Interviews Jul 6, 2020 | 1:21 PMby Colin McGourty

Ennio Morricone: “If not a composer, I would have wanted to be a chess player”

Ennio Morricone (1928-2020), the Italian composer of music for dozens of top films and TV series, died today in Rome at the age of 91. As well as being one of the most influential film soundtrack writers of the last 60 years he was a keen amateur chess player who faced Boris Spassky, Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov, Judit Polgar and Peter Leko over the board. His father persuaded him to give up chess to focus on music, but if not for music he would have wanted to be a chess player, but “a high-level one, someone competing for the world title”.

Ennio Morricone in the Festhalle Frankfurt in 2015 | photo: Sven-Sebastian Sajak, Wikipedia 

Ennio Morricone achieved fame and fortune from the mid-1960s onwards with his soundtracks for the Spaghetti Westerns such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where the music was as important as the plot and actors in creating the overall impression.

He remained active into his 80s, winning an Oscar for the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight in 2015, and finding time in 2006 to compose a hymn for the World Chess Olympiad in Turin, Italy:

His death made an impact on some chess players, including the greatest female chess player of all time, Judit Polgar:

His music could be perfect to get ready for chess showdowns:

A wonderful source of background on Ennio and chess is his The Paris Review interview with Alessandro De Rosa last year, “Ennio Morricone Plays Chess”. The interviewer and/or translator clearly didn’t know chess terminology (“I usually open with the queen”, for instance, must mean, “the queen’s pawn” i.e. 1.d4) but it’s easy to grasp what Morricone meant. The interview mixes general reflections, “Chess is related to mathematics and mathematics is related to music, as Pythagoras claimed,” with detailed accounts of, for instance, making a draw against Boris Spassky’s King’s Gambit.

Don’t miss the full interview, but here are a few highlights:

What he loves about chess

Well, I would say that chess is the best game precisely because it’s not a mere game. Everything is put at stake—the rules of morality, of life, the wariness and the determination to fight without bloodshed, the resolution to win and do so correctly—with talent, rather than sheer luck. In fact, when you hold these tiny wooden statuettes in your hands, they become powerful as they absorb the energy you are willing to transfer to them. In chess, there is life and there are struggles, too. It’s the most violent sport one could think of, it can be compared to boxing, although it is much more chivalrous and sophisticated.

I must confess that, when I was composing the music for Tarantino’s latest movie, The Hateful Eight, as I went through the script, I recognized the tension that silently grows among the characters, and I thought of that like the feelings one develops over the course of a chess game. Unlike what happens in Tarantino’s films, neither bloodshed nor physical harm is part of this sport. Still, there is nothing aloof about chess. Quite the opposite, this game is dominated by a spasmodic and silent tension. Some even say that chess is silent music, and playing is a bit like composing for me.


On playing some of the chess stars

For a while I played blitz, a speed-based mode. Initially, I obtained good results, but then I got worse. I competed against giants such as Kasparov and Karpov, and I lost dreadfully—also against Judit Pólgar, who was pregnant at the time, and Péter Lékó in Budapest. Those were great occasions. Lékó was kind enough to offer me a rematch after I made a beginner’s mistake in my opening move. I lost anyway, but in a decidedly more honorable way.

Over time I have ascertained the existence of a kind of intelligence that only manifests itself during chess games and has nothing to do with a person’s ability to reflect on a day-to-day basis.

A specialized intelligence.

Yes, I have often met players with whom I have nothing in common, but they turn out to be sensational chess players. Spassky, for instance, seemed like a very laid-back, easygoing person, but on the chessboard he was fiercely determined.


On what might have been

Had I not become a composer, I would have wanted to be a chess player, but a high-level one, someone competing for the world title. On that condition, yes, it would have been worth dropping my career in music and composition. But that was not possible. Just like it was not possible to pursue my childhood dream of becoming a physician.

As for medical science, I didn’t even start, whereas with chess, I studied a lot, even though it was too late at that point—I had stopped for too long a period. So it was decided, I had to be a musician.

Read the full interview here


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