself with its papal seal of approval and performance at the mother church of the Jesuit order in in Rome.

In the Avvenire interview, Morricone says he bookends his Francis Mass with a musical quotation from his score for The Mission. It is an apt quote since that film not only honors the 18th century Jesuits who protected the native population from Spaniard and Portuguese forces, the Mass was originally conceived as a composition to mark the bicentenary of the Society of Jesus’ restoration. That Pope Francis was a Jesuit brought all of it together in a way Morricone deemed “almost miraculous.” Morricone dedicated Missa Papae Francisci to the Latin American pontiff, as well as to Mrs. Morricone who, throughout their married life, urged her husband to compose a Mass. (Morricone ultimately did so when approached by a Jesuit, Fr. Daniele Libanori.) To Morricone the dedication was fitting and heartfelt because “Pope Francis immediately won me over…by turning the church around, trying to correct the distortions that exist. A path that, however, he was able to follow due to the great preparatory work done by Benedict XVI.”

For his Mass, Morricone told Avvenire that he “looked at Monteverdi and Frescobaldi, but also at Stravinsky. And above all to my teacher, Gowredo Petrassi.” The result is a Mass for orchestra (percussion, cellos, double basses, trumpets, horns, trombones), two organs, and “a double choir to reconnect with the teaching of the Council of Trent.” He explained in The Journal of Jesuit Studies that the “two choirs [are] because I wanted to be faithful to the Venetian tradition of Adrian Willaert (c.1490–1562) and of Andrea (c.1533–85) and Giovanni Gabrieli (c.1554–1612), the founders of the Venetian polychoral school that made an extensive use of two split choirs (cori spezzati).”

Morricone expressed his distaste for “guitars and popular songs” as part of the Catholic liturgy to the National Catholic Register in 2019: “I don’t like it at all. Gregorian Chant is a vital and important tradition of the Church and to waste this by having guys mix religious words with profane, Western songs is hugely grave, hugely grave.” While he “support[s] either Mass in Latin or in a country’s national language,” he did say that “[a]fter the Second Vatican Council, I was asked to be a consultor to the vicariate for two pieces of sung Church music, and I refused. The Church and Christians have Gregorian chant, and they said we had to now have this other music, so I refused. All the musicians in Rome also refused to work with it.”

In Missa Papae Francisci, he tells Avvenire, there is finally “[a]n overcoming of the Gregorian monody to give space to the polyphony of voices in an atmosphere of serenity and reconciliation.” At the premiere of Missa Papae Francisci at the Church of the Gesù in Rome, where Jesuit founder St. Ignatius of Loyala is buried, Morricone and his wife were personally greeted beforehand by Pope Francis, who presented them each with blessed rosaries. Morricone showed Pope Francis the first page of the score literally composed in the shape of a musical cross, the horns and trumpets forming the vertical arm of the cross and the rest of the orchestra the other arm. “[T]he only two times I have ever cried,” the composer said, was “when I first watched The Mission and when I met the Pope.”

A year before Morricone’s death, Pope Francis honored the composer with the Pontifical Gold Medal for his “extraordinary artistic work in the sphere of music.” Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, presented the award to Morricone in 2019 at the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, in Piazza Navona in Rome. It would not be the first papal commendation the Vatican had conferred upon Morricone. In 2012 the Pontifical Council for Culture, created through the initiatives of St. John Paul II, recognized Morricone’s talents with the Per Artem ad Deum (“Through Arts to God”) Medal. Morricone, in the company of Andrea Bocelli, Arvo Pärt, and other musicians and artists, gathered at the Sistine Chapel in 2009 to hear Pope Benedict XVI exhort them to “not reduc[e] the horizons of existence to mere material realities.”

The manifestly religious repertoire of Morricone includes Amen (1998) for six choruses of mixed voices and the plea for peace titled Jerusalem (2010), a cantata for baritone and orchestra that sets selected passages from the Old Testament and Gospels for voice and, according to Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words, “hinting at the development of sacred singing throughout the course of history, from ancient Greek tradition to Gregorian chant.” Also I vangeli: Una sacra rappresentazione (The Gospels. A Sacred Representation) for two reciting voices and prerecorded track on texts from the Gospels. Early in his career, in 1950, he arranged popular devotional songs and Marian hymns for radio broadcast during the Holy Year proclaimed by Pope Pius XII.

Little is written of it, but the title of Morricone’s song “God With Us” (1974), an original single, suggests something religious in nature. A number of his concerts were performed in ecclesial venues (in the Archdiocese of Manfredonia-Vieste-S. Giovanni Rotondo, the Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, and the Santa Maria sopra Minerva, all in Rome; the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi; the Piazza del Duomo in Milan; the Basilica Cattedrale in Sarsina; and others). His live album Cinema Concerto: Ennio Morricone at Santa Cecilia (1999) is a recording of a series of concerts at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, a conservatory with patronage dating back to Pope Sixtus V and named for St. Cecilia, the patroness of church music.

Several of his concert pieces are designated as “cantatas,” even though they are secular in nature, and he christens other temporal works with ecclesial-sounding titles like Vidi aquam (I saw water) (1993). The Requiem he spoke of to Avvenire, Requiem per un destino (Requiem for a Destiny) (1966), falls into this category and is in reality chorus and orchestra music for ballet. One example of a secular Morricone cantata, for soprano, baritone, and instruments, is his For the Children Killed by the Mafia (1999). Unrelated to his film and sacred music, the versatile Morricone has many classical compositions to his name, from piano concertos and symphonic works to choral pieces and the opera Partenope (1996).

As for contemporary sacred music, Morricone told The Journal of Jesuit Studies, “I don’t think there is much today,” but recommends “Marco Frisina, a priest, who is a dear friend of mine, who was first in San Giovanni and now he is at the Basilica of Santa Cecilia … There was the great composer Domenico Bartolucci, who, however, wrote music in the most pure tradition. He probably wouldn’t even like the Mass I wrote. He used to compose only choral songs, four voices that sing according to the post-Tridentine norms.”

In 2002 he ambitiously composed the cantata Voci dal silenzio (Voices from the Silence), dedicating it to the victims of “the terrorist attacks of September 11 and all the massacres of humanity all over the world.” In that, too, he quotes from his Mission score. In 2016 the Vatican hosted a benefit concert where the poor and homeless were guests of honor. At the concert, Morricone conducted some of his most famous film music, including selections from The Mission, along with a piece called “God, One of Us” specifically composed for the event. Donations were accepted at the concert and went to build schools and churches in Uganda and Burkina Faso. More recently, Rome Reports (7/6/20) recounted that during the coronavirus epidemic and quarantine, the people of Rome blared Morricone’s life-affirming music from the balconies of their homes to uplift the spirit of the devastated populace.

Even after the 750th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s birth had passed, Morricone continued to contemplate “something about Dante’s Divine Comedy and in particular about [Paradiso]…that retraces the Dantesque conception of Paradise, an idea of ascent towards the contemplation of the mystery.” The intriguing project never materialized.

Around that time, Morricone mused to Famiglia Cristiana, “Music is definitely close to God [and] the one true art that truly draws near to the eternal Father and to eternity.” May choirs of angels lead Signore Morricone in paradisum.


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About Gilbert Colon 1 Article
Gilbert Colon is a regular contributor to The Catholic Response. He has written for Cinema Retro, Filmfax, The Strand Magazine, Film.Music.Media, the St. Martin’s Press newsletter Tor.com, and others. His article “Terrence Malick’s Cosmic Romance” at RELEVANT Magazine was translated by an Italian film site, Sentieri del Cinema, which hosted the Milan soirée premiere of Malick’s To the Wonder and was excerpted for use at a post-film debate. He was a researcher on the Gauntlet Press edition of Taxi Driver: The Screenplay published to commemorate the film’s 40th anniversary. Write him with comments at gcolon777@gmail.com.

4 Comments

  1. Cinema Paradiso – my favorite movie of all time – made great in large part because of the musical score. Only the uncut version is worth seeing.

    • Truly it does stand apart. I saw it in Manhattan back in 1988 — all the men were crying. The women not so much. Quite the sight.
      The music — and I’m a tin ear — is transcendent!

  2. We can mourn with gratitude the passing of this gifted musician whose work was so evidently influence by his Catholic faith. I’m reminded of WH Auden’s lines from “Moon Landing”: “Our apparatchiks will continue making/the usual squalid mess called History:/all we can pray for is that artists,/chefs and saints may still appear to blithe it.” R.I.P Enrico Morricone.

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