In Memoriam: Ennio Morricone

On Monday July 6th, the film world lost a true master of his craft. The composer Ennio Morricone, born in Rome in 1928, died at the age of 91. To call him a legend somehow seems too trite, but after a career that spanned over five decades and more than 500 film credits, it also seems that there is no other word to use. Morricone worked across all genres, but may be best remembered for defining the soundscape of the Spaghetti Western through his collaborations with Sergio Leone on classics such as  The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly (1966) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Outside of that genre he also provided the music for standouts like The Thing (1982), The Mission (1986), and The Untouchables (1987). He won his only competitive Academy Award, after six other nominations and an Honorary Oscar in 2007, in 2016 for extending that Western work into Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015)

In honor of his breathtaking body of work, Devin and Nathan wrote about their connections to Morricone and his work. 

Devin

Music has always held a high mark of interest and honor in my family, and therefore in the rest of my life. My father is a gifted guitarist and singer, my brother was more or less a violin prodigy before giving it up, and while my mother has never studied the craft, she is quite fond of the saying “Life’s a musical, sing it!” I love music in its many forms, but I have always had a particular fondness for songs and compositions that feature piano, a result of my having played that instrument since I was about six years old. It is that fact that first brought me to Ennio Morricone through the heartbreaking beauty that is his work on Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Cinema Paradiso tells the story of a young Italian boy named Salvatore “Toto” (Salvatore Cascio) as he grows up in his small hometown and develops a deep bond with the local movie projectionist Alfredo (Philippe Noiret). The older man takes Toto under his wing and helps foster a love of film, and so the story opens on a much older Toto, who has become a director, learning of Alfredo’s death and reflecting on how their lives intersected over the years. It is a poignant film about love, loss, and movies, and would be powerful without Morricone’s work. Yet, what Morricone does with his compositional power is elevate the film to an emotive level I have rarely experienced through a film score. The “Cinema Paradiso” theme that opens the film is a gentle piano melody that builds from its softness to a flowing orchestration joined by a full suite of strings. I was captivated the moment it began, and listening to it for the umpteenth time while I write this, I find myself as moved to tears now as I was during that first experience. 

What Morricone does with the rest of the score is vary his initial theme through a variety of styles and tones, matching the unbridled joy of a young boy discovering film and friendship, the pain of a first heartbreak, and even the bittersweet mood of a man happy to return home even though he must say goodbye to his dear friend. I was, and remain, in awe of the majesty of Morricone’s score, and it led me to seek out every other bit of music that he composed over his magnificent career. Whether hitting the same lush emotional register as Cinema Paradiso, or inventing one of the greatest bare bones earworms ever for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Morricone’s was a career that rivals any of the greats. 

Rest in peace, Mr. Morricone, and thank you for the music. 

Nathan

In 1966, Morricone wrote the whistling cowboy theme to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly that became synonymous with the Western genre. The same film boasts “The Ecstasy of Gold,” the track that helped cement the final duel as one of the greatest scenes in film history, a scene that is virtually incomprehensible without Morricone’s score. (If you don’t believe me, watch the scene without music.) In these moments, Morricone punctuates the narrative tension, exposing backstories and dramatic turns that are otherwise invisible, instilling meaning into apparently harmless glances and camera pans. Throughout his Spaghetti Westerns, Morricone uses leitmotifs to describe characters, cuing the viewer throughout the three-and-a-half-hour films into the emotional and dramatic importance of the film’s quieter moments: arrivals and departures, exceedingly lengthy gazes (whether at long-lost loves or at the butt of a gun), horseback rides through the desert. Morricone also experiments with the boundaries between music and ambient noise, often weaving seemingly diegetic noises into the fabric of orchestral scores – the harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West and the vocal cries in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly stand out particularly.

What’s even more telling than The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’s seminal score, however, is that Morricone is also credited for fifteen other films that year alone. This includes what might be my favorite of his works: Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966). A stunning film about the Algerian National Liberation Front’s rebellion against French colonizers, Pontecorvo’s film is heart-thumping, infuriating, and beautiful. Morricone’s score, which oscillates from military fanfares to lyric woodwind themes, perfectly transmits the emotional quality of the film. As in his other works, Morricone is never satisfied with a purely symphonic score; he incorporates mimetic sounds – like the eerie woodwinds in the background that could be the wind – as well as Algerian instruments and rhythms. The film’s main theme, “La Battaglia di Algeri,” is a short march featuring a solo snare drum that marks out not only the military march but also seems to reinforce the image of the divided city. The score is exciting and dangerous, urging its listeners to run. 

Morricone’s influence is probably inestimable; listening through his scores from the 1960s again, I find traces to the scores of later films – to John WilliamsJaws (1975), for instance – and am continually amazed by his experimentation. Morricone pushed the boundaries of film scoring, and he will be missed. 


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