Ennio Morricone

A musical examination by Daniel Azevedo. Edited by James Southall
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.19/No.75 & 76 2000
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven 

Ennio MorriconeEven for those who only go to the movies once or twice a year, the name of Ennio Morricone should bring back good memories. Composer of more than 400 film scores during a career that spans over 40 years (so far), Morricone entered musical legend by composing unforgettable themes to such films as ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and THE MISSION. But in spite of his intense involvement with movies, Morricone has never ceased to write concert music, perhaps compelled by the wish to be recognized as a “serious” composer and, undoubtedly, his name deserves to be included among the best and the most productive musicians of the twentieth century.

His work has ups and downs, and it is possible that looking at every bar written by a composer reveals a lot more about his character than he would probably desire. Analyzing Morricone’s vast work from this point-of-view, one gets to see clearly that he is a romantic who responds with irony in the necessary amount. Morricone’s compositions include countless evocations of baroque and classical music, but they are sometimes dangerously transgressive, bordering on cacophony. The composer refuses to be pigeonholed, preferring to try a bit of everything. Forced mostly to write tonal and consonant music for the movies, it is not surprising that many of his works for concert are atonal and that they do not easily become popular. It seems that Morricone uses them as a way to vent and renew his ideas. Morricone’s works lie in a foggy crossroads where tradition meets innovation, most frequently representing a mixture of both. Indeed, biographer Sergio Miceli defines Morricone’s music with an anagram that pleases the composer a lot: “Norme con Ironie”. 

Origins

Ennio Morricone was born in Rome on November 10th, 1928, son of a trumpet player and a housewife. Influenced by his father, he began his music studies at the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia, where he entered trumpet classes at the age of 9; thus started an infatuation with the instrument that would last forever. In 1943, Professor Roberto Caggiano recognized his musical talent and promoted him to the course of principal Harmony, which was supposed to last four years. Morricone, nevertheless, completed the course in the record time of six months and the same professor, with enthusiasm, suggested that he begin the study of Composition.

In 1944 Morricone entered the Composition course under Carlo Giorgio Garofalo and Antonio Ferdinandi. At the same time, he was already performing as second trumpet, beside his father, in Alberta Flamini’s group. In 1946 he received his trumpet diploma with a mark of 7/10. In the same year, he wrote “Il Mattino”, a piece for voice and piano that was granted first prize in a contest. Also in that year he was for the first time engaged as instrumentalist and arranger in the revue theater. In the following year, he started to compose for the serious theater. Then, in 1951, he abandoned the course of Choral Music and Choral Direction in the third year. In 1952 he obtained a diploma in instrumentation for band with a 9/10 grade and also wrote background music for radio dramas. In 1953, he worked as arranger in a series of radio shows and composed the “Sonata” for brass, timpani and piano, his Opus 1. He graduated in Composition in 1954 with a grade of 9.5/10 under Gofiredo Petrassi, who became his close friend and a source of inspiration. Two years later, he married Maria Travia.

In 1960, he started to collaborate as arranger on television variety shows. He was 32, and perhaps slightly disappointed with the way his career was headed. His most serious pieces had not achieved the expected success and recognition, and he feared to follow in the steps of Professor Petrassi, becoming a composer with academic prominence but virtually unknown by the general public. He accepted works as arranger on television and radio only to support his family, which already included a newborn son. He could hardly imagine that his name would soon spread throughout the world.

Westerns and Songs: The Sixties

Two facts were remarkable in the sixties: the beginning of his collaboration with the movies and the intensification of his work as arranger for RCA. Surely, the entrance into the cinema industry has left a longer lasting mark; however, Morricone’s merit in turning ordinary and simple songs into successful best-selling hits cannot be ignored. At the time, he worked with the most prominent Italian singers, including Mina (“Se Telefonando”), Gianni Morandi, Milva and Gino Paoli (the hit “Sapore di Sale” gets a special nod). Unsurprisingly, a myriad of his movie themes are immediately transformed into popular songs when recorded by artists such as Paul Anka, Françoise Hardy, Charles Aznavour, Sergio Endrigo, Georges Moustaki, Scott Walker and Astrud Gilberto. The name of the arranger Morricone, kept secret at first, became a synonym of widespread success. In 1961, an invitation changed Morricone’s life and influenced subsequent generations of composers for the movies: he wrote the music for the film IL FEDERALE, by Luciano Salce, with whom he later worked six further times. Indeed, several collaborations with the same director are a constant in Morricone’s career. He feels more at ease to compose the score when he’s already familiar with the preferences of the director.

Three years later, in 1964, Morricone started to demand from himself a rhythm of work that would only tend to increase in the future. In that year, he scored twelve movies, which may not be a record, but at least attests that he composed nonstop.
Morricone has no secret: his daily work is tough. He wakes up early and composes all morning long in his studio, using only pencil and paper. “The people who write a score playing on the piano, these are not serious musicians. I compose directly onto the paper and sometimes, after writing, I go to the piano to try out some things. But I use this method very sparingly, because the orchestra [touching his head) is here above.(1)

After a break for lunch, he goes back to work, sometimes orchestrating what he wrote in the morning. The use of orchestrators to speed up the composition process is quite common in the movie industry, and a practice that Morricone condemns: A composer who does not do his own orchestrations, it’s a serious defect to consider him a composer 100%. Either he’s not capable, or he’s lazy, or he’s capable but he doesn’t love his own profession – three negative things that make him a halfway composer. I am comforted in what I say by the consideration of the great composers of centuries ago, Beethoven and Bach and Stravinsky and Mozart – they didn’t have arrangers, or orchestrators.” (2)

The year of 1964 witnessed the beginning of two collaborations that would extend for decades: with Bernardo Bertolucci, for whom Morricone scored BEFORE THE REVOLUTION, and with Sergio Leone. The partnership with Leone began because the director was looking for a new sound for a western that he had in mind called A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. When he listened to one of the songs arranged by Morricone, Leone thought he had just found the style of music he desired, and hired the composer. Morricone’s score demolished the model of music for westerns, which was based on the expansive and distinctively American sound of Aaron Copland. Morricone painted the dirty and hopeless characters of Leone with an exaggerated and ironic drama, employing a fistful of uncommon sounds: electric guitar, bells, whiplashes, a male chorus exhorting “we can fight” and, above all, the golden whistle of Alessandro Alessandroni, who was also a composer and the musical director of the group I Canton Moderni, featured in several of Morricone’s scores. They created a successful formula that would be tirelessly copied by other Italian movie makers, the so-called “spaghetti western”. Besides the next four Leone westerns, Morricone worked in another twenty-eight productions of the same kind. His imaginative soundscapes quickly made him famous, and he was always the biggest exponent of Italian westerns.

For the score of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, Morricone received the coveted Nastro D’Argento award, granted annually to the best Italian film score. Then Franco Evangelisti invited him to become a member of the Associazione Nuova Consonanza, which Morricone did with dedication, often meeting with members of the Gruppo de Iniprovizzacione Nuova Consonanza to play free form music during the nights. Morricone, of course, always played the trumpet. Several members of the group were music teachers, and it is nothing short of astounding that such a group produced only mediocre music that’s barely listenable. A few years later, the group would record Morricone’s score for THE COLD EYES OF FEAR (1971), which sounds like senseless and unattractive noise. Still, this serves as proof of Morricone’s interest in the opportunity to experiment with sounds that the Nuova Consonanza represented. “Playing with this group gives me a lot’ stated the composer “It relaxes and stimulates me as well: my work for cinema becomes more interesting.” (3)

In 1965, Morricone signed the score of twenty-one movies, a true prodigy that motivated critics to create the expression “the Morricone score of the week is…”. Unlike what one would imagine, the quality of his work was increasing steadily. He gave the impression that he had kept a lot of music locked deep within himself during his almost forty years and that the time had come to let it all out. Among the inevitable western scores, including three movies with the popular character Ringo, a sort of sequel to Leone’s movie should be highlighted: FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, which marked the return of the Man With No Name, played by Clint Eastwood, and of the inspiring and iconoclastic melodies of Morricone. Once more, Alessandroni contributed the whistles, and his group I Canton Moderni also shined. The movie’s unforgettable sequence, though, is the final duel to the sound of a music box theme that heightens the expectation, making it almost intolerable. Usually, the composer receives a copy of the movie, already edited, and then he is supposed to write the music according to the action on the screen, carefully matching tempos. Leone, on the contrary, asked Morricone to write the music before watching the movie, and then he edited the images in order that they fit into the corresponding score. The outcome was more than perfect, and the duel sequence was cited by Leone among his three favorites (the others would be the final duel of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY and the last shot of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST).

The year of 1965 also brought the first collaboration with Pier Paolo Pasolini, in the film UCCELLACCO .E UCCELLINI, which sported credits that were sung. Morricone would work with the director on six further occasions. Thirty years later, in 1995, the movie PASOLINI, UN DELITTO ITALIANO, by Marco Tullio Giordana, would try to unravel the truth regarding the director’s brutal murder, and Morricone, when writing the music, decided to include a requiem dedicated to his late friend. Another director with whom Morricone had his first contact in 1965 was Gillo Pontecorvo, one of the most important names of the politically engaged cinema. For THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS, Morricone wrote a score that was militaristic and dense, counterbalanced by a theme for the Ali character: a repetition of five simple notes, suggested by Pontecorvo himself.

Morricone started several lasting partnerships with other directors in 1966 (Sergio Corbucci, Alberto Lattuada, Damiano Damiani); however, twelve of his scores in that year pale next to the thirteenth: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, the last chapter of Sergio Leone’s dollars trilogy, once again with Clint Eastwood as the laconic Man With No Name. Very little remains to be written about this score, which is one of the major examples of the art of film music. The main theme entered history, but the movie offers still a bunch of other notable melodies, such as the ones that became known as “The Story of a Soldier” and “The Ecstasy of Gold”, the latter featuring a remarkable performance by Edda dell’Orso, who was the lead singer of the group I Canton Moderni. Edda and Morricone would work together in dozens of movies, progressively exploring the use of the human voice. “The voice is the most beautiful instrument’ declared the composer “It comes from inside, from the depth of our body” (4)

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In the following decade, Morricone would ask Edda to simulate crying (in the episode “Diario de urn Pazzo”, from the Italian TV horror series called DRAMMI GOTICI), groans (MACCHIE SOLARI), maniac laughter (SESSO IN CONFESSIONALE) or, most frequently, sounds with a strong erotic drive, creating absolutely unique scores. Sometimes her voice would soar high above the orchestra, as in the score of VERGOGNA SCHIFOSI (1968), and then she blew the imitators away. Of all the soloists that have worked with the composer, she was the one who best represented the contrast, the voluble wedding between innovation and classicism, becoming perpetually linked to Morricone’s name.

In 1967, the composer was invited to be pail of the jury of the twentieth Cannes International Film Festival, a fact that confirms his prestige. He initiated, at the same time, collaborations that would last for many years with three directors: Roberto Faenza, Mauro Bolognini and Giuliano Montaldo, for whom he wrote the score of AD OGNI COSTO, thoroughly influenced by Brazilian rhythms and sonorities. Among the seventeen movies with his signature in that year, Mario Bava’s psychedelic DIABOLIK must be granted a nod, for the music was fittingly bizarre.
The following year saw the beginning of the most interesting and fruitful period of Morricone’s career, which would extend to 1974. Reducing sensibly his activities as song arranger in favor of film scores, in 1968 he succeeded in participating in twenty-nine movies. Three of his scores must be described as outstanding: ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, THE RED TENT and METTI, UNA SERA A CENA. Other nice works are E PER CIELLO UN TETTO DI STELLE, a beautiful score characterized by the whistling of Alessandroni; H2S,for Roberto Faenza’s film; GUNS FOR SAN SEBASTIAN, his first collaboration with the director Henri Verneuil; and, last but not least, UN TRANQUILLO POSTO DELLA CAMPAGNA, his first work for director Elio Petri, for whose movies he would then become the trademark composer. The score of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST was a veritable phenomenon that year: the single with the two main themes became the number one best-seller in the entire world. Maybe the movie should be considered Sergio Leone’s masterpiece. The movie took advantage of two touches of genius: the casting of Henry Fonda, Hollywood’s perennial good guy, in the role of the brutal villain Frank, who does not hesitate in murdering a child, and the music of Ennio Morricone.

Even prior to shooting, Leone demanded a theme for each major character of the movie. Morricone composed many themes, and Leone discarded those that he did not see fit. Five remained: the main theme underlines the former prostitute Jill (Claudia Cardinale) with an impressive lyricism, reinforced by Edda’s voice; Harmonica (Charles Bronson) has his own signature, a motif played in the instrument he carries around; Frank receives a threatening theme; Cheyenne (Jason Robards) is represented by an easy-going song, reflecting the character’s attitude; and the railroad owner Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) is associated with a short and dreamy theme, which relates to his desire to reach the sea. Besides Edda, other important collaborators in the score are I Canton Moderni of Alessandroni, including the by now familiar whistling, and Franco de Gemini’s harmonica. The economically spotted music raises the movie to the category of a classic. It is impossible to forget the images of the last duel, scored with a superimposition of the themes of Harmonica and Frank, suggesting that fate would have them meet to solve old quarrels. It is curious to notice that, in the opening of Frank’s theme, Morricone uses permutations of three notes, a technique that he would often employ later on.

After ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, Morricone did not have much to add to westerns. Still, he returned to that style of writing in DUCK, YOU SUCKER (1971), the last western signed by Leone, and MY NAME IS NOBODY (1973), by Tonino Valerii, a movie that Leone produced and, according to rumors, directed in part. Their memorable themes achieved some success, but they can’t hold a candle to the excellence of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. OCCHIO ALLA PENNA (1981), a ridiculous movie with Bud Spencer, shows a bored Morricone, repeating old tricks, and since then he has declined scoring any other westerns. THE RED TENT, another 1968 movie, was an international failure, in spite of Morricone’s superb musical contribution and the fact that Sean Connery was in the leading role. The movie was confusing, full of historical inaccuracies, but still Morricone worked hard to reflect the tragedy of the unsuccessful expedition to the South pole, relying on the vocal talents of Edda and the viola of Dino Asciolla, another frequent collaborator.

METTI, UNA SERA A CENA, by Giuseppe Patroni Gniffi, inspired the composer to write one of his most famous themes, once more utilizing the three-note permutations and the singing of Edda. Perhaps the presence of Brazilian actress Florinda Bolkan in the cast induced Morricone to emulate a bossa nova. Anyway, the partnership between Morricone and Edda has been compared to the one between Tom Jobim and Elis Regina thanks to a  series of songs, and deservedly the composer was once more honored with the Nastro D’Argento award. Nearing the end of the decade, Morricone was not showing any signs of being tired: in 1969, he wrote eighteen new scores, many of which are worthy of a mention. BURN, by Gillo Pontecorvo, sounds nowadays as a study for THE MISSION, yet it stands very well as a score for the movie. THE SICILIAN CLAN, directed by Henri Verneuil, with whom Morricone would collaborate another four times, bore a memorable theme that did not wear out its welcome, even though it was repeated throughout the movie.

The biggest success of 1969, however, was THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, which marked the beginning of Dario Argento’s directing career. Argento and Morricone already knew each other, and it was more than natural that the two eventually worked together, a situation that repeated itself four other times. Nevertheless, the most remarkable partnership was the first movie, with Morricone and Argento creating a new kind of movie that was termed “giallo” (yellow, j Italian) because the scripts reminded us of the cheap suspense books printed on yellow pages. Characteristically, the plots of these films featured many murders, shot with explicit cruelty, plus one or more villains severely disturbed by childhood traumas and countless red herrings. As a rule, the endings did not make much sense, yet the mystery atmosphere was enough to attract the public. Morricone defined a model for this style of movie when he scored THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE with weird sounds (that recall his work with the group Nuova Consonanza) in order to generate suspense and a lullaby that represented the assassin’s deceptive look – as well as his long-standing neurosis.

It was, in fact, a superior movie and score when compared to the many others that soon followed. Some were downright atrocious, sporting nonsensical zoological titles, and Morricone’s music would represent a pastiche of tile pattern that he had conceived, as attested by the main theme of THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA (1971) and the unbearable sounds of MACCHIE SOLARI (1974), in which Edda moans as if she were under torture. It was the Italian cinema feeding on itself to the point of exhaustion. But, then, why did Morricone insist on working hard, writing frantically for more than twenty movies per year? According to Michael Nyman, who holds Morricone as a kind of mentor: “Morricone wanted all screen music to be of the highest quality and, aware that not everybody had the same standards, he took on as much work as he could manage (including projects that did not deserve his talent) in order to compensate for the deficiencies of others. He would toll night and day to ensure that as many films as possible had handsome scores.” (5)

Apogee and Fall: the Seventies

With the turning of the decade, Morricone continued to churn out works for the movies. The year of 1970 presented yet another western with Clint Eastwood, this time directed by Don Siegel: TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA, whose score includes musical references to the mule. LE FOTO PROIBITE DI UNA SIGNORA PER BENE, a “giallo”, benefited from an inspiring score based on two gorgeous main themes and the voice of Edda, who sang in a language combining English and Italian that she invented on the spot. Above these two works, however, one should place the music for an Alberto Bevilacqua film entitled LA CALIFFA, with Romy Schneider and Ugo Tognazzi in the main roles. The score, which rejected grandiloquence and followed simpler but no less effective paths, was very successful, mainly due to the beautiful overture theme. Two years later, Morricone would work again with Bevilacqua in QUESTA SPECIE D’AMORE, another romantic score considered one of the great efforts of the composer.

The year of 1971, as usual, brought a series of new respectable scores, as well as one or two slips. L’ITTRUSTORIA CHIUSA: DIMENTICHI by director Damiano Damiani, was one of Morricone’s first incursions through “musique concrete” – he resorted to screams, political speeches and other sounds difficult to identify. THE WORKING CLASS GOES TO HEAVEN, by Elio Petri, also sported noises of machines symbolizing rather obviously the mechanical life led by its protagonist. In THE SHORT NIGHT OF THE GLASS DOLLS, a film by Aldo Lado which was the first of nine collaborations, Edda interprets the gloomy main waltz, enticing the audience to believe the movie was about nostalgia. Huge mistake. The macabre script served as an excuse for Morricone to explore less conventional sonorities. In some tracks, the pianist repeats tirelessly the same note. Later, the composer pulls a grotesque rabbit out of his musical top-hat: he employs only electronic sounds, insistent percussion and Edda’s measured breathing to create a paranoid environment. There was never such a bizarre collaboration as this one.

That was also the year of MADDALENA, by Jerry Kawalerowicz. The score, an unquestionable Morricone masterpiece, was made up of two unforgettable melodies: “Chi Mai”, re-used as the theme for THE LIFE AND TIMES OF DAVID LLOYD GEORGE on British television, and “Come Maddalena”, a long piece (9 minutes) that relied on the voice of Edda, here in a less eccentric manner, and the pipe organ of Bruno Nicolai. Regarding this score, critic John Bender has stated: “If women were to ever disappear from the face of the earth we men could at least find here for some solace, a stunning musical approximation of the dynamism peculiar to the mysterious gender.” (6)  Still in 1971, Morricone scored with great success a political movie by Giuliano Montaldo, SACCO & VANZETTI, using a lugubrious oboe solo as the main theme, added to two songs by Joan Baez and an electronic buzzing that reminds one of the electric chair to which the main characters are sentenced. With this score, the composer won the Nastro D’Argento prize again.

The list of directors of the twenty-six movies in which Morricone worked in 1972 reveals some familiar names: Pasolini (THE CANTERBURY TALES), Mauro Bolognini (IMPUTAZIONE Dl OMICIDIO PER UNO STUDENTE), Sergio Corbucci (with whom Morricone made several westerns) and Elio Petri (LA PROPRIETE NON E PHI UN FURTO). Perhaps his greatest accomplishment that year was LA COSA BUFFA, for director Aldo Lado. In this monothematic score, the composer makes masterful use of counterpoint. Bending the theme to its most diverse variations, Morricone keeps the music fresh, often presented in fragments, later on gloriously sung by (who else?) Edda delI’Orso.

In the following year came more collaborations with old friends like Alberto de Martino, Viltorio di Sisti, Henri Verneuil, Mauro Bolognini, Aldo Lado and Sergio Sollima. Morricone also composed a score that he mentions as one of his very best until today: IL SORRISO DEL GRANDE TENTATORE, a Damiano Damiani film. The music can only be described as unpredictable and ironic. It starts with a liturgical text, sung in respectful Latin, and all of a sudden it degenerates into psychedelic rock, as if the church’s chorus had been possessed by a mocking demon. Such sacrilege is justified by the movie’s story, which deals with conflicts in a convent inhabited by seriously disturbed people. It is hard to explain how such a mediocre movie could inspire the composer to write a magnificent score.

Perhaps decadence is an exaggerated word to describe the period that followed, but it is arguable that Morricone’s music began to suffer a little stagnation from 1974 on. Writing nonstop for the movies for ten consecutive years, the composer started to show weariness, returning often to previously conceived structures and delivering some nice scores, but actually very few outstanding ones, and more failures than the usual. Instead of working on THE EXORCIST, Morricone got stuff such as THE ANTICHRIST, a blatant steal of the American movie that had achieved glory years before. Even his business partners represented pale clones of brilliant originals: in LEONOR, he worked with Juan, son of Luis Bunuel. Still, once in a while Morricone would gather his creative juices and write a remarkable theme like the one from SPASMO a repulsive movie by director Umberto Lenzi. Among this period’s excellent scores, one ought to cite ALLONSANFAN, an eclectic work for the film by the Taviani brothers, and especially MOSES, rewarding music for the TV miniseries with Burt Lancaster.

The question of reworking old material is controversial. Morricone, once more reflecting the example of renowned composers that preceded him, like Handel, took entire motifs and themes from his prior works, developed and converted them into new scores. He seemed to feel that those old ideas had not been fully explored yet, so he devoted himself to the task of re-using them. There are two ways to look at this practice, and it is possible that the truth may lie somewhere between them: advocating on behalf of the composer, one could say that he did not repeat literally what he had written, always ensuring to add variety and to expand upon his models. On the other hand, there are those who affirm that the repetition took place because of the lack of time to finish his scores. After all, the composer had been working on at least fifteen movies each year, and had maintained this feverish rhythm for a long time.

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Nobody denies, however, that when someone offered Morricone a great movie he responded with a score to match. NOVECENTO, which Bernardo Bertolucci directed in 1976, told an epic story about the conflict between communism and fascism in Italy, with some striking images and references to Verdi, one of Morricone’s favorite composers. The result was one of his most romantic and breathtaking scores. The director was so satisfied that he stated: “Ennio, without knowing it, has written two or three beautiful, possible national anthems for Italy” (7) In that same year, Morricone composed another lyrical score for the last film by director Valerio Zurlini, THE DESERT OF THE TARTARS, including a brief but welcome appearance of Alberto Pomeranz on piano.

In 1977, the composer participated in ten projects, ranging from theatrical features to TV series (DRAMMI GOTICI), yet only three can be deemed decent music: IL GATTO, a combo of comedy and thriller, comes (intentionally?) too close to the score he had written for INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION. A pop sensibility started to preponderate and, even when well suited to the movie, it made the music sound horribly dated and shallow. The use of Edda’s voice had already become a cliché, but the composer did not seem to find alternatives and continued to employ her. IL PREFE1TO DI FERRO and IL MOSTRO were also competent scores, even though they did not introduce anything new. Morricone continued to tread well-known territory, not daring to change the least bit. That year he started an uneasy collaboration with the American cinema in a less auspicious manner: by writing the warmed-over score for John Boorman’s cinematographic bomb EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC, Morricone used African rhythms and sonorities to underline the presence of the devil (a trick he would soon repeat in HOLOCAUST 2000), but the music rarely made its point, just like the movie. This project was followed by ORCA, THE KILLER WHALE, by Michael Anderson, a ridiculous copy of JAWS that deserves to enter the hall of fame as one of the worst movies of all time – except that it introduced Bo Derek. “An average score”, claims the composer. (8)

In 1978 Morricone finally garnered his first Oscar nomination, for his work in Terrence Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN. In truth, the score serves the movie adequately, but owes a lot to Saint Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals”. However, the hopes of victory were in vain, for the famous little statue went to Giorgio Moroder for the score of MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, strong evidence that soundtracks with a pop touch tend to turn into successes and therefore eclipse more refined works. Morricone also exceeded himself once in a while: his score for LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, by Edouard Molinaro, began with a properly gay main theme, but the rest was quite disappointing. He scored the music of STAY AS YOU ARE, by Alberto Lattuada, which features at least two good melodies developed in a lazy and slow way, as if the composer were fed up with writing the same thing over and over. Still, the performance by the usual collaborator Oscar Valdambrini (on trumpet and flugelhorn) ensured a superior flavor to the final product. Then, the music for THE HUMANOID by Aldo Lado was ample proof that Morricone still had lots to say. What a pity, however, that his work more often than not ended up linked to movies that did not deserve him, like this insignificant STAR WARS clone.

By the end of the decade, Morricone hit rock bottom. His scores of 1979-80 were almost all warmed over, featuring cheap synthesizers in order to guarantee the pop flavor so in demand. Even extensively reviewed works like LA BANQUIERE could not compare to earlier ones. And nobody could explain why the composer could be found on the credits of THE ISLAND or WINDOWS, two awfully bad movies. He never imagined that he would quit scoring stupid Italian films only to work in even worse American productions. From this period of his career, very little can be salvaged. IL PRATO, his second and last collaboration with the Taviani brothers, is high quality music, enriched by the flute of Marianne Eckstein. THE BLUE-EYED BANDIT benefited from an exciting jazz-based score that mirrored the film’s urban setting. The general impression was that Morricone was destined to remain forever identified by his older hits. It was as if his career had ended prematurely and he dragged on writing pastiches of previous works. Yet around the middle of the following decade he suddenly reinvented his music and came back with a bang.

Resurrection: the Eighties

Ennio MorriconeDiscussing Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks of the beginning of the eighties is an embarrassing affair. His partnerships with new directors might very well have stayed in the drawer. For Matt Cimber, for instance, he wrote BUTTERFLY (1981), HUNDRA and A TIME TO DIE (both from 1983), fairly disposable scores. In fact, HUNDRA is disconcerting, sometimes sounding like the music Basil Poledouris had just written for CONAN THE BARBARIAN.

In LE PROFESSIONNEL (1981), by Georges Lautner, an interesting theme was ruined by repetitive and boring arrangements. Where was the innovative and pulsating Morricone, author of MEITI, UNA SERA A CENA, hiding? WHITE DOG by Samuel Fuller generated an excessive and still unjustified controversy. Morricone’s score, monothematic and shady, sunk without a trace. Fortunately, two 1982 works stood out. MARCO POLO, written for a TV series by his old acquaintance Giuliano Montaldo, is a beautiful and rewarding score from the first to the last note. Morricone, possibly taking advantage of an above average budget, employs the entire orchestra, plus chorus, and dispenses with electronic sounds. As a result, many inspiring solos enriched his music, which sadly can only be found on LP.

The other treasure was THE THING, a superb soundtrack that evokes isolation and despair. Director John Carpenter, a long-time adept at the use of synthesizers who frequently scored his own movies, ordered a few themes which Morricone promptly delivered, also turning in a complex orchestral score. Nevertheless, of all the pieces written by the composer, Carpenter only fell in love with the one that was electronic, quite similar to the style of music the director used to create himself. Much to Morricone’s outrage, Carpenter discarded the majority of the score, arbitrarily repeating that infamous synthesized piece throughout the movie. Besides, the director composed some additional electronic music, so little of Morricone’s work remained in the final mix of the movie. Thankfully, the rejected music was preserved in the soundtrack album. Morricone never did get along very well with the American moviemakers. Never having learned English well, he always preferred using a translator in order to communicate with the director. He resisted having to travel to the United States and resented the low-key movies that he was offered. The escalating irritation climaxed in the shocking episode of THE THING, driving Morricone to stay away from American productions for some time.

In 1983, the composer made another important decision: to concentrate on his concert works, which reduced substantially the number of new scores – he wrote for eight movies. In 1984, only three. He thought he had wasted too much time for the cinema, and planned to compensate for this by writing concert pieces. This pause was beneficial. His creativity was renewed, allowing him to write, in 1984, the score for Sergio Leone’s final movie: ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Responding to the atmosphere of nostalgia and regret of the movie, Morricone conceived grandiose music, imbued with sublime sadness, expressed through the pan-flute of Gheorghe Zamfir or Edda’s voice. Just as in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, various themes mix to create a masterpiece, including a masterful arrangement of the classic song “Amapola”, that works as a love theme.

Repeating their previous partnerships, Leone asked Morricone to record the music prior to shooting, so that he could play it at the studio and, hence, help set the actors in the right mood for the sequences. Morricone says that his “themes come into the film when the camera looks into the eyes of the character The theme then singles out what he is thinking at that moment, what is going on inside, what he is about to say. The pain and joy inside a character is what my music is about”. (9) It was a contribution of the highest level that literally propelled the script forward. Leone and Morricone did not make a mere movie: they made art. The music far surpassed any other one written for cinema in that decade, in profoundness as well as in beauty, and the only reason that it did not win the Oscar was an unforgivable slip: his agent forgot to submit the score to the Academy. However, it received the Nastro D’Argento and BAFTA awards, the latter granted by the BritishAcademy of Film and Television Arts. Sergio Leone would pass away in 1989 without directing another movie. ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA was, maybe not by chance, the most eloquent way that Morricone could have conceived to bid farewell to his greatest collaborator.

The year of 1985 came and went, leaving in its trail six inconsequential scores, such as RED SONJA, a film by Richard Fleischer. But then Morricone entered a new phase of his career. In 1986, he wrote music for four movies: GLI OCCHIALI D’ORO represented his ninth partnership with director Giuliano Montaldo. The score received the David di Donatello award, granted to the best score composed for an Italian production. THE VENETIAN WOMAN and GLI INDIFFERENTI were also movies from a well- known partner of his golden era, Mauro Bolognini, and the former received an inspired and atmospheric score that offsets any of the film’s shortcomings. However, that year will be remembered for the score that would bring about the musical resurrection of Ennio Morricone: THE MISSION.

The producers and director Roland Joffé, keen on hiring the composer, arranged a private screening to show him the movie. As the end credits rolled on, the translator informed them that the maestro felt sorry, but he could not write the score. “What is the problem?’ asked the producer, “Did he not like the movie?” “On the contrary” responded the translator, “he liked it so much that he thinks he will not be able to write music that fits such spellbinding images.” (10)

Morricone ended up accepting the job, and created an impeccable score that garnered fans all over the world, prompting a rediscovery of his works: One could say that THE MISSION stimulated him to compose with renewed dedication. Many elements integrate the music of THE MISSION: the simple melody of Father Gabriel’s oboe; the chorus singing the main “Vita Nostra” theme with the orchestra and oilier songs a capella; a theme based on permutation of four notes, magnificently performed on flute and indigenous instrumentation that lends the proper exotic coloring to the movie, besides turning the suspense tracks more palatable. The composer made clear references to Pergolesi, whom he has always mentioned as one of the foundations of his music.

The refinement of writing a complete and unique theme for a short sequence showing the meeting of brothers (played by Robert De Niro and Aidan Quinn) was pure Morricone. From this track only he could have developed the entire score for another movie, but THE MISSION went way beyond that. The rich score, a true example of the power of movie music, was nominated for the Oscar, but shamefully the award went to Herbie Hancock and AROUND MIDNIGHT, which left Morricone profoundly disappointed. Still, he received the BAFTA and the Golden Globe for his music.

Morricone went full-speed ahead in 1987. Since Italian cinema offered few opportunities that grabbed his interest, he composed the excellent score for the TV series SECRET OF THE SAHARA, directed by Alberto Negrin, and the subtly Parisian music of FRANTIC, by Roman Polanski. At last the composer had found a perfect balance between synthesizers and orchestra, avoiding the vulgar popular overtones that interfered in his scores from the beginning of the decade. Edda’s voice was called upon more sparingly, in comparison to the indiscriminate use that had made it almost a constant a few years earlier. The tide of inspiration soon brought another gem: THE UNTOUCHABLES. The choice of Ennio Morricone as composer fit Brian De Palma’s movie like a glove. After all, it was a chance to write themes for each of the characters, as well as score the stairway sequence, a nod to Peckinpah, Leone and Eisenstein. Morricone delivered five memorable themes: one for Al Capone; one for Ness’s family; the heroic theme, that pumps up the adrenaline during the sequence of the ride on horseback towards the convoy of illegal liquor; a theme played over the opening credits and in the rooftops sequence; and me music for Malone, the wise mentor of federal agents, destined to become a sacrificial lamb. In addition to these themes, there is also excellent suspense music in particular during the stairway shooting, when sound effects editing and orchestra are meticulously combined to achieve the most electrifying result. Once more, Morricone snatched an Oscar nomination and unjustly lost to an inferior work: THE LAST EMPEROR, by Cong Su, David Byrne and Ryuichi Sakamoto. As consolation, he received the Nastro D’Argento, the BAFTA and the Grammy for his flawless score. In the following years, he would expand upon ideas introduced in THE UNTOUCHABLES in films such as IN THE LINE OF FIRE and LA SCORTA.

In 1988, Morricone wrote just two scores. The first was for A TIME OF DESTINY, by Gregory Nava, with two main themes, one of which is expansive and brings up fond memories of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Unfortunately, some of the tracks with chorus do not match the rest of the music, sounding slightly disjointed here and there. Quite the opposite, the music for CINEMA PARADISO reveals an admirable flow, deservedly winning the BAFTA, the David di Donatello and an award at the Cannes Festival. This score became notable for two reasons: it marked his first collaboration with director Giuseppe Tornatore, with whom Morricone still keeps a close professional and personal relationship, and the first piece credited to his son Andrea Morricone, who wrote the love theme. The father-son duo would later share credits on EVERYBODY’S FINE (1990), also by Tornatore, for which Andrea composed a theme, and more recently on various Italian television movies, such as IL QUARTO RE and LULTIMO 2. In 1994,Andrea would graduate in Composition, clearly following in his father’s footsteps. Regarding the music of CINEMA PARADISO, no doubt remains that it deserved all those awards. Unabashedly romantic, the score comprises several themes, arranged according to the situation, almost inducing the audience to shed some tears. It achieved great success when released commercially, introducing Morricone to a whole new generation of fans. The concern and the care of director Tornatore with the music was noticeable, an evidence that, when a director is aware of the role of the music and a talented composer meet, the outcome of their collaboration resembles pure gold.

In 1989, Morricone stepped up his rhythm, working on nine movies. For Pedro Almodovar, the composer wrote TIE ME UP, TIE ME DOWN, an urban score with pleasant moments that has not so far received its fair share of attention. Reteaming with Brian DePalma, Morricone immersed himself in CASUALTIES OF WAR, an average movie that is rather appealing from a musical standpoint. To underline the agony of the Vietnamese woman kidnapped and brutalized by American soldiers, Morricone chose the sound of the panflutes, which was very effective when added to chorus and to larger-than-life string arrangements. As if it was not enough, the score comprises an elegy that rivals the music of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Although deserving of an Oscar nomination, Morricone would have to wait two more years to have another go at winning the only award that he was missing. With CASUALTIES OF WAR, the eighties wound down in a brilliant manner for the composer, who saw his prestige increasing exponentially in Hollywood while he regularly wrote notable scorns. His style had undergone evident changes: the Morricone that used to explore bossa nova rhythms and popular music belonged to the past. The composer who was about to face a new decade was mature, eager to discover and develop new symphonic possibilities. Besides, his concert music started to be performed. In 1989, the Royal Conservatory of Music of Liege presented a concert entirely dedicated to Morricone, who conducted “Cinque Variazioni su un Tema di Frescobaldi” (1956) and “Cantata per L’Europa”. Written in 1988 for soprano, two recitatives voices, chorus and orchestra on writings by Paul Valery, P. H. Spaak, Victor Hugo and Dante, the “Cantata” was received with enthusiasm.

His chamber music grew in popularity as well. Morricone never looked down on writing music for films. However, he confesses he started to work for cinema because he needed the money, yet he fell in love with the art and today he speaks proudly of his scores. But he doesn’t deny that his concert music fills a dearer place in his heart: “I’m a completely different composer when I’m doing film music than when I’m doing chamber music. When I write the former I must compromise. (…) But I mustn’t compromise when I’m writing for the concert hall. In that case, I wrote for myself the music I love, the music I like. When I do a movie, I can’t always write what l want.” (11)

As the nineties approached, new performances of his works were given all over Europe, like the chamber music concerts of the ItalianAcademy of Contemporary Music at the Ghione theater and of the Associazione Nuova Consonanza at the National Gallery of Modern Art, in Rome. Morricone, at last, was receiving the acknowledgment he had always longed for.

Maturity and Consecration: the Nineties

Morricone started the decade by scoring lesser projects, like Franco Zeffirelli’s HAMLET, for which he wrote a funereal score, and STATE OF GRACE, by Phil Joanou, also supplied with somber music. In Italy, his second collaboration with Tornatore, EVERYBODY’S FINE, guaranteed him yet another David di Donatello. A new pattern could be discerned: his recent scores avoided extravagances, and were based on a few cells that he re-used in a minimalist way. He resorted to layered strings on nearly every scorn, a technique that quickly became a staple.

In 1991 came BUGSY by Barry Levinson, and an Oscar nomination that was overlooked in favor of Alan Menken’s banal music for the animated feature ALADDIN. With BUGSY, Morriconne achieves the prodigy of writing an unbalanced and painful love theme to illustrate the relationship between the title gangster, played by Warren Beatty, and Virginia Hill (Annette Bening). Always in search of new sounds, in that score Morricone employs the Waterphone, an instrument that consists “of a spherical recipient (half-full of liquid) on which some tubular bars with different lengths are welded. The so-characteristic distorted sound is produced when these bars are touched with a bass archet.”  (12) Beatty was so impressed by Morricone’s contribution that he hired the composer in later films such as LOVE AFFAIR (1994) and BULWORTH (1998).

Still in 1991, Morricone signed the music for LA DOMENICA SPECIALMENTE, a film in episodes directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, Marco Tulio Giordana, Giuseppe Bertolucci and Francesco Barilli. The music for Tornatore’s episode, “II Cane Blu”, sounds special, with echoes of Nino Rota, the Italian composer notable for the scores he wrote for Fellini. Other episodes receive an appropriate and sparse treatment.

In the following year, a third partnership with director Roland Joffé (after FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY, in 1989) sadly did not reach the same heights of THE MISSION, in part because the movie, CITY OF JOY, is lacking in emotion. On the contrary, JONAH WHO LIVED IN THE WHALE, by director and friend Roberto Faenza, became quite successful, and Morricone’s score was granted the David di Donatello and the Efebo d’Argento awards. The composer chose to concentrate on the nostalgic and naive side of the story of a child trapped in a concentration camp, revealing his usual sensibility. Morricone was a member of the jury of the Venice Film Festival in 1992, and received from the French Minister of Culture the title of “Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres”. The Roman composer, then 64 years old, was honored everywhere in a way he had never dreamt of.

In 1993 he became involved with three movies: LA SCORTA, by Ricky Tognazzi, for which he wrote tense and forlorn music, making good use of a four-note motif from LA DONNA DELLA DOMENICA (1975). IN THE LINE OF FIRE, by Wolfgang Petersen, shared a great deal with the score of LA SCORTA, mainly in the action tracks. At the climax of the American movie, during the attempted murder of the president, Morricone unleashed a frantic and exciting rendition of the main theme, generating an almost insufferable tension. For THE BIBLE: ABRAHAM, made for TV, Morricone contributed a few themes, while composer Marco Frisina was left in charge of the rest of the score. That year’s glory, in the realm of concert music, probably lay In the performance of his cantata “Una Via Crucis” in Maastricht, Holland.

Morricone was the first non-American composer to be granted the career achievement award by the Society for Preservation of Film Music (now called the Film Music Society) during a sold-out dinner in Hollywood in 1994. The ceremony intended to welcome the composer into the American community, and several other famous faces could be spotted, Elmer Bernstein, David Raksin, John Williams and Maurice Jarre among them. He was also the recipient of the “Golden Soundtrack” award given by ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers. One had the feeling that old resentments had been forgiven, and that a reconciliation between Morricone and Hollywood was under way. In fact, he began to write at least once a year for American movies, even though not always with good results. LOVE AFFAIR, DISCLOSURE and WOLF, all from the same year, cannot be placed among his best works. At least in WOLF the composer had the chance to add another renowned director to his long list of collaborators: Mike Nichols.

Next, his score for Tornatore’s movie A PURE FORMALITY failed to cause an impact Unlike the pleasant music that underlined their earlier partnerships, the score started with an invigorating piece, then took a nose dive into obscure sonorities and ended with a song, in the voice of the movie’s star, Gerard Depardieu. The audiences were not pleased, for they had been waiting for more attractive melodies, like the ones from CINEMA PARADISO. In a press conference that took place in Cannes at the time of the film’s premiere, Morricone struggled to explain his unusual score: “The other level which is very important and which I applied for the first time in a Tornatore film with his consent is the use of dissonance, that is, the use of the dodecaphonic system which is very difficult for the listener and corresponds with the amnesia of Onoff (the main character). Slowly it becomes consonance, that is, more listenable, but very slowly, hand in hand with Onoff who finds his memory again.” (l3)

In 1995, despite composing only average scores for Tornatore’s THE STAR MAKER and Faenza’s SOSTIENE PEREIRA (in which he explored Portuguese music, crowned by the voice of Dulce Pontes), the composer continued to garner high distinctions. President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro granted him the title of “Commendatore dell’Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana”. In addition, he received the Rota award, newly created by CAM editions and Variety magazine. The occasion was celebrated in a ceremony during which his son Andrea conducted his concert works “Braevissimo” and “Esercizi l & ll” and Morricone himself conducted a suite encompassing ten of his film themes. Various directors with whom Morricone worked were in attendance. But there was more to come: he was awarded the Golden Lion for career achievement at Venice Film Festival.

In the second half of the decade, Morricone’s output started to decrease again. In 1996 he scored films for Dario Argento (THE STENDHAL SYNDROME) and Ricky Tognazzi (VITE STROZZATE), neither of which add much to what he had already written. Adrian Lyne’s LOLITA spawned an unfortunate controversy and went straight to cable TV. The music is obsessive and ethereal, one of his best recent works. Soon after that came U-TURN, the sole score composed by Morricone in 1997. The music captures with perfection the mood of Oliver Stone’s bizarre movie, relying on four-note permutations, like an idea that is tough to shrug off, repeated in the instruments and in Edda’s ghostly voice.

With 1998 arrived two huge frustrations. First, only a small amount of the music he wrote for Warren Beatty’s BULWORTH was featured in the final print, and even that was corrupted by the superimposing of rap music (though this was done with Morricone’s approval). As weird as the idea might sound, it worked. A while later, the producers rejected the entire score for WHAT DREAMS MAY COME and hired Michael Kamen for the job – he took care of delivering the standard Hollywood-style score. Their excuse was unconvincing: they blamed Morricone’s music for being “too serious”, when it is actually a nice work that would have added to the misconceived movie. Quite possibly the film scored low on test screenings and the desperate producers tried last-hour changes, using Morricone’s work as a scapegoat. Fortunately, two Italian projects were successful. The first was IL QUARTO RE, by Stefano Reali, in which Ennio and Andrea Morricone share the music credit. This film’s effective two main themes can easily be considered next of kin from THE MISSION.

The second bull’s-eye was THE LEGEND OF 1900, a Tornatore movie that the composer scored with an impressively varied range, from Mozart-like piano pieces to an epic main theme through turn-of-the-century rags. The performance of Gilda Butti on piano is a tough one to match, while the love theme instantly recalls a myriad of old compositions, but still it is astonishing how the old trick continues to work wonders. Morricone holds this score in high esteem, and thanked heartily the David di Donateio he was awarded for the music in 1999.

Conclusion

Looking back on his career, Morricone concedes: “I have worked for mediocre films. I remember a police movie: the director moved the actors around like Leone, close-ups, slow movements. But they seemed so much like puppets. You cannot save a bad film with good music” (14)  Yet that didn’t keep him from trying countless times. Many movies are remembered nowadays thanks only to the score that he wrote. The circle was closed on November 8th, 1998: for the first time ever, the highly traditional Conservatory of Santa Cecilia, where the composer had graduated, invited him to perform a concert of his movie music. It was an unforgettable event. Morricone conducted the orchestra with his characteristically terse gestures, now and then accommodating his thick-lensed glasses that insisted on sliding down the nose. He was swept away with emotion, returning to the cradle of his musical education as a prodigal son and bridging the classical and film music worlds.

His classical works remain largely ignored, a major injustice, since the list includes more than eighty works. Some of them deserve to be discovered, like ‘Vistanze” (for violin, cello and piano, from 1958), “Suonipervino” (for viola and two magnetic tape recorders, from 1969), “Totem” (for five bassoons, two contrabassoons and percussion, from 1974) and, last but not least, “Frammenti di Eros” (cantata for soprano, piano and orchestra, on five poems by Sergio Miceli, from 1985).

Morricone seems destined to be remembered as a composer of film music. Maybe the secret of his successful career in the movies lies in his ability to respond emotionally and his talent to write music with which the audience identifies. “And what is talent?” inquires the composer. “I don’t know. But I do know that to become a musician you need infinite study, sacrifice and discipline, (…) Perhaps it isn’t talent, but passion that is essential to become a good musician. So work and passion without limits, and a bit of luck.” (15)

Acknowledgement

I would like to thank the following people for their help: Adriana Rodrigues, Fabio Ciminelli, Addalena Smith, Henry Stanny, Michael Caletka, Steve Saragossi, Tom DeMary and my father, to whom this article is dedicated.
To get regular info on Morricone’s film and concert works, plus dozens of CD reviews and translated interviews see The Ennio Morricone Online Community (previously the Ennio Morricone Society): www.chimai.com

Notes

1  In an interview with Alejandro Ryker, in the ABC newspaper, March 19th, 1995.
2  In an interview with Chris Wiliman, in the Los Angeles Times, June, 23rd, 1994.
3  In Les Entretiens di, Monde de Ia Musique, #33, April 1981.
4  “Por un pu Oado de Musica”, Musica de Cine #4, October 1990.
5  Declaration to the magazine Sight & Sound, October 1994.
6  Review published in MSV#70, October1994, p.10.
7  In a documentary about the composer, directed by David Thompson and shown on the BBC in 1995.
8  In an Interview with Loris Curd and Claudio Fuiano in Fangoria # 135, August 1994.9  Sue Adler, “Ennio Morricone”, in Cinema Papers #49, December 1984.
10 In his long analysis of the score in the book Listening to Movies, pp 137-144.
11 In an interview with Gianni Bergamino and Dimitri Riccio in Soundtrackl#44.
12 Description by Dominique Gueugnaut in MSV #69, July 1994.
13 MSV#7O, October1994, p.15.
14 In an interview with Valerio Cappelli for the Corriere della Sera, November, 4th, 1998.
15 MSV#72, May 1995, p.13.

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