Where did all that music come from? Not just the 500+ film scores, but also the 100-odd pieces of ‘absolute music’ that Ennio Morricone composed for the concert hall and the hundreds of songs that he arranged for the radio, theatre and television at the outset of his career. 

It was the music of Carl Maria von Weber that first inspired the 6-year-old Roman, with his trumpeter father encouraging him when he started composing. Morricone destroyed those manuscripts, so there’s no juvenilia. But he still deserves to be known as the Mozart of the movies, as he was not only prolific but also innovative, versatile and subversive. 

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It’s impossible to do justice to the Morricone canon in a few thumbnails, especially as so many of his credits have rarely been shown outside Italy. No wonder he never bothered to learn English. Composing at his desk rather than at a piano, he often worked from a screenplay and sometimes produced entire scores before a single scene had been shot. Yet, he always managed to evoke mood, place and character through his instinctive and distinctive blend of classical and avant-garde signatures and his inspired use of instruments, sound effects and silence. Consequently, his scores often left a deeper impression than the pictures they adorned. 

Having debuted with Luciano Salce’s The Fascist (1961), Morricone acquired a reputation for his contribution to the Italian westerns of Sergios Leone and Corbucci. But his repertoire was far more extensive, as his recurring collaborations with auteurs like Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci would testify. 

Yet there was nothing elitist about Morricone, whose readiness to score poliziotteschi (cop movies), commedia all’italiana (Italian-style comedies) and gialli (mystery crime/horror films) meant the 2007 honorary Oscar citation commending his “magnificent and multifaceted contributions to the art of film music” contains more than a ring of truth.

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone had been elementary classmates, but they met as strangers on the film that would prove a landmark for both. In fact, Leone felt Morricone had been imposed upon him, as he had disliked his scores for 2 earlier Italian westerns (Morricone detested the term ‘spaghetti’), Gunfight in the Red Sands (1963) and Bullets Don’t Argue (1964). 

He was entirely dissatisfied with Morricone’s initial submissions. However, when he heard ‘Un pugno di… west’ – Morricone’s reworking of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Pastures of Plenty’ for California-born folk singer Peter Tevis – Leone instructed him to compose something with the same galloping rhythms, whipcracks and bells. So, Morricone (who was billed as Dan Savio) repurposed a lullaby he had composed for the main theme. He added electric guitars, choral chants and the iconic whistling of Alessandro Alessandroni, while the trumpet finale resembled ‘El degüello’ from Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for Rio Bravo (1959).

For a Few Dollars More (1965)

For a Few Dollars More (1965)

Morricone grew to resent the focus on his collaboration with Leone, despite his contribution to the ‘Dollars trilogy’ affording him creative freedom. Moreover, it helped shape the tone of the sequels, as Leone played the music on set to guide the actors and achieve the rhythms he would refine while editing. 

In many ways, his score for For a Few Dollars More is a variation on the first film’s initiatives, as the pounding timpani, growling guitars and shrill whistling all return. But Morricone made the chanting more guttural and exploited the evocative twang of a jaw harp, the mournful wail of a recorder and the plinking honky tonk of a player piano to counterpoint the sly allusions to J.S. Bach. He also used a musical box to conjure nostalgia, and church bells and an organ to hint at the story’s spiritual subtext. Most ingeniously, he gave El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté) a musical pocket watch, the subtle shifts in tune of which convey the character’s changing mindset.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

Although sponsored by United Artists, this sprawling civil war saga yanked the western out of its Hollywood conventionality, while exposing the grasping cynicism of capitalism and the brutal absurdity of war. 

In order to explore the connection between the 3 desperados, Morricone and Leone created musical motifs for each, using a flute for Blondie (Clint Eastwood), an ocarina for Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) and human voices for Tuco (Eli Wallach), as they schemingly seek the Confederate gold buried in Sad Hill cemetery.

The ocarina also imitated a howling coyote in the title theme, which became a global chart hit for Hugo Montenegro. Yet, for all its anthemic recognisability, this legendary passage is upstaged by ‘The Ecstasy of Gold’, which dazzlingly combines triumphant horns, swirling strings and Edda Dell’Orso’s sublime mezzo-soprano, and ‘The Trio’, which makes thrilling use of guitars, trumpets and castanets to counterpoint the tight close-ups and precision cutting, creating an operatic audiovisual effect.

Once upon a Time in the West (1968)

Once upon a Time in the West (1968)

Reflecting Morricone’s admiration for the Second Viennese School, this remains among his peak achievements. His score is tightly bound into the pitiless study of frontier greed and depravity concocted by Leone in conjunction with Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento. 

Once again, it was written in advance and each of the principals has a theme that becomes interwoven into the mood music. The widowed Jill (Claudia Cardinale) is represented by a dulcimer, flute and the angelic voice of Edda Dell’Orso, while the debased soul of Frank the gunslinger (Henry Fonda) is suggested by Bruno Battisti D’Amario’s razzing guitar. The guitar part no longer has the Hank Marvin twang of the Dollars triptych, as it duels chillingly during the McBain massacre with a wailing harmonica, which in turn denotes the hired gun (Charles Bronson) on Frank’s tail. Morricone set out to “wound the audience’s ears like a blade” and he audaciously succeeds.

Queimada! (1969)

Queimada! (1969)

Morricone had been frustrated by Gillo Pontecorvo’s insistence on collaborating directly on the score for The Battle of Algiers (1966), as he kept rejecting compositions. Yet, while he ultimately focused on Maghrebi percussion and distorted sound effects, Morricone also managed to take 4 notes suggested by the director to produce ‘Ali’s Theme’, which hauntingly conveys the spirit of the revolution and stands in contrast to the stark snare and a bombastic piano used to capture the military might of the French forces. 

Morricone was given greater latitude on this second Pontecorvo treatise on colonial subversion, however, and the results are much more memorable. Set on the fictional 19th-century Caribbean island that Sir William Walker (Marlon Brando) is trying to prise away from the Portuguese, the action begins with ‘Abolição’, whose opening church organ refrain is overtaken by whipping percussion, snarling electric guitar and the majestically crescendoing voices of the black slaves led by José Dolores (Evaristo Márquez).

Days of Heaven (1978)

Days of Heaven (1978)

Despite being second choice after guitarist Leo Kottke opted to write songs rather than the entire score, Morricone received his first Oscar nomination for Terrence Malick’s elegiac tale of the Texas Panhandle in the mid-1910s. In many ways, the rustic themes make this the flipside of a compositional coin with his work on Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976). The ghost of Giuseppe Verdi haunts that epic account of Italy’s descent into fascism, but it’s the 7th movement of Camille Saint-Saëns’s ‘Carnival of the Animals’, that inspired Morricone’s pastoral theme, ‘Aquarium’. It’s complemented by the equally enchanting string serenade, ‘Harvest’; the deft flute piece, ‘Happiness’; and a love theme that contains echoes of the score that Vincent Ward would reject for What Dreams May Come (1998). 

By contrast, there’s dramatic urgency in ‘The Fire’, which swirls around the locust swarm and the billowing blaze. All of which leaves you wondering why Malick kept feeling the need to interfere with the maestro’s process. 

The Mission (1986)

The Mission (1986)

Having crafted what many consider his masterpiece, Morricone was rightly dismayed by the fact that Herbie Hancock received the Oscar for best original score for essentially arranging the work of others for Bertrand Tavernier’s jazz drama, Round Midnight.

There are numerous highlights in the score for Roland Joffé’s Palme d’Or winner, including the interpolated sacred music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, but 3 pieces stand out. Used early in contrasting contexts, the ‘Iguazu Falls Theme’ conveys both the scale of the task facing Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) in seeking to convert and protect a 1740s Amazonian tribe, and the scope of the Jesuit’s faith. Driven by drums, the ‘Guarani Theme’ throbs with life in celebrating the culture that the Iberian slavers wish to crush and its combination with the exquisite melody of ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’ in ‘On Earth as It Is in Heaven’ reveals Morricone’s genius in finding an acoustic metaphor for the merger of 2 worlds.

The Untouchables (1987)

The Untouchables (1987)

Perhaps the most remarkable moment in Morricone’s collaboration with Brian De Palma is the panpipe air accompanying the death plunge of a Vietnamese woman in Casualties of War (1989). But this rousing account of the pursuit of Al Capone (Robert De Niro) by Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is more representative of Morricone’s oeuvre after his whistleable contributions to crime classics like The Sicilian Clan (1969) and Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in America (1984). 

The scene is 1930s Chicago for De Palma’s big-screen reworking of the cult ABC TV series (1959-63). But Morricone’s score knows no boundaries, as it uses western and giallo motifs in a Prohibition setting. Moreover, it employs instrument combinations that no one else would even contemplate on items like ‘The Strength of the Righteous’. In isolation, each cue is exemplary. Taken together, they are extraordinary. Yet, Morricone had to settle for a Grammy and a BAFTA, as the Oscar eluded him again.

Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Over the years, it became commonplace for Morricone’s scores to be the best thing about a film or programme, whether it was the delicate ‘Chi Mai’ for Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Maddalena (1971) or the pulsating theme for the 1985 German TV series, Via Mala. It was fitting, therefore, that he should be asked to provide the accompaniment for that most glorious celebration of the cinematic snippet, the ‘kiss montage’ in Giuseppe Tornatore’s heartfelt paean to the magic of the movies. 

Echoing the relationship between projectionist Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) and young film fan Toto (Salvatore Cascio), Morricone wrote the ‘Love Theme’ with his son, Andrea, and its tender strain of melancholic nostalgia captures the essence of both the story and the maverick Morricone’s sometimes overlooked gift for traditional orchestral melody. Tornatore also recruited the composer for The Legend of 1900 (1998) and Malèna (2000), which respectively brought a Golden Globe win and another Oscar nomination.

The Hateful Eight (2015)

The Hateful Eight (2015)

Quentin Tarantino had frequently repurposed Morricone cues for his own pictures, with Navajo Joe (1966) and Death Rides a Horse (1967) surfacing in Kill Bill: Vol.1 (2003) and the music for Revolver (1973) and Allonsanfan (1974) cropping up in Inglourious Basterds (2009). Morricone had turned down an invitation to score the latter, although he did contribute ‘Ancora Qui’ to Django Unchained (2012), which also sampled The Hellbenders (1967) and the famous braying mule from Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970). 

The maestro swore he wouldn’t work with Tarantino again because “he places music in his films without coherence”. But for The Hateful Eight he was coaxed into producing his first original western score since Buddy Goes West (1981), dusting down an unused theme submitted during the unhappy collaboration with John Carpenter on the Razzie-nominated, but fitfully brilliant score for The Thing (1982). Despite also containing a self-borrowing from Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), the score finally brought Morricone his Academy Award.

Originally published: 23 October 2020