Michael Sumsion pays tribute to Ennio Morricone, the king of spaghetti western scores and a pioneer who transformed the sound of cinema.
The death of the Italian composer, conductor, orchestrator and trumpeter Ennio Morricone at the age of ninety-one calls time on one of the great, innovative and versatile careers in music. Though he became world-famous for his evocative and timeless scores for Sergio Leone’s seminal spaghetti westerns, his prolific output straddled jazz, experimental composition, easy listening, library music, TV soundtrack work, symphonic and pop.
Born in Rome in 1928, Ennio Morricone belongs in the pantheon of iconic 20th century film soundtrack composers alongside the likes of John Barry, Quincy Jones, John Carpenter and Lalo Schifrin. Ceaselessly fecund (he sometimes produced as many as twenty scores a year and was responsible for more than five hundred across his career), he collaborated with a slew of big name directors such as Bernardo Bertolucci, Roman Polanski, Mike Nichols, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Terrence Malick and worked on some of the most popular flicks of the late 20th and early 21st century, from La Cage aux Folles, Cinema Paradiso, Days Of Heaven, The Mission, Once Upon a Time in America and The Untouchables through to Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, for which he belatedly scooped his first competitive Oscar.
A graduate of Rome’s Conservatory of Santa Cecilia, Morricone’s first commissions were as composer and arranger for theatre and television as well as a session musician. Once he made his breakthrough with Il Federale in 1961, he dipped into a vast array of cinema genres in Italy and beyond, from horror, pulpy thriller, suspense and giallo to even action, comedy and mainstream crowd-pleasers.
Many items in his repertoire have become as famous and admired as the material from which they sprung, but what distinguished him from his peers was his dizzying range. Equally capable of summoning heart-swelling love themes, atonal avant-garde shrieks, dusty psychedelia, Bach-infused chorales, sultry funk, jarring dissonance and musique concrete from his bag of tricks, he could never be accused of selling his audience short, recycling the familiar or resting on his laurels.
It is his moody, era-defining work for Leone’s 1960’s spaghetti westerns as The Dollars Trilogy – A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) – that immediately spring to mind in any discussion of classic 1960’s soundtracks. These productions were both critically acclaimed and massively popular, with the films yielding takings of two hundred and eighty million dollars. It was his experimental employment of sound effects, unorthodox instrumentation (church bells, ticking clocks, Jew’s harp, harmonica, electric guitar) and uncanny evocation of the mythical desolation of the soundscape that catapulted him into the vanguard of film composers.
The two-note flute refrain, aping the sound of a coyote, that ushers in the taciturn, squinting, poncho-clad Clint Eastwood as ‘The Man With No Name’ in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, has justly assumed the status of instantly recognisable ear-worm and become shorthand for a dust-baked, Western Gothic atmosphere; the number one hit’s sense of blood-stained longing and mix of yodelling, gunfire cracks and whistling typify its author’s simultaneous fluency in pop and avant-garde styles. The agonising release of the mariachi trumpets in A Fistful of Dollars conjures a goosebump-inducing catharsis every time you hear them.
As influential and as ground-breaking as they were, these touchstones have tended to overshadow some of his equally impressive and enduring work. Take the plangent score for Cinema Paradiso, for one. This touching and elegaic paean to childhood, friendship and the big screen is bolstered by some of the maestro’s most limpid themes, likewise his affecting and tender melodies on his remarkable and haunting soundtrack for Once Upon A Time in America.
His influence inevitably transcended the world of cinema and seeped into numerous corners of popular music, witness his credits for singers such as Francoise Hardy, Andrea Bocelli, Paul Anka, Pet Shop Boys, KD Lang and Mina; the latter’s 1966 hit, Se Telefonando, remains a pillar of orchestral pop classicism.
Many of Morricone’s signature tics, and a certain desert psych, illuminate the work of many a brooding alt-rock act; the likes of Tindersticks, Calexico, Last Shadow Puppets, Portishead, Danger Mouse, Gruff Rhys, Radiohead, Goldfrapp and Federale have frequently sipped from the Morricone well of thundering hooves, melodramatic soundscapes and strident, galloping orchestration. The hip-hop break staple, The Mexican, by the prog-blues-rockers Babe Ruth made judicious use of the theme from For A Few Dollars More for its guitar riff, The Orb raided The Man with the Harmonica on Little Fluffy Clouds and Metallica and Mike Patton have paid homage on record and in live performance.
He performed regular concerts throughout Europe up to earlier this year and was lavishly honoured by his industry, amassing six Golden Globes, four Grammys, two European Film Awards, the Golden Lion Honorary Award and six Baftas.
Ennio Morricone is one of a handful of film composers whose work transcends the environs of cinema and whose stylistic revolutions have become a genre in their own right; anything vaguely resembling or doffing its cap as ‘Morriconesque’ lets the listener instantly know they’re in for a hell of a ride and is usually a signifier of quality. This genius was responsible for a good chunk of the finest music of the last fifty years and adapted his work to a plethora of cinema styles; for as long as there is cinema there will always be Ennio.