Ennio Morricone has composed some of the most moving melodies ever written for films — music that enraptures Yo-Yo Ma.
“I’ve loved his music as long as I can remember,” the 49-year-old cellist said in a telephone interview from his home in Cambridge, Mass. “I just swoon when I hear it.”
Now, Ma and Morricone have collaborated on an album that contains 19 of the prolific Italian composer’s works. At Ma’s request, Morricone re-orchestrated the music to feature solo cello with an orchestra accompaniment.
The recently released “Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone” is a string of luscious music featuring the singing voice of Ma’s cello. One selection, “Ecstasy of Gold” from director Sergio Leone’s “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” is an exuberant horse ride through syncopated passages, brushed spiccato bow strokes and the upper reaches of the cello’s register. The other songs are filled with warm, thick harmonies and gripping melodies that gush with tenderness.
Don’t ask the composer how long it took or what he thinks about the album, though.
“I’m very happy with it,” he said through an Italian translator, threatening to cut short a telephone interview because of such “banal questions.” “I wouldn’t have released something I didn’t like, don’t you think?”
Besides music from Leone’s spaghetti Westerns starring Clint Eastwood, the album includes music for director Roland Joffe’s “The Mission” and Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Malena” and “Cinema Paradiso.”
The music also inspired four University of Southern California film students to create video settings for four of the tracks. Their work will be shown when Ma performs the music at USC on Nov. 5, and in Rome on Nov. 16 for the Sony CD’s European debut. The videos also will be released in January on Sony Classical’s first DualDisc — a two-sided disk with the music on one side and a DVD of the films and other features on the other.
Ma’s longtime desire to work with Morricone, who turns 76 on Nov. 10, became reality after the cellist performed Tan Dunn’s music for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” at the 2001 Academy Awards. Dun won the Oscar for best score. Among the other nominees: Morricone for “Malena.”
“I think the thought was already there at the Academy Awards, but obviously (being there made me think) it’s time to do that,” Ma said. “Life is short. (I thought) I would really love to meet him, just really like to go to Rome ... and see what it’s like.”
Ma suggested the pieces for Morricone to arrange, and 15 months after the Oscar ceremony, he went to Rome to work with the man who likes to be known as Il Maestro.
The first cut, “Gabriel’s Oboe,” from the 1986 movie “The Mission,” sets the tone on the CD with its melodic line soaring over a cushion of lush string accompaniment. After the introduction, an oboe takes over the melody against a counter melody played by Ma.
“It kind of infects you,” Ma said. “It’s hard to let go of it.”
The song conveys sensuousness, but in the movie, it depicts a different kind of love — the 18th century Jesuit missionary Gabriel (portrayed by Jeremy Irons) playing the oboe to break down the language barrier to gain the love and trust of a South American Indian tribe.
“It’s funny because I was actually thinking about what was in the film, and I actually can’t (visualize it),” Ma said. “I have seen so many of the films but I don’t always associate the music (with) you know, ‘There’s Clint Eastwood.’ ... You know it’s great film music, but it actually stands independent from the context of the movie.”
In the accompanying video of “Gabriel’s Oboe,” filmmaker Joshua Rous shows a series of reunions among friends and family at airports and elsewhere — all tearful — some joyous, some sorrowful. Aptly, he calls it “Tragic Laughter.”
Morricone, who conducted the Roma Sinfonietta Orchestra at the recording sessions, started in music at age 10. He played the piano, organ and trumpet and began composing in his mid-teens.
“I was studying composition and became passionate about writing,” he said from Rome.
In addition to his movie work — for which he has never won an Oscar — Morricone would like to be remembered as a composer who hasn’t written only for films: He has written more than 100 compositions, including two operas, symphonic pieces and chamber music. As inspiring as his work is, he approaches it on a mechanical level.
“Inspiration does not exist,” he said. “What exists is an idea, a minimal idea that the composer develops at the desk, and that small idea becomes something important.”