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Ennio Morricone: Piano Music

Ennio Morricone
Original Piano Music

This CD includes all the (currently available) original piano pieces that Ennio Morricone composed, and nine transcriptions of his movie music that he himself made. In determining the listening order of the pieces, I preferred to alternate his movie music with the others. In this way, it will be possible to notice some unexpectedly shared features between pieces that are apparently very distant from each other, to emphasize how all of Morricone's music derives from the same matrix. 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.

The piece that best symbolizes this relationship is, of course, the one that opens the CD, “Playing Love” from Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Legend of 1900 (1998). Here Morricone exploits the resonances of the piano to create wonderful tone colors, narrating the moment in which the protagonist falls in love on seeing the young blonde girl through the ship’s porthole. The theme is based on four notes (three in conjunct motion and a fourth at a different interval), which are repeated at different registers. With disarming simplicity, Morricone succeeds in rendering the mystery of amorous enthrallment, in a climate where dreams, enchantment and passion blend in the resonances of the D major key.
The piano occupied the composer’s creative space ever since his study years, as confirmed by his early piano pieces: Rimembranze, from 1946, and Preludio a una novella senza titolo and Barcarola Funebre, both from 1952 (all currently unavailable). In this connection, it is important to recall Goffredo Petrassi, who was Morricone’s composition teacher and graduation mentor from the Santa Cecilia conservatory, and whom he always regarded as an important model. So it is no accident that in Invenzione, Canone e Ricercare, a triptych he composed in 1956, the influences of Petrassi’s language are still evident, especially in the agile and angular polytonal counterpoint of the Invenzione, in a climate not far from that of the Invenzioni that Petrassi composed in 1942-44.

Listening to the famous theme from Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970), placed here between Invenzione and Canone, one notes a difference in the sound of the piano. Morricone stated that in recording the music for Investigation he was looking for deliberately “grungy” sounds, also through the use of unusual and “poor”, imperfectly tuned instruments, such as the mouth harp. So for this piano version I used a different piano from the Fazioli F278 grand piano on which I recorded the other tracks: the “Fazioli no. 1", the first instrument Paolo Fazioli built, a 1980 baby grand with a “wilder” sound, and which for the occasion was tuned slightly out of tune, to better capture that “grungy” sound that Morricone intended. The Canone, which comes next, maintains the rhythmic incisiveness of the previous piece by means of the dodecaphonic technique, in which the twelve-note series is reiterated in reverse canon, and then, in the middle section, superimposed on a third line that repeats it with different rhythmic values. The counterpoint technique is used with equal skill and effectiveness in The Two Seasons of Life (1972), a rare film by the Belgian director Samy Pavel, and in Ricercare, an obvious homage to Frescobaldi’s 17th-century Ricercari. Here Morricone combines the rigor of polyphonic writing (similar to that of Petrassi’s Toccata) with lyricism and constant tension, which lead to a solemn fortissimo conclusion, in which the piano achieves organ-like sonorities.

Morricone wrote the main theme from Cinema Paradiso (1988), whose original piano part here is taken from the orchestral score, together with his son Andrea. The refined four-part polyphonic writing gives intensity and lyricism to the melody, based on the alternation of seventh leaps with notes in conjunct motion. The result is a music imbued with tenderness and nostalgia, which undoubtedly played a decisive role in the international success of Giuseppe Tornatore’s masterpiece.

The Quattro Studi per il piano-forte are not pieces focused on a specific element of piano technique, but “studies” almost in the chess meaning of the term, hence compositions that must work “only” in the way conceived by their author. The dynamic and articulation markings are very precise and at times “extreme”. Morricone entitles them “for the piano-forte”, where the hyphen serves to stress their also being studies on the control of the different dynamics, often juxtaposed in opposition. The Primo Studio (1983-84, dedicated to his son Andrea) begins with barely audible sounds, as if to investigate the “borderline” between sound and silence. Immediately after, he uses the fortissimo (fffff) for the long notes, which make up a slow melodic line that Morricone himself defined as “cantus firmus”, while within the resonance of these notes there is a second pianissimo voice (ppppp). The Secondo Studio (1986, dedicated, according to the manuscript, to the pianist Arnaldo Graziosi) prescribes playing each chord first fortissimo and right after pianissimo, with the dampened resonances controlled by the pedal. But in the Terzo Studio (1988, dedicated in the manuscript to the pianist Antonio Ballista) the contrast between piano and forte occurs in a synchronic sense, that is, between the two hands: the left hand is generally piano, while the right hand engages with more dynamically varied incursions. In the Quarto Studio Morricone applies dynamic contrast to the entire structure of the piece, which is in A-B-A form. He prescribes playing all of part A forte and all of part B piano, or vice versa, as I have chosen to do in this recording: part A piano and part B forte. The obsessively rhythmic writing hints at certain jazz procedures, and it is no accident that the Studio is dedicated to the jazz pianist Enrico Pieranunzi, a longstanding collaborator of Ennio Morricone.

The Quattro Studi were written in different periods, between 1983 and 1989, and, though published together, do not necessarily have to be performed as such. I therefore preferred to alternate them with pieces of music for the cinema. In Cane bianco (from Samuel Fuller’s rare American film White Dog, 1981) we find a similar atmosphere of tension produced by the reiteration of resonances and the repetition of the same series of three notes. Between the Secondo and Terzo Studio there is Il potere degli angeli, music written for Giorgio Albertazzi’s 1988 TV movie, originally entitled Gli angeli del potere, based on the the Czech writer Pavel Kohout’s novel Maria Fighting with the Angels. As Albertazzi himself writes, the film begins with a woman whom the “angels” push to kill herself by a kind of psychoanalytic persuasion. Who are these angels and who is this woman? The woman is a famous actress, a star of the Prague theater, married to a cinema operator. The angels are the fantasized embodiment of power. In his piano version, Morricone indicates a slower tempo than in the soundtrack. The more rarefied writing here, which begins and ends pianissimo, softens the obsessive atmosphere of the original, but increases the tension with the sense of emptiness created by the greater “space” between the notes, which harks back to the contemplation of the resonances heard in the Secondo Studio. Between the Terzo and Quarto Studio we can hear the famous motif  “Uno che grida amore” from Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s Love Circle (1969), originally sung by the iconic voice of Edda dell’Orso. The interval of the seventh, with which the main theme begins, is the same that we find in the Quarto Studio, based on short rhythmic riffs that are reiterated in an incessant tour de force, always different, yet equally obsessive, especially in the central part, which also explores the low and high regions of the keyboard.

After so much sonic and contrapuntal density, comes one of Morricone’s most inspired piano transcriptions: “Le stagioni, gli anni”, from The Desert of the Tartars (1976), in which the music revolves constantly around a repeated B, with a four-note motif, similar to what Morricone would use twenty-two years later in The Legend of 1900. Here too Morricone achieves a moving intensity, where yearning, nostalgia and hope blend masterfully together.

Rag in Frantumi (1988, dedicated to the jazz pianist Marco Fumo) is one of the most ironic and grotesque pieces that Morricone composed, and already in the title refers explicitly to Igor Stravinsky’s Piano Rag Music. In a presentation before a concert, Morricone told a story inspired by this piece. A rag pianist who plays at night until 4 in the morning, perhaps even later, for many years, at some point, desperate, realizes that his life is useless. One morning he tears up all the pages of the compositions he performs. He realizes, after having torn them up, that that very evening he must play them and doesn’t know what to do. He picks up the pieces, tapes them together at random, and goes off to play. And what he plays is “Rag in frantumi” [in frantumi = shattered]. In fact, in the manuscript, Morricone inserts the subtitle “desperate recreation”, which conveys the idea perfectly. The silences and pauses play here an almost more important role than the sounds themselves, acting from time to time as a buffer or transition between the countless, disparate fragments, which Morricone defined as “the leftovers, the bad leftovers of rag, that is, the by now obvious commonplaces of rag, the garbage of rag”.

Morricone’s most complex piano piece is the Quinto Studio (Catalogue), composed in 2000 for the pianist Gilda Buttà. Here Morricone seems to look back and rethink all his previous piano compositions, from 1956 to 1989. The piece consists of fragments derived from Invenzione, Canone and Ricercare, from the 4 Studi and from Rag in Frantumi, as well as from other chamber pieces with piano and his two pieces for harpsichord (Neumi and Mordenti). The result is an extremely varied yet coherent itinerary, containing an extreme variety of crisscrossed sound worlds and stylistic eras. This recalls Rossini, when in Marche et réminiscences pour mon dernier voyage (from Péchés de Vieillesse) he quotes numerous themes from his operas. Morricone ends this journey among his own “compositional memories” by citing, surprisingly, Frescobaldi’s Ricercare cromatico “post il Credo” (1635), a piece especially dear to him, on which he superimposes the four notes of the name BACH (B flat, A , C, B), symbolically paying homage to what he evidently considered two fundamental references for his musical creativity. The Quinto Studio ends, after so much wandering among the most disparate harmonies and sounds, on a reassuring E major chord. The piano transcription of “Lontano” from Gott mit Uns, a film directed by Giuliano Montaldo in 1970, is written in the same key. Here too we find a simple but refined chorale type of writing, and once again appreciate how Morricone manages to combine melodic immediacy with a great variety of emotional inflections.
This listening path ends with Morricone’s most recent piano piece, Studio 4 bis per il piano-pedaliera, which he wrote in 2011, in generous response to my request to compose a piece for pedal-piano (a kind of double piano, with a second piano controlled by a pedalboard). In Studio 4 bis (2011), derived from the Quarto Studio, Morricone adds a third line to the two counter-melodies played by two hands, assigned to the pedalboard. Here I chose, in contrast to what I did in the piano version of the Quarto Studio, to play part A forte and part B piano. The result is a frenzied “rhythmic centrifuge”, in which the pedalboard (here I used the Fazioli no.1 as a piano for the pedalboard, in combination with the Fazioli F278 grand piano for two hands) adds a “third dimension” that provides greater depth to the polyphony, multiplying the contrapuntal texture.
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This recording is a promise I made personally to Maestro Morricone. Ever since I discovered his non-movie music (“absolute” music, as he liked to call it), I have thought it imperative to circulate it, in both the concert hall and the recording studio, and that it was a great pity that it was not yet sufficiently known. I had been discussing with him the idea of ​​recording his piano music since 2011, when he dedicated the Studio 4 bis per piano-pedaliera to me. So I am really happy now to finally be able to bring this project to fruition. For which I would like to thank the Morricone family for their inestimable help and support in locating the scores. I hope it will be evident from listening to this CD how Ennio Morricone’s unique voice sounds unmistakably throughout all his music. Each time I play his piano works, I realize how his profound lyricism and the intensity of his musical thinking are a great gift to all of us.

Roberto Prosseda