A True Roman: Morricone on Gregorian Chant

On Monday renowned Italian film composer Ennio Morricone passed into eternal life con il conforto della fede (with the comfort of faith), one day before the 13th anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum.

Morricone in 2015 at the Festhalle Frankfurt. From Wikimedia Commons

Morricone produced some beautifully haunting, exquisite melodies in films like The Mission and Cinema Paradiso. But he was popularly known for bizarre but irresistible Western themes like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, assembled from an improbable mix of howls, ocarinas, and whistles. He also composed a small body of sacred works. But frankly, his most noted one, the Missa Papae Francisci, is not suited for liturgical use and seems more appropriate for a trippy György-Ligeti-style journey through a stargate, à la 2001:A Space Odyssey (which, coincidentally, Stanley Kubrick had wanted him to score).

Notwithstanding Morricone’s unusual experimental style and (musical) modernism, he had a true sense of beauty and a genuine love for the music of the classical Roman liturgy.

In a 2010 interview with Edward Pentin, the composer expressed a great deal of respect for Pope Benedict XVI, “a very high-minded Pope who has a great culture and also great strength,” and offered some frank thoughts about the state of music in the Church:

He has a great wish to correct [liturgical] errors that have existed and continue to exist, and he tried to fix them just a few days after being elected. Today, the Church has made a big mistake, turning the clock back 500 years with guitars and popular songs. 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. The same thing happened before the Council of Trent, when singers sang profane songs with sacred melodies and sacred words. He [the Pope] is doing well to correct it. He should correct it with much more firmness. Some churches have taken heed [of his corrections], but others haven’t.

Morricone was neither a traditionalist nor a critic of the entire postconciliar enterprise. He just knew music. It was his life. And when he saw a reckless liturgical revolution threaten to overturn his beloved art, he suddenly lost any room for toleration:

But I don’t agree with, and feel very strongly about, mixing profane, secular music with religious words in Church, or mixing religious music with a profane and secular text. After 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 a subsequent 2016 interview, Morricone described being “very unhappy” when the Church began to detach itself from Gregorian chant, which, he insisted

“was essential in Western music. Year zero — if it had not begun from there, polyphony, counterpoint, harmony, the first forms of “sacred” music  would probably not have been developed … Gregorian chant is linked to the history of our European culture and constitutes its important musical roots.”

Indeed, out of all the arts, music is somewhat odd in that its history begins in the West not with the classical period of Greece and Rome but with the early medievals and the Church. This is mostly because very little ancient music has been preserved. And what little does remain hasn’t been reverently kept at the forefront of Western culture in the way that, say, the Odyssey or the Aeneid has–or the chants of the Missale Romanum.

So as we remember this week how the 2007 promulgation of Summorum Pontificum gloriously vindicated that most ancient Roman Mass and the vast body of Gregorian chant proper to it that underpins all of Western music, we would do well to spare a few moments in prayer for a talented Roman composer who defended their preservation.

Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei.

July 8, 2020