A Conversation with Angelo Francesco Lavagnino by Ezio Reali
Translation by James Marshall
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine No.21 /1980
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher, Luc Van de Ven
What first drew you to music?
Our family was fairly musical. My grandfather and his brother were both musicians, in fact grandfather played first viola under Carlo Felice at Genoa during the time of Verdi and Franchetti. He was also choir-master at St. Ambrose’s church, hence our connections with religious music, some of which he composed himself. Grandfather died shortly after I was born, so father said to my mother “All right, now we have a replacement for grandfather.” So I was thrown in at the musical deep end virtually from birth. But that’s only part of the reason. There are really only two things I could have done in life: be a musician or be a barman. If anyone had told me I had to go into banking I would have shot myself immediately! Likewise if anyone had told me I was to become another Picasso. Music’s all right, but the other arts – painting, sculpture, architecture – no, not for me.
How and when did you turn to film scoring?
Well, briefly, THE BIG PARADE came out in 1925, a silent film about the war. But although there was no sound track, it did have one of the first accompanying scores. Watching the bass drums and the tom-toms trying to keep in time with the action had something of an effect on me… the idea of film music somehow got into my blood. My mother had been taking us to the pictures since we were two or three years old, so I was brought up in the cinema, but it wasn’t until THE BIG PARADE that I wanted to use my musical studies for cinematic purposes. I became aware (this is noticeable in my scores for LA SPOSA BELLA and SOLEDAD) of how the art of film music could enhance the action, the time, the place, and above all the dialogue in a movie, adding clarification where necessary. Sometimes it can be used wrongly. Once, I had a talk with Michel Legrand. He had scored EVA with music which, though splendid, worked out rather badly in the film, not following the action so much as playing independently in the background. So I said to him: “How did you arrive at this, old boy?” He replied: “Well, first the music came to me, and then I put it into the picture.” I can’t agree that’s right. When you have dialogue, you can’t have eight or ten or fourteen guitars, or celestial choirs. Later he did LES PARAPLUIES DE CHERBOURG and we can all see what a great composer he is, but on this occasion he started off on the wrong foot.
How should one set about scoring then – see the completed film first and get the feel of it?
Well, I think I’ve scored 282 films and even though most of them were bad, they’ve all been experience. What happened when I was called in to do MARCIA O CREPA, I had the usual meeting with Dr. Gatti at Lux and so on, and I was told it was a movie set in Algeria and that the music should have the flavour of Ravel. I said all right, let’s go and see the film. Only when I ran the picture through did I start to feel the music. I had something to go on. So I wrote the score from which emerged the “Concerto Disperato”, a big hit, especially in England. It was a little soldier like theme which I thought appropriate for a desert barracks, but they still wanted Ravel. I said, “Look, have Ravel if you want, but as far as I’m concerned it has nothing to do with anything.” Rightly or wrongly, I’ve come to respect my visual impressions as a yardstick from which to work. But one can go wrong. I happen to be an admirer of Morricone and when I went to see METTI UNA SERA A CENA, well, I telephoned him the same night and said “Look Ennio, I’m really grateful that you composed that score and brought such esteem to us Italians, for my music, I don’t mind telling you, would have ruined the picture!” So there. On that occasion a musical veneer was correct, the other way would have been wrong. Nowadays the situation is different and some films don’t want any music, silence being more appropriate. JULIA, for example, and INTERIORS seemed to me to be movies where the music hardly had any effect, nobody noticing it was there. Another trend is scoring to produce a record to dance to. That’s just wall-papering and I don’t want to do it. So coming back, yes, I like to see the film first; if I can’t see the film, I don’t want to do it. I make that very clear. Then, viewing the picture, I tune in to the situation and decide whether a veneer is appropriate or something more integral. Then comes the actual torment of composition, trying to come up with good musical ideas against the clock.
Have you come across many directors, who fully realise the value, the possibilities and the importance of music? Can you give names?
Directors who think that music can be part of the overall success of a film? Sometimes a composer can be under the whip, being told what sort of music to put where, but generally no, because music, although a powerful factor in a movie, is not the determining one. On rare occasions a hit song can make a movie successful, but not a score. In a case like that, the song is enhancing the film’s commercial rather than artistic success. Orson Welles was one director who appreciated the value of film music, so much so that he would establish the composer as a vital member of the team, as someone to treat with dignity as if he were a big man. In fact, Welles had such persuasive diplomacy that one would give one’s soul working with him. And he certainly had good musical sense. On one occasion I had written a certain piece of music and was playing it for him. Even though I wasn’t doing it particularly well, he seemed to be taking it all in, occasionally nodding or stopping me to pass comment. When the orchestra got together, too, he would say “That’s good,” or “No, that’s a bit too long”. He really had a taste for music and it was an education to work with him.
These courses in film music you held at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena – were they attended by established composers as well as by beginners?
It all started off as an experimental course of film music lessons.
I’ll tell you what happened. I asked Count Chigi one day: “Whya don’t we do a course of film music? All the students are keen.” At that time, I assisted Vito Frazzi in his composition classes. He said, “What a splendid idea! I fancy myself as a movie fan.” He was something of a whimsical gentleman, but he supported me in this venture and brought it up at the next meeting of the faculty. All the other professors, however, said, “Film music? Oh dear, no, we can’t touch that.” Frazzi said, “Gentlemen, I don’t know what your objections are, but the courses are going ahead, because I’m the first pupil!” So that was that, and it wasn’t long before I had a class. Well, I asked if it would be all right to take my new pupils into Siena, to go to the pictures, watch a movie, discuss it afterwards, select a certain scene to analyse, and so on. Eventually, I would hold classes in film music once a week, using both my films and those scored by others.
We started off the course by going to see CONTINENTO PERDUTO which had just come out at that time. We got to the cinema in the morning, I started to give my students a little lecture and then I noticed Count Chigi sitting in the gallery with some old lady. Anyway, I finished explaining to everybody about technique and so on, and we went in to watch the picture. Afterwards, the Count came down and gave me a big hug. “How pleased I am to be one of your new pupils,” he said, “and here is another one for you.” Turned out to be the Queen Mother of Belgium. She was in Siena that year studying and taking lessons from Enescu, a great violinist. In fact, I’ve still got a photograph of her which she gave me. Later, other composers came on the course, and some very interesting ones. Zoltan Pesko, for example, came to Siena, then Renosto, and of course Francesco De Masi. Johnny Cristu was a genius, but alas, he was killed in a car crash in Greece. Pity, because he was a boy of formidable talent and would have been his country’s greatest composer. Actually, he was Greek, though born in Alexandria in Egypt. He came to study under me for seven months, couldn’t read a note of music, but he was brilliant. After about five months we went to London with his symphonic poem to be performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. I was supposed to look after him, though his father had arranged everything. Apparently, his father was an executive with the BBC in London and later was appointed at Covent Garden.
Do you rate highly those composers from Hollywood’s golden era? Steiner, Korngold, Newman, Waxman and Rozsa to name but a few.
I do indeed. An example that leaps to mind: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM was a Shakespeare picture directed by Reinhardt, scored by Korngold. You want to know how many times I’ve seen it. Eleven times. I’m an avid film fan and once I watched 9 movies in one day. In one year I saw 410 films! I must have square eye-balls by now! Movies in Hollywood, I’ve noticed, were always scored by a team of musicians, by a musical department. Arrangers were never allowed to compose; composers could never do their own arrangements. Max Steiner, I feel, wrote some really fine scores. Korngold was a great composer. Alfred Newman was like a team of composers rolled into one, unlike Waxman who was not so flexible. But Miklos Rozsa was the one who held all the aces – a fantastic composer.
Examples of good film music in encyclopedias like ‘Musiche per Film’ nearly always fall back on established concert composers, those better known for their classical, operatic and symphonic works and who only very occasionally condescend to do movies. Wouldn’t you agree that the “regular” film composers are better equipped to do the job than those concert composers? They have that vital skill to score a picture accurately and effectively, while their more established classical counterparts haven’t the necessary experience to use their considerable talents to best advantage.
Yes, that’s true. Pizzetti, Mascagni, etc, films weren’t their métier. You see, there’s been a whole category of composers who, as far as I’m concerned, used to just write some music for a film, then go off and make it into an orchestral suite. Or else the music sounded symphonic or theatrical in the first place. Myself, I always tried to find the happy medium. Nino Rota, now, was a first-rate composer who did everything in great style, but always made the music work as well as sounds good, whether it was background music or melodramatic action music. We once worked together on a movie and I can’t help but recall that he had extraordinary vision. And he had such melodic gift. One theme, such as the one he did for THE GODFATHER, would carry a picture virtually on its own. Likewise in two earlier films, DANIELE CORTIS and FORTUNELLA. Although we were both brought up to score films with a melodramatic emphasis, since at that time people expected melodramatic scores, I have always tried to avoid making it sound as if there was an orchestra in front of the screen. Film music comes (literally) from behind the screen and should appear to emanate from the visuals. Know what I mean? The audience will still get the message without the violins playing. Actually, I remember when I did OTHELLO for Orson Welles, I wrote the music and then he said, “Oh no I want an orchestra of 150 musicians and a chorus of 90.” I said, “All right, if you want. You’re paying.” Goodness gracious, he then leased the biggest studio in town at that time – this was 1949 – the same studio where they did the big action scenes. Franco Ferrara was called in to conduct this enormous orchestra and at the beginning I think we had ten on double-bass, ten trumpets, probably ninety violins and violas – a real dream orchestra. And I’ll always remember before he stepped on the podium for the first piece, he came and patted me in front of the orchestra, saying, “Not even Debussy had all this!” However, during the actual scoring, Welles said, “Surely, maestro, this is not right. The mood of your music is wrong. It’s more like a poor man’s Tchaikovsky, a Tchaikovsky pastiche. Ibert did the same thing on KING LEAR using sub-Ravel type music, and that was wrong too. Your music is fine in itself, but the mood is melodramatic whilst the visuals are not melodramatic: We ought to think again.” After a pause, he went on, “Look, I have an Idea. I want to try using separate microphones for piano and harpsichord.” Well, we could only find one harpsichord in Rome at that time, a very old one owned by a musician who didn’t really want to bring it to the Scalera studio. But after a week we had it all set up: three microphones, one on the piano, one under the keys of the harpsichord and one over the orchestra. However, things still weren’t quite right. Then we took off the first 20 strings (who were wanted in Cannes anyway) and in the end our enormous orchestra had dwindled to just 16 musicians and twenty choristers. When Ferrara struck up the music you could hear the brass blaring “tro tro tro”, but the harpsichord was giving only “pin pin pin du du du”. Ferrara said, “I’m sorry but I don’t get this at all. I can’t hear anything. We seem to be flogging a dead horse.” He tried again, but said, “Look, you conduct this yourself. It’s beyond me altogether.” So by now the situation had become completely chaotic. This was Orson Welles and that was his OTHELLO.
Who to you are the big names in music?
Well, I think Stravinsky’s music in Disney’s Fantasia sounds almost as if it were composed for the film. But of course it couldn’t have been. They say he hated movies and that’s why he wasn’t a film composer. As far as other big names go… Petrassi has had a few flops, Malipiero too… but this is something we could discuss forever.
Just coming back to Michel Legrand for a moment, do you think probably people prefer listening to his music without seeing the film?
No, not necessarily, except perhaps for PARAPLUIES. In my classes I used to give slogans out a lot and I would tell my pupils, “Remember that the first problem of the composer is to not make things difficult for the audience, because the whole film medium depends on first impressions; the audience are not going to hear it a second time or struggle with it. Therefore everything – music, visuals and dialogue – must get through immediately. Or else don’t bother!” There’s nothing else you can do. Admittedly these days pictures are aimed at a slightly more aware cinema going public, but that’s another matter. In my view, one of the abilities of the film composer knows how to forget he’s a film composer. And I’ll tell you why. The film medium is one that requires you always to have taste, but not always good taste, only the taste of the day! That’s the point. Franco Ferrara, now, was one of the greatest conductors, in fact if it had not been for his disorder, he would have been the greatest – a pillar of human kindness, he had culture, spirit, and poise, not to mention a tremendous knowledge of musical instruments. I remember we were doing a film once that called for a procession. He looked over the music and said, “No, no, dear boy. It’s obvious you’re not the leader of the band. This won’t work out, I can tell you.” What I had done for the purposes of this march was put in demi-semiquavers instead of semiquavers. Ferrara said, “That would go down well in a concert hall, but this is not a concert hall.” And he was right.
I understand you’ve worked in collaboration with other composers. Which ones?
As a matter of fact, I’ve had the pleasure of working on occasions with my former pupils. Carlo Savina, for instance, co-composed one score with me (I BACCANALI DI TIBERIO) and conducted many others, and I did a couple of documentaries with De Masi. Amongst other composers there was that feature I did with Rota (MAMBO) and I worked quite often with Trovaioli, and sometimes with Umiliani. Trovaioli and I worked particularly well together on films like LA DONNA DEL FIUME, AMERICA, PAESE DI DIO, DELIRIO DEI SENSI, one or the other of us never failing to hit on a good idea for each scene. And I think even today it’s a good idea to score movies in collaboration. Even three or four composers working together might not be a bad idea.
I think that would not turn out to be easy.
It’s a question of personalities, with each collaborator having respect for the others.
How much do you respect today’s film composers in Italy? Morricone, Rustichelli, etc…
Morricone, for my money, is one of the greatest: possibly the best of the international set. He’s a composer of stunning integrity with an elasticity of style which can adapt to whatever is in fashion. He can compose the medieval, or do twelve-tone electronics, in fact anything you could want. He has a definite lead on the others. Rustichelli has developed into a composer of first-class technique, never better than with directors like Germi. Rota, now, was a composer who had composed opera, oratorio and Mass, but he was always a bit thought of as Fellini’s Rota. Fellini had a sort of travelling circus and Rota was one of the star acts. Directors and composers tend to stick together with one another in Italian films, but I’ve never experienced such a benefit. I’ve worked occasionally with De Sica, Clement, Zampa, Welles, Johnson, Martin Ritt, but I’ve never formed a partnership. To me, each film has been a task in which I must do my best to pay something back to the business that has given me everything, from the paper I write the sharps and flats on to the pen I write them on with. And I feel I should give something back to the music profession as a whole.
I know you respect and are very fond of soundtrack collectors, though unfortunately not too large a proportion of your scores have been released on disc. We’re always looking out for something new from you. Have you anything to tell us in this respect?
Not really. I belong to a different period. For me it started like this: CONTINENTE PERDUTO was the first Italian soundtrack album to be released. But they didn’t really want to do it. When the producer told me he wanted to preserve my music on a record, I said, “Why on earth?” At that time, I didn’t fully appreciate film music, not even my own! To be honest, I don’t think any composer should just sit back and enjoy hearing his music. That’s a useless form of narcissism. I love to compose, but I believe in being honest. It’s not good enough to sit back and say that’s it, the composition’s finished, and it’s as good as it can ever be, even if working under the restrictive conditions of film composing. Anyway, coming back to CONTINENTE PERDUTO, the producer and I met the people at RCA who were very enthusiastic about the music, but they didn’t think a record of it would sell. “Even GONE WITH THE WIND,” they said, “the biggest selling album this year has scarcely sold 70 copies.” But my producer was determined. He said, “All right, I’ll go back to Philips. They say they will press 500 copies if I undertake to pay for those left unsold. It was my idea.” That was quite a brave offer. In those days there was no such thing as sponsorship, but that was what he offered to do. So we selected the music and cut the disc, paying for both the master and the first 500 copies ourselves. Then we went to Cannes. Meanwhile, the producers at RCA were listening to the album, didn’t like it and stopped it going into production. In Cannes, however, the movie went on and was a smash hit! And I noticed that the frequent bursts of applause always stopped when the music was playing, just like in another entry CARMEN JONES, When our film was over, the audience gave a standing ovation, then came the ‘Silver Ribbons’ award, the Cannes prize and, of course, the record. Thus was born the soundtrack album.
Are you particularly concerned, then, about whether or not your scores get recorded?
I feel somewhat like the maid turned mistress. What I mean to say is that music composed for films used to have a short life and was done in a very servile capacity with few rewards and little acclaim. I never realised at the time that the music would eventually appear on record with me as the star, and that people would focus their attention on even the fegatelli! (Fegatelli and salsicciotti, or liver and sausages, were what we used to call the bits and pieces of music track used to fill out wherever needed, little slices you might say).
When I worked for the production company who made MAGIA VERDA and CONTINENTE PERDUTO, they took the unprecedented step of sending me to Indonesia for six months, the first time a composer had gone on the actual trip like one of the directors. They even let me shoot a few little scenes! But what happened when I got back… I had 1.400 orchestral pieces stockpiled and they’d all gone. The company was broke and they’d virtually given them away. 1.400 pieces! CONTINENTE PERDUTO was a lost cause. The company sold some of my pieces to GUNGALA, some to MURAGLIA CINESE (Behind the Great Wall), some here, some there. They were hardly theirs to sell, anyway, but they just put them on sale, face downwards, in wholesale fashion. Even the newsreel MONDO LIBERO used them, for their opening and dosing titles. My 1.400 pieces included 80 marches, for example state marches, semi-formal marches, colour marches, dead marches and foreign marches. I know for a fact one of the state marches was used for the Queen of England’s visit to Mexico. All the dramatic occasions were covered, like Zeppelin exploding, and all the tragic incidents since the Flood. My repertoire also provided each sporting occasion with a theme, whether it be horse riding, football, cycling, boxing or judo. However, seeing my music put to use in this way, no matter how skillfully, has always been painful and loathsome to me. I don’t like it, and consequently I don’t like that record, which has come to be an object I detest.
To finish off, maestro, can we reveal a little secret… Isn’t it true you do the whistling in your scores? I’ve heard you often compose, conduct and do the whistling!
Yes, I admit it. I’m the composer who whistles.