Academy Award-winning composer Ennio Morricone, who left an indelible musical imprint on film genres as varied as “spaghetti westerns” and epic gangster dramas, died on Monday in Rome at the age of 91.
Morricone’s music has been featured in more than 500 films and TV productions over the past six decades, none more iconic than a trilogy of Italian films in the 1960s that remade the mythology of the Old West as depicted by Hollywood. The Morricone vibe, as evocatively captured in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” blended the modern (an electric guitar) with the old-school (whistling, wordless vocals, a jaw harp).
Born in Rome in 1928, he studied classical composition and wrote for the recital hall, radio and the stage, but made his living in the 1950s conducting and arranging pop songs and playing in a jazz combo. He transitioned to composing for films, ghostwriting for some and sharing contractual credit with his director on others. His first full credit was on 1961’s “The Fascist.”
Over the years, Morricone received two Academy Awards, three Golden Globes and two Grammys.
Tributes poured in today from across the music world. Oscar-winner Hans Zimmer told the BBC that seeing and hearing “Once Upon a Time in the West” was what convinced him to become a composer himself. “Ennio was an icon,” he said, “and icons just don’t go away; icons are forever.”
Also paying homage was the metal band Metallica, whose shows often feature their cover of “Ecstasy of Gold,” from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”: ”R.I.P. Ennio Morricone, Your career was legendary, your compositions were timeless.”
Click on the video players below to hear samples from some of the composer’s most impressive film scores.
“A Few Dollars More” (1965)
Morricone gained worldwide renown for his scores for Italian director Sergio Leone’s trilogy of “spaghetti westerns” featuring Clint Eastwood as the “Man With No Name,” introduced in 1964’s “A Fistful of Dollars” (a remake of the Kurosawa samurai film, “Yojimbo”). Morricone, who had met Leone briefly in school years earlier, composed some of the music before shooting, an unusual practice that allowed the director to shoot and edit the film to work with the score, not the other way around.
“Leone’s films were made like that because he wanted the music to be an important part of it, and he often kept the scenes longer simply because he didn’t want the music to end,” Morricone told The Guardian in 2007. “That’s why the films are so slow — because of the music.”
The following year, for the sequel, “A Few Dollars More,” Morricone repeated some of the elements he’d used in the previous score, including whistling, electric guitar, chorus, and a wordless soprano.
“The Good the Bay and the Ugly” (1966)
The most iconic and recognizable of Morricone’s scores, the soundtrack album rose to as high as #4 on the Billboard album charts, while a single of the main title covered by Hugo Montenegro hit #2.
In this scene (the film’s final duel featuring Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach), the music stretches the tension accompanying Brobdingnagian faces of men fighting over a buried cache of gold.
“Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968)
A wailing harmonica figures prominently in Morricone’s music for this revenge tale of a gunman, played by Charles Bronson, pitted against the villainous Henry Fonda.
“Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion” (1970)
Morricone composed a mischievous, sprightly theme for this satire of government corruption, in which a police official who murders his mistress seeks to redirect the course of the homicide investigation. The film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
“Days of Heaven” (1978)
Morricone earned his first Academy Award nomination for Terrence Malick’s masterful period drama of illicit love and murder on the American Great Plains. Malick used Camille Saint-Saëns’ “The Aquarium,” from “Carnival of the Animals,” for his opening titles, but Morricone captured the innocence of that piece and subverted it for his closing titles, producing a rueful, elegiac sound — an innocence lost.
“The Thing” (1982)
Doing much with very little — that was Morricone’s gift to John Carpenter’s gruesome sci-fi/horror flick. Carpenter, who usually scores his own films (like “Halloween”), knew a thing or two about how to use music to project tension. But in “The Thing,” Morricone’s music also projects isolation, desolation and paranoia, in opening titles that build on just two notes underscored by haunting synthesizer chords and what sounds like a beating (human?) heart.
“All I said to him was, ‘Fewer notes,'” recalled Carpenter to Rolling Stone magazine in 2014. The language barrier didn’t help the conversation. Morricone came up with several musical ideas, of which the director chose perhaps the most spare.
As producer Stuart Cohen wrote in 2011, “Morricone opened up his tattered valise and removed a reel of two-inch tape containing the now-emblematic ‘heartbeat’ theme. As we heard this for the first time in the recording booth at Universal I looked over at John, whose expression was initially one of relief, followed by something close to wonder … it seemed that Morricone had understood John perfectly.”
Among cues that weren’t used in the film, but which turned up on the soundtrack album, was one later appropriated by Quentin Tarantino for “The Hateful Eight.”
“Once Upon a Time in America” (1984)
Morricone reteamed with Leone for the 20th century gangster drama, which spans decades in the lives of childhood friends who grow up to be pitted against one another.
A prominent element of the orchestration is the pan flute, which beautifully evokes nostalgic longing in what is an epic memory piece.
“The Mission” (1986)
In the 2000 book “Knowing the Score,” legendary Hollywood composer David Raksin (“Laura”) said that, among recent film scores, there were two masterpieces: John Williams’ “Schindler’s List,” and Morricone’s “The Mission.”
The epic film, about Jesuit missionaries in 18th century South America, blends Western-style liturgical compositions with indigenous instrumentation, along with chorus.
In this concert performance Morricone conducts a selection of themes from the film:
Morricone earned his second Oscar nomination for “The Mission.”
“The Untouchables” (1987)
Brian De Palma enlisted Morricone to score his gleaming and violent Prohibition-era crime drama pitting federal agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) with mob boss Al Capone (Robert De Niro). The opening title music is vintage Morricone, complete with harmonica and driving strings, but the end titles music is wonderfully, brass-fully heroic, mirroring the indefatigable crimefighter who (spoiler alert!) comes out on top. It earned Morricone his third Academy Award nomination.
“The Hateful Eight” (2015)
In 2007 Morricone was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award for his “magnificent and multifaceted contributions to the art of film music.” Nine years later, Morricone would win a competitive Oscar for “The Hateful Eight,” whose director, Quentin Tarantino, had previously reused Morricone tracks in “Kill Bill,” “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained.”
In an interview for Dutch television Morricone said he purposefully didn’t repeat the style of his work for Sergio Leone’s westerns, and commented that Tarantino had been shocked at first by the result, because it didn’t reflect what he knew already from spaghetti westerns.
Tarantino, who’d referred to Morricone as his favorite composer of all time (“not just movie composer, that’s ghetto,” he remarked during a Golden Globes ceremony), elicited from the maestro a particularly menacing and nasty score for his depiction of particularly menacing and nasty characters — a broiling blend of bassoon, contrabassoon and tuba.
For more info:
- enniomorricone.org (Official site)
- Ennio Morricone Threatens to Sue Playboy: ‘I Have Never Called Quentin Tarantino a Cretin’
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