Assessing the invincibility of the composer’s titanic work ethic, which had him churning out scores to over 400 movies
“I’d say that if it’s true I created a new sort of Western, inventing picaresque figures in epic situations and new characters, then it was Ennio’s music that spoke for them.” – Sergio Leone
“A-D-A-D-AAAAA…(with a final whoop!), an agreed signal, a sneer, a moan, simply the dominant-tonic of a D minor scale – slight elements, to be sure, but they often are in Morricone, and not only in his film music – which materialize out of a musical ostinato in a visceral imperative, which is to say sound becomes a scream, shedding absolutely all “cultivated,” or in any case technical significance.” – Sergio Miceli
In fall 2013, I got wind that Ennio Morricone, one of my musical heroes, was coming to America for the first time since 2007. He would be performing one concert each at the Cushman & Wakefield Theater (now the Tidal Theater) at Barclays Center and the Hollywood Bowl, conducting a 200-piece orchestra and choir. Even though the concert was months away and tickets were $80, I jumped at the chance with barely a thought. At the time I thought I was mostly seeking communion – with the maestro, with the music, with other fans, including my sister and brother-in-law, who didn’t hesitate to join in.
The concert was originally scheduled for March 2014 but was postponed until June when Morricone injured his back and ultimately cancelled when it was determined that the 85-year-old legend would be unable to travel. I was crushed and only slightly consoled when I was able to download a bootleg of a similar concert from Turin in 2012. Now that Morricone is gone, dead at the age of 91 on July 6th, I realize that in addition to communion, I was also seeking something else: confirmation.
VIDEO: Ennio Morricone and Orchestra perform “The Ecstasy of Gold”, Turin 2012
Like many, I fell for Morricone’s music at the same time as I fell for the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, a natural milestone on my tour of the films of Clint Eastwood. This was in the mid-1980’s and coincided with several important events. First came the long-awaited release of Leone’s final film, Once Upon A Time In America (1984), with its lovely score by Morricone. This seemed to kick off a Morricone renaissance, starting with the stunning and inventive score for The Mission (1986), and quickly followed by The Untouchables (1987), Rampage (1987), Frantic (1988), and Casualties of War (1989). Then there was a screening of a newly restored print of Once Upon A Time In The West at the Public Theater around that time. The film is a culmination of all Leone’s western themes, with the addition of a strong female character providing inspiration for some of Morricone’s most emotional music.
There was also John Zorn’s The Big Gundown (1986), a Hal Willner-esque deep-dive into Morricone’s oeuvre featuring a murderer’s row from the worlds of avant garde jazz and rock, including Bill Frisell, Fred Frith, Robert Quine, and Vernon Reid – and those are just the guitarists! That album and those four soundtracks were constant listens in my house (The Mission was ubiquitous everywhere, from coffee houses to photo shoots), along with several older scores I was able to find on trips to Italy in 1986 and 1988. The more I listened the more I began to suspect that Morricone didn’t care about whether he was composing for a western, a gangster flick, a romance, a mystery, or a giallo – it was all one project, an investigation into the effects of melody and harmony on the human emotions when combined with unparalleled sonic invention. Hearing that concert from Turin, with music from across his career removed from the individual sound worlds of the time and space each was originally recorded, was all the proof I needed.
AUDIO: John Zorn The Big Gundown (full album)
Morricone also had zero concern with authenticity or convention, whether it was using distorted electric guitar in a western or making electric bass a lead instrument, or using such “non-serious” instruments as ocarinas, pan flutes, and penny whistles with devastating results. He was a master orchestrator, easily on the level of Shostakovich or Messiaen, with an innate knowledge of the attack, delay, sustain, and release, of seemingly every instrument. His secret weapon was the human voice, whether wails and vocalise, often sung by the great Edda Dell’Orso, or various whispers, shouts, shrieks, chants, and even burps. He was deeply in tune with the voice’s physical embodiment of inner realities, and also found a rich seam to mine in the way it could be combined with other instruments. One thing that is rarely talked about – if at all – is the deep melancholy and pathos (shading into bathos on the less-successful scores, of which there were many) undergirding much of his work, even when it was seemingly cheerful. I won’t speculate on the origins of this, except to say that the man lived in Rome from his birth in 1928 until his death, coming of age during WWII. He had a front-row seat on much of Europe’s 20th Century – and it wasn’t always a pretty view.
As legendary as his music was Morricone’s work ethic, which had him churning out scores to over 400 movies, starting with Il Federale in 1961. It’s impossible to put ones arms around a career of that size, so in the playlist below I focused on the soundtracks with which I have spent the most time, arranging them non-chronologically to draw out thematic elements and distance them from the films to present them as pure music. You will hear selections from plenty that is universally beloved and hopefully a few that are new to you, serving as an introduction to other facets of Morricone’s work. Here are some selective liner notes to illuminate some of my choices.
“Theme” from Metti, una cera a cena or Love Circle (1969)
I found a CD of this soundtrack to a forgotten romantic comedy in a record store in Florence in 1986 and it was a revelation, putting all of Morricone’s virtues – the instrumentation, the melodies, the sorrows – into a swinging 60’s pop environment. I’ve yet to see the film, a forgotten romantic comedy, but I doubt it can match what I see in my mind’s eye.
“Frantic” from Frantic (1988)
With glassy strings interacting with shiny synth tones and melodies that seem to search the sky for clues, this theme broke new ground for Morricone nearly 30 years into his career. It also included a signature move, in the use of a spectacular solo musician, in this case the virtuosic electric bass of Nanni Civitenga, The way Morricone zeroes in on the abilities of the instrument to create a gnawing tension, the pick grinding on the wound steel of the strings, is just another snapshot of his always perfect deployment of instruments.
“Piume di Cristallo” from L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo or The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Dario Argento wrote the screenplay for Metti, una cera a cena, but this was his directorial debut. The film also brought wider attention to the distinctly Italian genre known as “giallo,” a kind of pulp fiction, mixing mystery, horror, and sex in a provocative cinematic stew. While Argento is known for working with Goblin, the Italian prog-rock band, it was Morricone who scored his first three films, known as the “Animal Trilogy.” The soundtrack for this one veered from semi-improvised tracks that could easily hold their own with anyone from the Italian avant garde to lush and eerie folk songs like this one, with Morricone layering voices in what seems like a naked attempt to outdo Krzysztof Komeda’s theme from Rosemary’s Baby. The results are haunting – simultaneously sad and scary, while also putting a terrifying spin on the folk-rock of the late sixties and early seventies. “Come un madrigal,” which follows in my playlist, is from 4 mosche di velluto grigio or 4 Flies on Grey Velvet(1971), the last time Morricone worked with Argento, and a great example of how the maestro could stitch together fragmentary cells of strings and voices, leaving the mind of the listener to assemble the mood and melody.
VIDEO: The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970)
“Marcia degli accatoni” from Giu La Testa or A Fistful of Dynamite (1971)
This “march of the beggars” is full of rude comedy thanks to outrageous vocal noises and parodies of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmuski, but gradually attains a kind of grandeur with yet another brilliant arrangement of wordless vocals.
“Part 1” from Mio nome e nessuno or My Name Is Nobody (1973)
As well as being a serious ear worm, this incredible construction will sink deep into your soul. Its brave combination of the melancholy and the amusing is carried by a highly detailed arrangement that few would attempt and none could pull off with such panache. Combining finger-picked guitars, pulsing bass, penny-whistle, vocal swoops and la la’s, brushed snare drum, and a few unidentifiable effects, including what may be a jew’s harp – it has to be heard to be believed. The final product tells as much of a tale as the best Belle & Sebastian song, without saying a word. I highly recommend avoiding the movie itself, which is sunk by a performance by Terence Hill that is so dreadful it had me feeling sorry for his co-star, Henry Fonda. The full soundtrack has much to recommend it, including two delightful variation on this theme.
“Main Title” from La class operaia va in paradiso or The Working Class Goes To Heaven (1971)
There are so many disparate elements here that it would probably fall apart if not for the implacable forward motion that carries throughout. I first heard it on the Turin bootleg and assumed it was from several years later. It presages much of the approach of the Grammy-winning score for The Untouchables, which similarly uses fragmented building blocks to construct a monolithic theme.
AUDIO: Ennio Morricone “Ma Non Troppo Erotico”
“Ma Non Troppo Erotico” from The Burglars (1971)
As “Erotico” this became one of the more stunning tracks on The Big Gundown, with Zorn putting Morricone’s bump’n’grind through its paces with towering work by Big John Patton on organ and Frisell on guitar. The original, which I tracked down years later, is also fabulous, and probably had Henry Mancini looking over his shoulder. The whole score is fine, in fact, following threads Morricone began with Metti una cera a cena and L’assoluto naturale.
“Titoli” from Faccia a Faccia or Face to Face (1967)
From all reports, this Spaghetti Western by Sergio Solima can’t hold a candle to Leone’s work, and Morricone’s score also contains some lesser material. But the title theme is no retread, with organ, percussion, and strings melding in noble fashion, before a hornet’s nest of guitars descends, foreshadowing secondary material of true grandeur.
“Abolicao” from Quiemada or Burn! (1969)
Appropriately for a piece called “abolition,” this is Morricone at his most noble, with a stunning choral arrangement accompanied by churchy organ and rolling percussion. Melodically, it hints and territory Morricone would explore in great depth in The Mission.
“Sonny” from La banda J&S or Sonny & Jed (1972)
A close cousin to Mio nome e nessuno, but with a more mournful tone, this uses banjos, harpsichords, whistling, and a chorus that tugs at your heartstrings simply by repeating the name Sonny, the maestro once again spinning gold out of the simplest of elements.
When exploring full scores, I would suggest starting in the late sixties with the Leone films and the romances (Metti, L’assoluto naturale), and then skipping ahead to Morricone’s second golden age in the late eighties. His score for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015) is also essential, a remarkable return to the western from late in Morricone’s life.
Where you go from those is up to you, but I guarantee your journey will be a rich one, enhanced as mine has been by one of the greatest musical minds to have ever lived. The world of film was lucky to have him, but it’s the world of music that should lay ultimate claim to the man everyone called Il Maestro.
Note: Quotes at top from the liner notes to Ennio Morricone: The Italian Western (RCA, 1983)