During the 1960’s and the early part of the 1970’s, Italian produced western movies enjoyed considerable success at the cinema box offices all over the world. It was due to this particular genre of films that many of Italy’s directors and producers began to receive recognition from the cinema going public outside of Italy. Italian composers too began to become noticed, their unusually innovative and original musical scores gaining a following that was in certain circumstances nearly as large as the audiences for the films which they had been composed for. The main reason that the scores for these sage-brush sagas were so popular was because they were so totally different from what many of the cinema audiences had become used to over the years with the American made western movie. It is true to state that a number of people, critics mostly were at first unimpressed with the style that was employed by Italian composers, but now it would be very hard to image a western movie without this type of scoring on its soundtrack.
Composers such as Ennio Morricone, Stelvio Cipriani, Bruno Nicolai, Francesco De Masi and Piero Piccioni were all launched upon their musical careers because of music that was composed for a Spaghetti Western. Many of these composers are today regarded as the mainstays of that genres musical heritage. Because of the success of the Italian produced western and also the emergence and development of the Italian Western score, many composers such as the individuals mentioned went onto work on numerous other motion pictures of varying subject matters. Morricone in particular excelled at writing for the cinema and is regarded in the 21st century as one of the world’s most prominent music smiths. Piero Piccioni is a composer that I have always found interesting, and his ability to adapt to any genre of film is at times astounding, his use of jazz and symphonic styles is masterful, and the technique which he employed on Spaghetti westerns was original and exceptional.
Piccioni avoided most of the stock sounds that were utilized by his contemporaries. Thus making his work for the genre even more original and innovative. For example Piccioni did not employ the whistling or the shrieks that were heard in many of the Spaghetti Western scores, he more often than not relied on the conventional instruments of the orchestra, trumpet, strings and woodwind, and although his music is from the Italian school, it also is probably the most Americanized in its overall construction, sound and impact within the context of the movie. My first question for the Maestro was about his approach to scoring a western. Where did he get his inspiration from when scoring a western ?
My inspiration for music in westerns came mainly from composers such as Max Steiner and more than any other Dimitri Tiomkin, his scores for the Hollywood produced westerns are classics and highly regarded. Obviously I did not copy his style directly, but hopefully emulated it, at the same time following my own compositive instinct.
Piccioni was born in TorinoItaly, on December 6th 1921. He did take piano lessons, but as for composition etc. is concerned the composer is self taught. I enquired if the Maestro had he always wanted to write music for the cinema?
No, I really wanted to become involved with the composition of pure music. By this I mean jazz, film music came later.
So what was the composer’s first entry into writing for the cinema?
My first feature film score came in 1950/1951. This was for a movie entitled IL MONDO LE CONDANNA, which was a movie that was directed by Gianni Franciolini.
I asked Piccioni if he had been influenced at all by any composer or artist, in the way that he composed?
Yes most definitely, Dimitri Toimkin I have already mentioned, but I have drawn much from the works of Debussy and Honegger, plus there is the jazz side of things where Duke Ellington and Bill Holman figured quite largely.
A question that I like to ask Italian composers is the issue of taking an alias to score a movie, had Piccioni ever changed his name for any movie score at all?
Yes, quite a few times actually. I would at times take the names Piero Morgan or Peter Morgan, this was at times to make the credits on the movie look more American or at times the director asked me to do so, and also sometimes if I personally felt that the movie was not that good after it was all finished, thankfully this has not happened to me a great deal.
Piero Piccioni has composed many film scores, these have been for films of varying genres, I enquired if the composer was happier working on say westerns as opposed to crime thrillers etc.?
I do really prefer to work on films that have a modern setting, the romantic and mysterious variety are particularly appealing to my appetite, then I can write either a jazz or contemporary classical score, and maybe in certain circumstances I have been able to combine the two styles, which is quite interesting.
Had he ever declined an offer of a scoring assignment, or indeed had he ever had a score rejected?
I have refused a number of films and other projects, mainly because the project was not a good one, I have had one score rejected, this was for a film called L’UOMO CHE RIDE, which was based on a story by Victor Hugo, and directed by Sergio Corbucci. Corbucci actually told me that he liked the work that I had done for the movie, but the producer, who’s name I forget and is no longer important, decided to have another composer write the score. I was rather young and inexperienced at the time, so I did not challenge his decision, needless to say I went onto score many more movies, and he went onto do other work, which was more fitting to his aptitude and position, cleaning toilets I think.
Italian film music composers during the 1960’s and 1970’s would on many occasions work in what has been described as a family environment, by this I mean that they would work within each others orchestras, performing, conducting or at times collaborating on composition. They would also use the same soloists, performers and choirs. I asked Piccioni about this practice.
Yes that is correct, many composers worked alongside each other, this was particularly true during the period when the Italian western was popular. I do not think that I worked with as many as say Morricone or Trovajoli, but I did work with Allessandro Allessandroni a few times but this was mainly on television scores, his choir is very good indeed, and as a performer he himself is flawless.
During the early stages of his career, Piccioni worked on westerns such as MINNESOTA CLAY and SARTANA. I asked the composer about the scoring schedules on films such as these, as the budgets must have been a little tight?
I would normally be allowed 10 to 14 days to complete my work, but this depended on the individual movie or the attitude of the films director and producer. It also depended on what type of music was needed, whether I needed to write for a special instrument or had to include choir etc., plus as you are aware, many directors leave the music until the last minute, so invariably, I was told that the music was needed ‘YESTERDAY.
Going back to MINNESOTA CLAY, how did the composer become involved on the movie?
Basically the director Sergio Corbucci asked me, the film was very good, but unfortunately it was released at the same time as A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, so it became overlooked and was not as successful as Leone’s western.
Did the composer orchestrate his own film scores, or did he use an orchestrator?
I must admit I do not always work on my own orchestrations; there is very often not sufficient time to do this, so I have an orchestrator or an arranger. Like I have already told you, directors always want the music yesterday, and it annoys me a little that the music is often the last thing that is considered on a movie. One of my very first arrangers and orchestrators was Ennio Morricone; he was also incidentally the best I ever used.
And how did the composer work out his musical ideas?
I use a piano, and then I record the themes that I have put together, then I start to develop these and transcribe them. But I do sometimes write them straight down onto the manuscript.
I also asked the composer if he had a favourite score for a film, either by himself or by another composer?
There are two scores of my own that I like very much, C’ERA, UNA VOLTA, which was called MORE THAN A MIRACLE outside of Italy, and directed by Francesco Rosi, this starred Sophia Loren and Omar Sharif. I also liked LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, this was directed by Kevin Billington who is British, the film starred Kirk Douglas and Yul Brynner.
Remaining with THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, which was a movie that had its screenplay based on the story by Jules Verne, the film was very heavily edited when it was released, and at times was so badly cut the storyline became fragmented and hard to follow. I asked the composer if he had experienced any problems on the movie?
No, not at all, but I did see the film before it was so badly cut. I really enjoyed working on the film, and as I have said I regard it as one of my best scores for the cinema. The director was very pleased with my work on his film, in fact he was so impressed with one of the sections that I scored, that he asked for all of the sound effects to be removed on the soundtrack, so my music was more prominent.
The soundtrack was issued on General Music records originally, and has subsequently been re-issued onto CD by Alhambra in Germany. General music or GDM as it is known today was founded by a number of prominent composers, Piccioni was one of these.
I was actually the founder of the company, it was a record company, but more importantly it was a music publishing company. The other composers involved with the establishing of the company were, Ennio Morricone, Luis Bacalov and Armando Trovajoli. Enrico De Melias who is also now Morricone’s manager was a partner. The company is still active today and has begun to re-issue a number of its older soundtracks, some on its own label and others under license to various companies around the world.
On the subject of CD re-issues, did the composer think that enough of his music was available on compact disc or record?
No, never enough (laughs).
Was he engaged on anything for the cinema or television at the moment?
Recently I have been working on a film with my good friend Alberto Sordi, this is a documentary which deals with the philosophy and sociology of soccer, this will be aired by the Italian television network RAI, and then hopefully shown around the world.
IL MOMENTO DELLA VERITA or MOMENT OF TRUTH, contained a wonderful score, which was a fusion of jazz flavours and symphonic styles. An original and unique way of scoring a movie. I asked the composer if he was asked to score the movie in this way, or did he decide to tackle the assignment like this?
The ideas on this were all mine, I was in charge on this film for the music.
When did the composer like to become involved on a film?
As early as possible, but relay it is not good until the film is in its rough cut stage, if I am given a script it is almost useless to me, as scripts change all of the time and are very rarely intact by the time that it comes to filming.
And in what order did he score a film, from start to finish, larger cues first or how did he tackle the work?
I actually prefer to start from the end of the movie, I can then see the films climax and develop the rest of the score from there, maybe this seems a little odd to you, as many other composers work from the start of the film, but I find that this is the best way to work.
Did he conduct all of his scores or just some of them?
I conduct at least 80% of my music for film, but there have been times when circumstances that have arisen make it impossible for me to conduct, so I have someone else work with the orchestra, whilst I am in the recording booth, but I still supervise what is going on musically, and if I am not happy with something I am able to change it. By this I might think the music will work when I am writing it, but in the recording studio I might think NO this is not working.
My final question to the composer was what was the largest orchestra that he had ever employed?
The largest orchestra that I have worked with so far is a 97 players that included a 60 strong string section; this was for a ballet “STRESS” which was performed at the Lyric theatre in Palermo Sicily.
Piero Piccioni died on July 23rd 2004 in Rome Italy. He scored well over 300 movies in his illustrious career.
Many thanks to the Maestro,s family, in particular Jason Piccioni for their assistance with this article.