I heard the news of Ennio Morricone’s death on BBC radio on the afternoon of July 6th. So, after tea, I played my tape recording of his composition that accompanied The Mission (1986). The following days I revisited Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (the director’s cut, 1991). I was, though, also tempted by Once Upon a Time in the West/ / C’era una volta il West (1968), Burn! / Queimada (1969), The Star Maker / L’uomo delle stelle (1995) and The Mission itself. For over five decades, from the mid-1960s, many of the most pleasurable moments in cinemas were listening as the moving images were enhanced by Morricone’s compositions. IMDB lists 520 compositions for film, television and other media products. Apparently one was the music to accompany the logo of the 1978 World Cup. I have only seen a fraction of these. The most recent being Quentin Tarantino’s fine The Hateful Eight (2015) where the music was enhancing a 70mm print in full Ultra Panavision. Some of the titles, I know, were not particularly good films. But many were fine examples even discounting the music; and Morricone worked with a whole number of really fine filmmakers.
Morricone’s output included the really fine films above. It also included films of lesser quality; the weakest I have seen is The Scarlet and the Black (TV 1983). In term of the material that Morricone worked on it is difficult to pin down. He worked across genres, national cinemas and, to a degree, between mainstream and alternative cinemas. Clearly he had close working relationships with some directors; notable Sergio Leone for whom he composed his most memorable scores. The final crane shot of Once Upon a Time in the West where Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) brings water to the workers on the transforming railway, gets much of its grandeur from the music. Another great partnership was with Gillo Pontecorvo. They shared the credits on The Battle of Algiers / La battaglia di Algeri (1966), which I have also re-watched. Much of the music came from Pontecorvo though the score includes material that fits Pontecorvo’s profile and music that fits that of Morricone. One virtue they shared was a preference for counterpoint; exemplified in the gripping long sequence as women members of the Front de libération nationale plant bombs in the European sector; moving from an insistent and powerful drumming to the solemn music of Bach. There is a sort of combination of these two strands in the climax of The Mission as the European colonialists massacre the indigenous Indians. Some of Morricone’s best music came in his work with Giuseppe Tornatore. In Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, apart from the great themes, there is the recurring wind chime which becomes a motif in the life of Salvatore (Jacques Perrin). And there are equally fine examples in the films of Bernardo Bertolucci and Pier Paulo Pasolini. All these filmmakers, like Morricone himself, have benefited from fine work by craft-people; including musicians, cinematographers, editors and sound engineers.
Musically [in my limited repertoire] Morricone was a modernist, involved in two important modern circles of composers. And he brought this experience and predilection to his film scores. That he is so influential as a composer is down to the innovatory approach found in the films that he worked on. The use of voice and electronic aounds in For a Few Dollars More / Per qualche dollaro in più (1965) had a formative effect on films and, in particular, the western genre. Sitting in a cinema at that time and hearing the music and sounds for the first time was amazing.
Morricone was skilled in using unusual and indigenous instruments and indigenous musical forms. These can be heard in numerous examples in his film compositions. Ennio Morricone’s skill with the human voice meant that he also wrote for many talented singers. And he regularly provided concert music, performing at age 90 only a year before his death. Pinning down his politics is tricky as the films he worked on embrace a wide range of values. But among these are many films with a strong and subversive political content. He composed the score for the 1971 film Sacco e Vansetti (victims of the one of those oppressive decades in US history, the 1920s), including a very fine style folk song.
It is reassuring to know that so many of the films that he scored have entered canons of acclaimed titles. So we can be confident that we will continue to hear his fine film music for years to come; in concert, on recordings and in the cinema.
Check out the opening credit sequence of The Hateful Eight and Morricone conducting the recording of the score for the opening sequence in the film.