The phrase “living legend” should be used with care, but one’s on safe ground with Ennio Morricone. Even if you’re faced with a young person who has never heard of the man, humming the first eight notes of the theme to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly elicits a response of “Oh, you mean him – of course I know that music”. Morricone’s website lists 431 scores for film and TV, written over a 45 year period from 1961 to 2016. When I point out that this is the kind of composer productivity we haven’t seen since Rossini or Donizetti and ask Morricone about how he has been able to generate that level of output, he finds the question perplexing – “I’ve been writing for sixty years! And in the years where you see over twenty scores, that seems like a miracle but it isn't really: I was writing ten or eleven scores a year, but many of the films came out some time after the music was written”.

Morricone conducting in Amsterdam © Jelmer de Haas
Morricone conducting in Amsterdam
© Jelmer de Haas

But Morricone isn’t just a high volume jobbing composer: what’s really remarkable about his output is the variety of genres. He’s best known for the style of his Western scores, of course, because the 1964 score for A Fistful of Dollars was unlike anything that anyone had ever heard and it came to define the music for a whole genre of filmmaking. But his output includes large scale choral work, romantic string themes, straightforward songs, cool jazz numbers, even the sounds of Africa. Each of these genres is executed masterfully: his unofficial fan site is named after the romantic theme Chi mai (from the otherwise little remembered 1971 film Maddalena), which topped the charts in France and hit no. 2 in the UK. He puts his ability to do this down to his early career: “As you know, I started work as an arranger for radio and television, then musicals and stage work, then I worked a lot for a record company with pop song arrangement, and then at last film music came. So it’s the bulk of all these experiences that really made me proficient and capable of writing different music for different genres – and also different experiences of years and years of work.”

Although we don’t get to hear about it so much outside Italy, Morricone has continued writing non-film music (he calls it “musica assoluta”) throughout his career. Choral music has been a particular feature, with his renown in this area sufficient that when, in 2015, the Jesuits decided to celebrate of the bicentenary of the restoration of their order, they turned to Morricone for the commission: the resulting Mass for Pope Francis is theatrical, somewhat unconventional and, in the end, thoroughly rousing.

Given that Morricone will be 89 years old this year, it’s hardly surprising that he's composing less than he did in days gone by. However, one of the reasons is very surprising indeed: it’s because of his intensive tour schedule. This year’s tour, entitled “60 Years of Music” has nine concerts coming up in venues around Europe, including what he has said in interviews will be his last appearances at the Arena di Verona. Given that there’s such a huge repertoire to choose from, I ask how he picks the music for his concerts: “I follow basically two different criteria. On one side, I try to put some works that I really like and I’m really proud of but are not so well known by the audience, because I think they’re beautiful and I want the audience to discover them. On the other hand, there are the most famous, most successful and most requested pieces, so it’s always a combination of the two different ideas”.

Morricone has toured all over the world and written music for films by directors in many countries. I ask if he perceives much difference in audience tastes in the different countries. Not in taste, he answers, but there’s a very big difference in behaviour: “Usually, I don’t see such a big difference in the reaction of the audience. But the difference I’ve found that has been quite broad and general is between the European and Asian audiences. At first, at the beginning of the concert, all the people in the audience in Asian countries – and particularly in Japan – seem very quiet and apparently, they don’t seem to grasp the meaning of my music and what I’m doing. Then, little by little, they get warmer and, by the end of the concert, there’s a standing ovation and wide acclaim. And I’m always surprised, because during the concert, I have a feeling that they’re not enjoying it and have not fully understood what I’m doing.”

One of the obvious characteristics of film is music is that it’s, well, written for film: special versions of scores are created so that the music makes sense in the context of a concert (we understand that John Williams is hard at work on concert suite versions of some of his most famous scores). Morricone insists, however, that in his concerts, what you hear is exactly what was in the original movie. “No, the  orchestration and arrangement are exactly the same as the original piece that was composed for the film: there are no changes at all. The only exception is the final piece of The Mission, because the original theme in the film has the oboe, the orchestra and the choir: the effect of having the solo line prevail was achieved by the mixing of two oboists playing together and overlapped. In a live concert, that wouldn’t be possible and the oboe wouldn’t be heard because it would be too soft compared to the sound of the orchestra and the choir of 100 people, so we decided to replace that by six horns playing together. In everything else, you are hearing the original orchestration.“

None the less, Morricone’s music has been widely taken up, adapted, remixed and reinstrumented by many other musicians. To give you an idea, here's one of his greatest cues: The Ecstasy of Gold from The Good, the Bad and Ugly, first in the original clip from the film, then the version that became a signature by Metallica and finally – most weird and wonderful of all – Carolina Eyck’s version for theremin and multi-tracked voice.

After what many commentators thought was an undue wait, Morricone was finally given a Best Original Music Score Oscar in 2016 for Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight. The score proves his continuing ability to surprise: he deliberately eschews anything similar to those famous Western scores of the 1960s and 1970s, producing something that's far more classically orchestrated – not “in your face”, but sparse and remarkably well matched to the action, and the grandeur of the Wyoming landscape is beautifully evoked. In his ninth decade, another masterpiece.