Picture an expansive desert landscape, seen from above, under a bright blue sky. Men move across the hot yellow sand, possibly on horseback, and definitely armed, appearing specs amidst the vast panorama. What do you hear accompanying such a scene? Chances are, it’s something like the traditionally epic yet strikingly modernist scores that composer Ennio Morricone contributed to various spaghetti Westerns, particularly those directed by his schoolmate Sergio Leone. That’s a marker of just how rich and inescapable a legacy is left behind by Morricone, who died on the 6th of July at the Campus Bio-Medical University in his home city of Rome, at the age of 91.
Music and the creative arts were a part of Morricone’s life from a young age; his father, Mario Morricone, was a professional trumpet player, while his mother Libera Ridolfi ran a small textile business. Morricone Sr taught his son how to read music and play multiple instruments, the boy ultimately composing his first piece at age six. Morricone entered the conservatory at the National Academy of Saint Cecilia at twelve years of age, the beginning of years of study under the guidance of iconic composer Goffredo Patrassi. He would earn his Diploma in Composition in 1954.
During his student years, Morricone worked as an arranger, and composed several pieces for radio dramas – however, it was after graduating that he entered the area he would become most associated with; film scoring. Throughout the 1950s he worked as a ghost writer for more established composers, finally receiving his first official composing credit for 1961’s. The Fascist. He worked prolifically in the Italian film industry throughout the early 1960s. It was his work on Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars in 1964 that would make him an icon, and begin his long-standing creative relationship with Leone (bizarrely, when A Fistful Of Dollars was released in America in 1967, the Italian creatives were credited by Americanised pseudonyms – Morricone became “Dan Savio”). The film was a hit in its native Italy despite poor reviews, and eventually found a devoted following among cinephiles abroad, kickstarting a career that saw Morricone work with some of the most revered names in 20th century cinema – from Pier Paolo Pasolini to Brian De Palma, Giuseppe Tornatore to Pedro Almovodar – and influence practically every subsequent major film composer of the last half-century. To see Morricone’s name in the opening titles of a film was to know that, whatever else the film about to unfold might be like, it would assuredly sound distinctive and dramatic. It should be noted that Morricone’s musical output was not restricted to the world of cinema; his work outside of film scores – which dates back to the late 1940s – includes some thirty symphonies, fifteen piano concertos, an opera, and a mass. Morricone was also an important figure in the history of avant-garde music; he was a founding member of Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, an improvisational group widely considered the first experimental music collective. Today, however, I wish to focus on his film work, and what made it so special and enduring.
In the many tributes to Morricone that have poured in over the last two weeks, the notion has been repeated that, for generations of viewers, Morricone’s scores simply are what cinema sounds like. I agree with that – there’s a reason that so many directors employed his music to accompany dramatic close-ups and screen-filling tableaus, a certain expanse to his work that suits the cinema. But I would go further. For me, Morricone’s scores are what popular art sounds like; unafraid to reach for the sublime, yet rooted in strong and simple emotions. Discussing his early years in the film industry with fellow composer Fred Karlin, Morricone said:
“My first films were light comedies or costume movies that required simple scores that were easily created, a genre I never completely abandoned even when I went on to much more important films with major directors.”
Indeed, a certain unabashed emotional simplicity and sincerity was a hallmark of Morricone’s work. He was unafraid to be “too much”, to have his music explode into reveries of euphoria, despair, or terror – to scream what the compositions, dialogue, and performances onscreen were only suggesting. “The Ecstasy of Gold” from The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, perhaps his most famous piece, exemplifies this approach; its insistent drum line and piano riff, the rising strings, and Edda Dell’Orso’s soaring vocals overpower the senses, but it isn’t the auditory chaos too many composers resort to when seeking to convey grand scale; together, its individual elements create the sense of heavenly transcendence, the salvation which the film’s wretched protagonists are looking for in the gold they seek. Some composers would have felt it excessive to accompany a facial close-up with the entrance of a howling organ, as in For A Few Dollars More, but not Morricone; he knew that the film was working in the world of archetype and myth, and that it needed a suitable air of primordial drama.
Often, Morricone’s scores owed less to traditional film music than to opera or ballet. Instead of simply providing atmosphere, the music drives the drama, saying what the characters won’t, seeming to move with them or perhaps to dictate their movements. Take, for example, the first showdown between Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name and the four local miscreants who insulted him on his way into the border town of San Miguel in A Fistful Of Dollars. As we suddenly cut to a close-up on Eastwood’s face, his tone turning threatening (“I don’t think it’s nice, you laughin’”), a dramatic flourish of flute cuts in; from there, trembling, atonal strings provide a steady undertone of threat as Leone alternates between close-ups of Eastwood’s face, those of his foes, one of their hands going for a holstered gun, and townsfolk looking on in terror. Just as the music stops, the antagonists reach for their weapons, and Eastwood’s anti-hero dispatches them in a volley of six shots – the gunshots providing a visceral auditory pay-off to Morricone’s masterful build-up.
He could accompany grace as perfectly as violence. Consider the moment of revelation experienced by Robert De Niro’s Rodrigo Mendoza, a former mercenary and slaver accompanying Jesuit missionaries in the jungles of Argentina as penance for killing his half-brother, in Roland Joffé’s lyrical epic The Mission. After Mendoza carries a heavy load up a steep waterfall, he finally comes face to face with the indigenous Guarani people, the people he made his living exploiting. As one Guarani man rushes toward him with a knife, low strings growl, seeming to portend violence. But then something extraordinary happens; as the music cuts out, the man cuts Mendoza’s burden loose and casts it over the falls. A kneeling Mendoza begins to weep in humbled relief and awe, captured by Joffé in intimate close-up, and softer strings enter, gentle and graceful. The melody rises as Mendoza’s weeping becomes laughing, and Joffé cuts to the Guarani joining in, and Mendoza’s brother Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) rushes to embrace him. A wistful, plaintive oboe then enters, its slow and lilting tune dominating the soundscape over cuts between the Guarani crowding around Gabriel and Mendoza and close-ups of the two men’s hands linked – the music conferring upon these tender images a transcendent beauty beyond words, a quality of the truly sacred. As the scene closes, dialogue drops out entirely; an extended close-up on De Niro shows his face contorted by both laughter and tears, the sounds of his weeping unheard. But we don’t have to hear – the unspeakable poignancy and joy of his salvation is all there in Morricone’s music.
Of course, no one only works on masterpieces, and Morricone was no exception. But even when scoring forgettable or outright bad films, he still consistently turned in stimulating, surprising work. His score for The Exorcist II: The Heretic, once dubbed “demonstrably the worst film ever made” by film critic and Exorcist devotee Mark Kermode, is among the most original and striking horror film scores ever, mixing eerily beautiful liturgies with operatic prog-metal. Adrian Lyne’s 1997 film of Lolita is little remembered today, but taken on its own merits Morricone’s woozy woodwind-lead theme is hypnotically lovely. No matter the material, Morricone seemed committed to giving it life and emotional vitality.
Like many of the great filmmakers he worked with, Morricone long went unrecognised by the Academy; he earned six total nominations over almost forty years, finally winning in 2016 for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. That might on the face of it have looked like a career win – a sheepish admission by the Academy that they ought to have honoured him years ago, for superior work. But to my mind it was as thoroughly deserved for the specific work as for Morricone’s legacy – the score is the film’s most artful component, a roiling, droning, Gothic dirge, painting the cabin in which much of the film takes place as a very American corner of Hell nestled amidst the snowy Wyoming countryside.
I think it is perhaps best to conclude this piece with a reflection on and recommendation of my favourite Morricone piece, one that is critically lauded but that doesn’t enjoy the widespread recognition of some of his other work. I’m referring to his ending theme from 1978’s Days of Heaven, Terrence Malick’s dream-like chronicle of a makeshift family and a love triangle on a Texas farm in 1916. It is one of the greatest, most profoundly beautiful films ever made, a story of memory and impermanence whose images will stay with you with years. Lead by a rueful oboe melody backed by swelling strings, Morricone’s closing theme is both sad and euphoric in a manner I can’t explain, and it moves me whenever I hear it. In the closing scene, the camera hangs back to watch the film’s narrator Linda (Linda Manz) walk down a railroad track alongside a friend with whom she has just run away from school – an image of American youth so primal it could be ripped from Mark Twain. As the theme begins – the soft plucking of an acoustic guitar, the angelic purr of strings – we hear Linda’s final narration:
“This girl, she didn’t know where she was going or what she was gonna do. She didn’t have no money on her. Maybe she’d meet up with a character. I was hoping things would work out for her. She was a good friend of mine.”
It’s a startlingly elliptical conclusion, lent a funereal air by the mournful swellings of Morricone’s strings. We don’t necessarily get closure with the people who touch and then leave our lives, Linda’s words suggest; all we get are memories. What memories Morricone has left us.