There are those who write music for the movies, and then there are those whose music reshapes the stuff of cinema. Ennio Morricone, who died in July this year, was one of a handful of composers in film history who could comfortably claim to be one of the latter: from the moment he shot to international prominence in the 1960s, cinema has always been and will always be part Morricone. He wrote more than 500 film and television scores over the course of a 60-year career; he redefined ossified cinematic genres; and perhaps most toweringly of all, with his collaborations with director Sergio Leone, he composed some of the few snatches of film music that are easily recognised by those who do not easily recognise film music.

Morricone, a child musician in Mussolini’s Italy, then jazz trumpeter and arranger of pop tunes in the 1950s, turned to film and television composition as the 1960s arrived. Though his first film score proper, Luciano Salce’s Il Federale (The Fascist, 1961), was a standout, his early film compositions were largely for light drama and comedy. These were films that rarely saw the light of day outside of Italy: sex comedies like La voglia matta (Crazy Desire, Luciano Salce, 1962), teen comedies like Diciottenni al sole (Eighteen in the Sun, Camillo Mastrocinque, 1962), and Lina Wertmüller’s rarely-seen debut, I Basilischi (The Lizards, 1963). These films proved Morricone’s imagination and industriousness, and by 1964 he was composing music for half a dozen films a year.

Even before we get to his work for the cinema, the early musical life of Morricone is as instructive as that of many of those who have shaped film music the most, like Erich Korngold (performing for Mahler and Emperor Franz Josef in 1900s Vienna), Bernard Herrmann (writing radio music for Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air), and John Williams (jazz pianist and session musician for Henry Mancini). Morricone talks of his early work for Italian RAI radio and in particular, his arrangements of pop tunes of the day as an experience of avoiding and “break[ing] the rules of the craft… the danger I saw in craftmanship, even then, was that it could become a habit and conservatism.”1 As a great example, in 1961, Morricone arranged the classic canzone napoletana “Voce ‘e notte” for pop singer Miranda Martino by throwing in a few brief excerpts of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. To today’s ears, the resulting sound is an inspired appropriation that foregrounds his later unlikely borrowing of Beethoven’s “Für Elise” for his score for Sergio Sollima’s La Resa Dei Conti (The Big Gundown, 1967). In 1961, though, Morricone’s work was not just unorthodox: it challenged the sanctity of a nostalgic musical tradition and was heavily criticised at the time for its adventurousness.

Of course, it is for his work on the western, and in particular, his collaborations with director Sergio Leone that Morricone is still perhaps most enduringly famous today. These were his breakthrough films, both with the general public in Italy and internationally. The latter did not come quickly, however: though the films in the dollars trilogy were released in Italy in 1964, 1965, and 1966 respectively, it wasn’t until 1967 that all three were in cinemas in the United States. And even then, the critical reception was chilly. Bosley Crowther as usual missed the mood of public sentiment in the 1960s in his review for the New York Times, describing A Fistful of Dollars as “Filmed in hard, somber color and paced to a musical score that betrays tricks and themes that sound derivative.”2

Morricone had been contacted by Leone in 1963 to compose for A Fistful of Dollars, and the two men quickly realised that despite not having seen each other for almost thirty years, they had in fact gone to the same primary school. “Are you the Morricone who used to go with me to Viale Trastavere?” asked Leone, incredulously.3 Morricone at that time knew nothing about westerns and was not enthusiastic about the Kurosawa classic (Yojimbo, 1961) that Leone delightedly showed the composer by way of inspiration. But Morricone saw the archetypical and mythic basis for what Leone wanted to do with this story and agreed to write him some music.

The myths that Leone cared for with the dollars trilogy are not the myths of the Hollywood western up until that point, the “story of the lone stranger who rides into a troubled town and cleans it up, winning the respect of the townsfolk and the love of the schoolmarm.”4 In the world of Leone, there are lone strangers and troubled towns, but little respect and even scarcer love from pure-hearted schoolmarms. The protagonist – we can’t quite call him a hero – no longer wears a white hat and a badge. “The English have Shakespeare, the French have Moliere, the Russians have Chekhov, and we’ve got the cowboy story,” said Robert Duvall about the western in 2006.5 How shocking it must have been, then, to watch A Fistful of Dollars in the 1960s, an Italian-West German-Spanish co-production starring just one American actor, a barely-disguised story from a Japanese samurai film, and an amorality so plain that when it finally aired on United States television in 1975, a ham-fisted prologue was added in an attempt to give moral justification for the film’s events.6

Morricone’s score does much the same to the music of the western as Leone did to its myths. The sound world of the film is nothing like that of the traditional Hollywood western, which in the hands of composers like Max Steiner, Elmer Bernstein, and Jerome Moross was replete with Aaron Copland-esque horn fanfares, expansive, galloping strings, and folk songs.7 This was music that sung the praises of heroic, chiselled-jawed cowboys and told us of their Manifest Destiny-imbued adventures over difficult land (often complete with racist ‘savage’ drum patterns – four beats in a row, emphasis on the first – for Native Americans.8

By contrast, Morricone’s music for the dollars trilogy drew more on the country and western-infused pop music at the time, like The Ramrods’ cover of the Stan Jones perennial, “Ghost Riders in the Sky” (1961), or the surf rock of The Shadows. Morricone’s instruction was to make the guitar “sound like a spear,” and the sound was ironic, detached, and above all, cool.9 There was a certain orchestrational genius at work here, too: over the length of Morricone’s music for the dollars trilogy, you will hear not just guitars, but choir grunts, Hammond organ, whip cracks, gunshots, ocarinas, whistles, and the twang of a marranzano (sometimes called a jaw harp), an instrument that Morricone “associated with bullying Sicilian kids, who wear cowboy hats instead of a coppola.”10 What kind of mind puts these instruments to work in a genre otherwise known for its musical grandeur and earnest heroics? By the time of their third film, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, Morricone was not only writing music for Leone before he had seen a frame of the picture, but Leone was bringing Morricone’s recordings to set, playing it for the actors, and timing camera movements to Morricone’s tempo.11 This was cinema in service of sound.

Once Upon a Time in the West’s spectacular crane shot revealing the town was timed to Morricone’s music, played live on set

Mentioning Morricone’s inventive instrumentation is by now almost obligatory, and it was certainly a big factor in how frequently his soundtracks achieved a certain pop iconicity. An unusual sound at the cinema certainly sticks in your eye and your ear. But it would be ignorant of Morricone’s talents to ascribe, even by inference, his success to a certain simple musical novelty. This was a composer whose most enduring skill was a knack for emotional resonance of sometimes the most profound degree.

Take Once Upon a Time in America, Morricone’s final, four-hour collaboration with Leone from 1968. Though the film has the orchestrational quirk of Gheorghe Zamfir’s pan pipes, it is otherwise a largely traditional score that showcases the magnificent “Deborah’s theme,” surely one of the most beautiful melodies ever written for cinema. Through the film, the theme is usually played just on strings (and sometimes with a wordless vocal accompaniment by singer Edda Dell’Orso) and is in turns both floridly expressive and then again almost completely motionless. There is some similarity to Mahler’s famous Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony (1902), but the melody and overall effect is entirely Morricone’s, a piece of music to illustrate “the impossibility of the two lovers in developing a constructive, edifying relationship.”12

Morricone could never seriously be classified as merely a specialist for the western (a genre that, by his own calculations, accounts for just eight percent of his total cinematic output,13 and he frequently found his greatest work through his many enduring collaborations with directors like Pier Paolo Passolini (“an industrious, serious man”14, Bernardo Bertolucci (“one of the best Italian movie directors of all time,”15), Gillo Pontecorvo (“he second guessed everything!”16, Terrence Malick (“a poet, a man of culture,”17, Brian De Palma (“a very reserved and introverted man,”18 and Giuseppe Tornatore (“he absorbs new concepts like a sponge,”19 Once-off and lesser known collaborations with great directors also included Pedro Almodóvar (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! 1990), Margarethe von Trotta (The Great Silence, 1992), Wolfgang Petersen (In the Line of Fire, 1993), George Miller (Lorenzo’s Oil, 1992), and Oliver Stone (U Turn, 1997).

Morricone created music of sometimes startling variety. His score for Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978) is restless and unsettled, sounding like Saint-Saëns through a funhouse mirror. Morricone’s music for The Mission (Roland Joffé, 1986), with its tripartite approach of baroque oboe ornamentations, ecclesiastic choir, and music for the Indigenous Guarani people, is today much more popular than the film itself. La Cage aux Folles (Édouard Molinaro, 1978) is full of smizing muzak; Ripley’s Game (Liliana Cavini, 2002), aging harpsichord suspense; The Exorcist II: The Heretic (John Boorman, 1977) has the expected sound and fury, but also a sweet, almost romantic guitar, and a truly oddball disco rock tune for the end credits. Yet Morricone was not a musical bowerbird, content to borrow between genres and styles: he was just continuing to do as he had always done, and break the rules of craft.

Part of this also belies the variety not just in Morricone’s music but in the projects he elected to take on. Morricone composed for plenty of prestige and film festival favourites, but what also set him apart among many of the film music greats was his apparent lack of any kind of snobbery or any sense of his own status once famous. Morricone wrote music for films that would take him to the Academy Awards and also for low-brow films that other big-name composers would never have looked at. Indeed, as a product of the Italian film industry, Morricone genuinely formed a different relationship with what to American eyes might have looked like exploitation films (and of course, the dollars trilogy was initially received as such in the United States). Morricone’s fruitful collaboration with giallo master Dario Argento is the standout example of this (five films, including The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970, and The Cat o’ Nine Tails in 1971), but Morricone also worked on films like Mario Bava’s Diabolik (1968), Armando Crispino’s Macchie solari (The Corpse, 1975), Aldo Lado’s La Corta notte delle bambole di vetro (Short Night of Glass Dolls, 1971), and Luciano Ercoli’s Le foto proibite di una signora per bene (Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, 1970). Morricone also composed the title song for one of the many barely-legal European James Bond knock offs of the 1960s, Agent 077: Mission Bloody Mary (Sergio Grieco, 1965).

This lack of pretension and his status as a European outside the reach of Hollywood perhaps allowed Morricone to also take on riskier projects, such as Pontecorvo’s anti-colonial La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers, 1966) and Queimada (Burn! 1969), as well as Guiliano Montaldo’s docudrama Sacco e Vanzetti (1971), for which he wrote both an original score and songs sung, and with lyrics by Joan Baez.

Though Morricone won prestige and awards, he also never shied away from working on more interesting experiments and low-brow fun

Interestingly, despite his prolific output and his music’s global popularity, Morricone has been less of a touchstone for the scholarly project of film music studies, or soundtrack studies, than other American, or emigre composers in Hollywood. This absence is mysterious yet curiously persistent. In James Buhler, Caryl Flinn, and David Neumeyer’s authoritative Music and Cinema, John Williams comes up more than a dozen times, with several discrete discussions of his work; Morricone is mentioned once in passing.20 In Claudia Gorbman’s towering Unheard Melodies, Bernard Herrmann gets detailed and serious analysis; Morricone does not get a single remark.21 Perhaps crudely, but nonetheless indicatively, searching for “’Ennio Morricone’ composer” on Google Scholar returns around a fifth of the results that “’John Williams’ composer” does. (This is to say nothing of cinema studies more broadly: no composers are mentioned at all in the 500 words dedicated to film music in Bordwell and Thompson’s widely used Film Art textbook22.)

Perhaps this absence is because Morricone steadfastly refused to relocate to Hollywood throughout his career and become a studio composer – though many of his most influential scores, such as The Mission (Roland Joffé, 1986) and The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987) were nonetheless composed for Hollywood. Perhaps it is because while in an icon like John Williams, composers who followed found a blueprint to work and develop from, whereas Morricone was always a little too sui generis to do much with beyond parody or direct quotation. In other words, Morricone is not as much included as part of a substantial shadow over film music history so much as he is the shadow himself, a singular, distinct manifestation.

Happily, none of this stopped Morricone from committing his own thoughts on film music to the page. With academic Sergio Miceli, Morricone wrote a handbook for film composers adapted from a huge range of seminars given by the pair called Composing for the Cinema: The Theory and Praxis of Music in Film. The book also includes a manifesto on the topic of film and music temporality.23 He also invested serious amounts of energy into Alessandro De Rosa’s fantastic Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words from 2016, which opens with Morricone recounting his beloved chess battles again the greats: Boris Spassky (“Probably the peak of my career as a chess player… it ended half-half, another draw”), Gary Kasparov (“I lost dreadfully”), and Terrence Malick (“I must admit I was much better than him”).24

For many, though, Morricone’s music has the peculiar honour of being first encountered outside the cinema, such is its power and position in popular culture. Sometimes, Morricone arrives first in listener’s ears through other people’s performances, such as Hugo Montenegro’s cover version of the main theme from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly which in June 1968 peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and stayed at #1 on the UK Singles Chart for four weeks. More recently, Morricone’s music has been sampled by musicians as varied as Jay-Z (“Blueprint2”), Flying Lotus (“Turtles”), and Eminem (“Bad Meets Evil”), referenced by Kylie Minogue (“Golden”), New Order (“Blue Monday”) and Sly and Robbie (“Boops (Here to Go)”), and performed by Metallica, Bruce Springsteen, Yo-Yo Ma, Andrea Bocelli, Quincy Jones, and Herbie Hancock. Bands who have dedicated songs to Morricone include Dire Straits, John Zorn, and U2 (Morricone endearingly refers to them as “an Irish band” in Alessandro De Rosa’s book.25)

The sound of Morricone has also been widely heard and parodied in advertising, for beer, for sports, for gambling in those countries where it is legal to advertise it, and of course, in several Quentin Tarantino movies – in short, in the final crumbling mementos to the ceremonial masculinity of yesteryear, for which Morricone’s music for the Leone westerns in particular provide bravado without necessarily needing to explain away those films’ ironic wit and satire. Only occasionally do these reworkings transcend their reuse, such as Nike’s “Leave Nothing” ad (featuring the evergreen “Ecstasy of Gold”), and some of the deeper cuts in Tarantino’s films, but Morricone himself seemingly recognised the importance of the many lives his music took on. “It helps me realize that I am considered as a sort of spokesperson of my epoch and it means at the same time that some of my works have entered popular culture, even if indirectly,” he told De Rosa.26

When the news broke that Morricone had died, The Washington Post was roundly mocked on social media for their ham-fisted description of him as the composer of the “‘ah-ee-ah-ee-ah’ theme of ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.’” It is inelegant, to put it politely, to reduce a titan of the film music world and his life to a series of vowel movements. But you have to have some sympathy for what the author was presumably intending. Morricone’s name may not be known by all, but it is difficult to imagine anyone on planet earth who does not recognise that coyote shriek of a sound well before they know what film it is from or who is responsible for its creation. This is the very stuff of cinema in the broadest possible domain, along with stabbing motions and screams in the shower, magical red slippers, and the general impression that “Rosebud” is something important.

Like each of these things, Morricone’s unremitting relevance is no fluke or gimmick. His abundant music is at times complex and always varied, swinging easily from austere to outrageous. At his genius best, Morricone’s music is built on a direct line to something unutterable, something foundational in the emotional make-up of humans.

This music does not sound like the result of a plan or a strategy, something compelled to draw out a feeling or emphasise a moment. It simply is. It was yesterday, it is today, and tomorrow, even in a world without Ennio Morricone, it will continue to be.

Endnotes:

  1. Alessandro De Rosa, Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) p. 10.
  2. Bosley Crowther, “Screen: ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ Opens: Western Film Cliches All Used in Movie Cowboy Star From TV Featured as Killer,” New York Times, 2 February 1967, https://www.nytimes.com/1967/02/02/archives/screen-a-fistful-of-dollars-openswestern-film-cliches-all-used-in.html.
  3. Alessandro De Rosa, Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) p. 22.
  4. Will Wright, Six Guns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), p. 32.
  5. Kathy Blumenstock, “’Broken Trail’: An Ambitious Trek,” The Washington Post, June 25 2006, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/tv/2006/06/25/broken-trail-an-ambitious-trek/2f55b9de-e14d-4987-baa2-4d205028ee89/
  6. James L. Neibaur, The Clint Eastwood Westerns, (Maryland: Rowan and Littlefield, 2015) p. 16.
  7. Kathryn Kalinak, How the West Was Sung: Music in the Westerns of John Ford (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007)
  8. Claudia Gorbman, “Drums Along the LA River: Scoring the Indian,” in Cinema and the Sound of Music, Philip Brophy, ed. (North Ryde: AFTRS, 2000) p. 106.
  9. John Zorn, “Ennio Morricone Was More Than Just a Great Film Composer,” New York Times, July 8 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/08/arts/music/ennio-morricone-john-zorn.html.
  10. Alessandro De Rosa, Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), p. 29.
  11. Alessandro De Rosa, Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) p. 33.
  12. Alessandro De Rosa, Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) p. 70.
  13. Alessandro De Rosa, Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) p. 34.
  14. Alessandro De Rosa, Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) p. 35.
  15. Alessandro De Rosa, Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) p. 56.
  16. Alessandro De Rosa, Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) p. 49
  17. Alessandro De Rosa, Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) p. 114.
  18. Alessandro De Rosa, Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) p. 77
  19. Alessandro De Rosa, Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) p. 85.
  20. James Buhler, Caryl Flinn, and David Neumeyer, Music and Cinema (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 2000).
  21. Claudia Gorbman, Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987
  22. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction (New York: McGraw Hill, 2008), p. 302.
  23. Ennio Morricone and Sergio Miceli, Composing for the Cinema: The Theory and Praxis of Music in Film (Plymouth: Thornbury Press, 2013)
  24. Alessandro De Rosa, Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) pp. 3-4.
  25. Alessandro De Rosa, Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) p. 34
  26. Alessandro De Rosa, Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) p. 33.