PHOTO: Georges Biard / CC BY-SA

by James Southall

Prolific and prodigiously talented, few film composers could claim to have had the cultural impact of Ennio Morricone. He has written music for popes and kings; packed arenas around the world, playing for thousands of doting fans; seen his music travel to new and unexpected ground, from the sublime (Metallica using “The Ecstasy of Gold” to open their shows) to the ridiculous (drunken darts fans unknowingly singing along to a cover of an obscure track from 1969’s “Metti una sera a cena”, played whenever anything exciting happens at World Darts events); and most of all, seen his film compositions become beloved and indelible parts of movie history.

Morricone was born in Rome in 1928 and lived in the city for his whole life. His formal musical education began in 1940 at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia where he completed his scheduled four-year course in six months; he studied the trumpet, harmony and composition and choral music. Later in the decade, he started earning a living from his music, playing trumpet in jazz bands and working as a staff arranger for pop songs for the Italian broadcaster RAI.

The roots of his career as a film composer actually began at primary school, in a roundabout way – when he met Sergio Leone to work on the first of his “dollars” westerns in the early 1960s, Morricone greeted the director by reminding him that they had in fact attended school together three decades earlier. He already had a few film scores under his belt, but undoubtedly it was the extraordinarily creative music that the composer somehow conjured up for his former classmate’s breakthrough film that set in motion the remarkable career that was to follow. The mix of Hank Marvin-style electric guitar, the choir, the heavenly voice of Edda dell’Orso, the whips and the (literal) bells and whistles – not forgetting the orchestra and sublime melodies – nobody had heard music like this before. Remarkably, he would write it at his desk, with pencil and paper – his method of composing from start to finish. Just imagine sitting at your desk one morning scribbling down the theme from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” with not even a piano in sight.

PHOTO: Olivier Strecker / CC BY-SA

The collaboration with Leone was remarkable. It is impossible to separate Morricone from the making of those films – far from the Hollywood norm of the composer coming in at the end and placing music onto an otherwise-complete film, Leone wanted Morricone’s music to be the very heart. Pieces were written before a single frame had been shot; played on set to inspire the actors; the film edited to fit the music, not the other way round. It culminated in some of the most operatic films the world has seen; marriage of image to music rarely so potent.

Morricone was so in-demand, he worked on every type of film, every genre – and wrote in so many styles. We are all familiar with the melodies; the composer could fire them off seemingly as quickly as anyone could ask him for them. But he had a love of the cutting edge, too – the same year he was writing his first score for Leone, he was helping to found Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza, a group of composers performing improvised avant-garde music, exploring new recording and composing techniques. And all through his career, alongside his film music he was producing what he termed “absolute music” – free to do what he wanted without the constraints of making it fit a film, this was itself frequently experimental and a far cry from those lush melodies. I recall when he devoted the whole first half of his very first London concerts (at the Barbican in 2001) to a scratchy, agitated, provocative piece featuring magnetic tape – as the audience who had come for “Cinema Paradiso” and the rest of it squirmed uncomfortably in their chairs, I suspect Morricone was absolutely loving it.

His career in Europe saw him collaborate with numerous important directors – as well as Leone there were all the collaborations with Dario Argento, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernando Bertolucci, Mauro Bolognini, Henri Verneuil and in later years Giuseppe Tornatore – and alongside this were various assignments on American films – but I don’t think Hollywood really knew how to use him. “Days of Heaven” was one thing, but not long after he would find himself working on films which were in no way entitled to a composer of his stature. It is telling that his most frequent American collaborator was Brian de Palma – a composer’s director if ever there were one, he was never afraid of allowing his composers to assert themselves in his films, whether Hollywood greats like Herrmann or Williams or European masters like Donaggio and Morricone. Beyond the Leone films, perhaps his most iconic work is on the Roland Joffe film “The Mission” in 1986. It is a work of genius: outwardly liturgical choral music, the lilting “Gabriel’s Oboe” which never loses its power to move, but also some extremely harsh dissonance.

PHOTO: Roberto Masotti / CC0

I don’t think anybody is quite sure just how many hundreds of films Morricone scored – his work ethic (wake up – start composing music – don’t finish till going to bed – day after day, year after year) mixed with his approach (frequently to provide directors with a few themes and variations and hand them over for them to do with as they wished, rather than the Hollywood style of scoring to picture) allowed this extraordinary volume of output. It was his ability to capture the essence of a film in a piece or two only two or three minutes long that set him apart; needless to say, colour provided through the variations and, when needed, separate set-pieces.

In the new century, he finally slowed down – a bit. But part of the reason for that was that he increased his concert schedule rapidly, taking his music around the world until he was 90. Audiences would sit there rapt – the last time I saw him was at an outrageously good open-air concert in the stunning surroundings of Blenheim Palace in southern England. A lot of people there were casual fans, perhaps familiar with “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and not much else – greeted with a parade of probably-unfamiliar pieces played by 200 musicians and singers conducted by this aged, slight man, I heard some mutterings in early stages – by the end, the sheer power of “On Earth as it is in Heaven” had people in raptures, thousands of people in the palm of his hand. I’m not a religious man – but a Morricone concert was always a religious experience.

PHOTO: Jason Merritt

In later years his music would take on new and unexpected leases of life. Few would have predicted in 2007 when Morricone became only the second composer to be awarded an Honoroury Academy Award that a decade later he would be back at the ceremony winning a competitive Oscar at the age of 88 – but that was the culmination of a new wave of filmmakers’ love of his music, led of course by Quentin Tarantino. Bad translations and misquotes led to some headlines over the years about Morricone being irritated by Tarantino’s use of his music – but make no mistake, he was flattered and Tarantino somehow finally got his man in 2016 to write him an original score.

From “Il Federale” in 1961 to “La Correspondenza” in 2016, Morricone’s career in film was remarkable. From the iconic sound of the Italian westerns to the wry wit of his comedies, the genre-defining Giallos of the 1970s, the political thrillers, the religious epics – he put his stamp on everything he touched. His influence is still felt far and wide – not just within film music (his influence on Hans Zimmer cannot be overstated) but in all sorts of different places. Throughout it all, he was alongside his beloved wife Maria, married for 63 years. They had four children – their son Andrea becoming a distinguished film composer in his own right. His music – and, through it, he – will be immortal.

Rest in peace, Maestro.