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You may not know the name, but you’ve definitely heard of him: Ennio Morricone has scored the most iconic films of our time, and today he’s soundtracking your breakfast. Lucky you.
Music – it’s an integral part of moviemaking. What would the shower scene from Psycho be without Bernard Herrmann’s terrifyingly insistent violins? Would Chariots of Fire have won Best Picture in 1981 without Vangelis’s gorgeous score? Would Darth Vader be as menacing without the power of John Williams’ Imperial March? Would The Grand Budapest Hotel be as charming without its delightful score by Alexandre Desplat?
Star Wars, Gone with the Wind, Superman, The Third Man, the Indiana Jones, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies, Back to the Future – classic movie music is instantly recognisable.
One of the most enduring and brilliant composers is Ennio Morricone. A prolific and always resourceful musician, his compositions are often as much a part of the movie as the action. You may know more of Morricone’s music than you realise. Even if you’ve never seen Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, you’re sure to recognise the main musical theme.
Since that film was released in 1966, it’s been covered by many musicians across musical genres; it’s even been featured in various episodes of The Simpsons. And heavy metal band Metallica uses the theme Ecstasy of Gold to open their performances.
And how’s this? In 2013, ABC Classic FM radio conducted a poll of listeners’ favourite film scores. The work that was voted Number 1 was Morricone’s The Mission (1986), beating the likes of Bernard Herrmann, John Williams, Henry Mancini, Elmer Bernstein, Maurice Jarre, and even Beethoven and Mozart. That’s some serious validation from the listening public.
Here’s Gabriel’s Oboe from that soundtrack:
This glorious music says more than words can express and in fact, that’s part of the story of The Mission. When Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) plays his oboe at the top of Iguazu Falls, he’s building a bridge between himself and the indigenous warriors who were originally going to kill him. Music acts as a conduit between the two cultures; that’s its power.
Morricone’s music has enormous power to move, to inspire and to echo what’s going on up there on the screen. Just think of the lush wistful music from Cinema Paradiso. I defy you not to cry during Alfredo’s funeral procession. Or that scene in The Untouchables where Eliot Ness says there’s too much death: the music goes straight to the heart. The score from Once Upon a Time in America (1984) transports you to 1920s New York. Who’d have thought that a gangster film would be accompanied by some of the most tenderly beautiful music you’ve ever heard.
But back to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The score is a corker. Morricone used particular instruments to represent various characters – in this case, the flute for Blondie (Clint Eastwood), an ocarina for Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), and a choir for Tuco (Eli Wallach). It’s incredibly effective.
Of course, he wasn’t the first composer to do this – think Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf – but it had a massive impact not just on audiences, but also on the way directors thought about film music, and the way film composers approached the composition and orchestration of their works.
It’s fascinating to discover that Morricone composed the music for Leone’s movies before filming actually began. Leone then used the music to inspire his actors. He obviously recognised that a strong score can heighten the viewer’s entire cinematic experience. The music might seem to be inseparable from the film – for example, the whistling, the gunshots, the cracking whips in the score reflect the harshness of the landscape and the heightened sense of tension that Leone is creating – but it can also stand on its own as a work of art.
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Morricone was born in Rome in 1928 and studied trumpet and composition at the Conservatory of St Cecilia. He listened to and learned from the great composers and he also had a deep appreciation of jazz. In his early career, he worked as an arranger in radio and theatre. He moved into film and first worked with Sergio Leone in 1964 on A Fistful of Dollars. The Leone films brought his music to a global audience. It wasn’t long before he became a highly sought-after film composer, working with many great directors: Bertolucci, Tornatore, Pasolini, Almodovar, De Palma, Wertmuller, Joffe, Polanski, to name just a few.
A consummate professional with boundless musical imagination, Morricone took music for westerns, and indeed film music in general, into completely new territory. As well as whistling, whips and guns, his original orchestral scores include panpipes, electric guitars, trumpets, oboes, harmonicas, Jew’s harp, accordions, various percussion including bells and windchimes, and voices without lyrics. There are so many textures to his compositions.
Morricone has written perhaps 450 scores in a career spanning almost seven decades. You know the movies – For a Few Dollars More (1965), Navajo Joe (1966) Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), The Untouchables (1987), Cinema Paradiso (1988), Frantic (1988), Bugsy (1991), The Legend of 1900 (1998), Lolita (1998), Malèna (2000), Ripley’s Game (2002), so many more.
He knows what he’s doing, that’s for sure. His music is adventurous, thrilling, nostalgic – every piece perfectly suited to the director’s vision.
Morricone has won a truckload of awards from around the world, including an honorary Oscar for his contribution to film music, but in spite of being nominated on five previous occasions, he only won his first Best Original Score Oscar in 2016 for the moody, unsettling score to Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015). A rather belated accolade considering the great body of his work.
He’s composed for westerns, dramas, romances, thrillers, horror films and he’s also written about 100 concert works, including his rather spectacular Mass for Pope Francis (2015).
Such diversity of style and genre, Morricone is one formidable composer.