“From Ennio I ask for themes that clothe my characters easily. He’s never read a script of mine to compose the music, because many times he’s composed the music before the script is ever written. What I do is give him suggestions and describe to him my characters, and then, quite often, he’ll possibly write five themes for one character. And five themes for another. And then I’ll take one piece of one of them and put it with a piece of another one for that character or take another theme from another character and move it into this character… And when I have my characters finally dressed, then he composes. And records with a small orchestra—12 pieces—and then we listen to it. And then we go on to the script. I don’t enter into particulars with him. I give him the feeling and the suggestions of the characters.”1 — Sergio Leone, on Ennio Morricone.
Perhaps Hans Zimmer, master of composing soundtracks in his own right, summed it up best in an interview with Andy Price, (July 24, 2018), when he said, “The art of being a film composer hasn’t changed. The basic idea remains the same and that is to ask a question: ‘Why are we having music here?’”2 Precious few reach the level of achievement Zimmer has. Fewer still reach anywhere near the lofty heights to which Ennio Morricone would climb, during a career that spanned more than six decades. Yet, Morricone made it seem effortless, almost as if there was a chemical formula to this potion, and he had every measurement, every compound, marked down in mental notes, filed away in some recess of his mind. Earth’s conductor baton lowered just a bit when Morricone passed away on July 6, 2020, at the age of 91. He had been staying as a patient in a Rome hospital, following a fall at his home.
It is not hard to fall into the trap of believing that someone who composed more than 400 works for movies and television, and at least 100 classical pieces during their career, might be focused entirely on what split second of a scene requires a C-flat, or when to insert an F-sharp. Yet, Morricone was so much more. For example, it isn’t widely known that the composer harboured a keen interest in modern rock. Similarly, the fact he would work with Morrissey on the singer’s 2006 studio album Ringleader of the Tormentors may come as a revelation to the casual observer. However, to the diehard fan, these tidbits serve as fascinating examples of the maestro’s passion to explore.
Born November 10, 1928, in the residential area of Rome called Trastevere, separated from the heart of the city by the Tiber river, Morricone received strong encouragement from his father, Mario (himself a trumpeter), to take up music. Even early on, there were clear indications of a prodigy in the making — although I think the man himself would brush that kind of talk aside. To think of one self as that kind of special would, in my opinion anyway, require something close to a super-ego. Quotes like the following, lead me to believe that Morricone wasn’t dominated by an overwhelming sense of self-importance. He was aware of the collaborative effort needed to bring the music to life,
“I can’t be enthusiastic as soon as I write something on the music sheet. The music sheet is only the beginning: It has to be listened to, played by the instruments, and then heard by the director, but most importantly, it has to be listened to by the public.”3
Still, the fact that he was writing music by the age of six and, just six years later, enrolled at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rome — where he would complete their four year harmony course in a mere six months — gives the impression he was clearly a gifted child. It was while he attended Santa Cecilia that his Harmony teacher, Roberto Caggiano, encouraged Morricone to take up music composition. He ultimately ended up taking on the subject under the tutelage of Carlo Giorgio Garofalo and Antonio Ferdinandi, before finally completing his studies with a premier member of Italy’s second generation of Modernists in the classical (more specifically neo-classical) realm: Goffredo Petrassi. Even before he finished his education at the conservatory (collecting diplomas in trumpet, band instrumentation and composition) Morricone was hard at work both on radio dramas, whilst also performing as a trumpeter for orchestras whose programs specialized in cinema scores.
While Morricone might not have had the superego, as noted above, he was certainly not without any ego at all. He was unafraid when it came to offering a blunt, honest opinion on his specialised subjects, as was the case when it came to an interview he granted the Guardian’s Adam Sweeney (in 2001), in which he discussed his early work as a trumpet player, performing with orchestras who were working on cinema scores. Morricone states,
“Most of these scores were very ugly, and I believed I could do better than this. After the war, the film industry was quite strong here in Italy, and the New Realism in Italian cinema was really wonderful, but these new realistic movies didn’t have great music. I needed money and I thought it would be a great thing to write film scores.” 4
Working with director Luciano Salce in radio finally led to Morricone being hired by the director for the composer’s first celluloid effort: Italian western Il Federale (1961). The successful collaboration launched him into working on Italian westerns, even if he did not like being typecast as “the Spaghetti Westerns guy”; an international term he didn’t much care for. Morricone told writer Dino Golnick, in an interview for Dazed magazine (July 2006), he didn’t have a problem if he was known as an “Italian Western guy”, explaining, “Calling them Spaghetti Westerns is what really infuriates me. I never thought to call American Western films ‘Yankee Westerns’.”5
Even in the face of the incredible success of The Man With No Name Trilogy, and Morricone’s full-blooded music treatments for each individual chapter, what gets lost in more general discussions about his soundtracks are the avant-garde elements he brought to each of those projects and, indeed, much of the work that made up his entire career. He was never afraid to completely alter his style to fit the theme of the movie. Often one would hear little details like coyote howls, or bells and whistles, on a soundtrack, which enhanced the aural experience of particular scenes. You can find examples on the soundtracks for many of his scores — notably For a Few Dollars More, (1965), which contains the pronounced sound of pocket watches; or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), with its now famed coyote howl. It is this attention to detail, along with his heavy emphasis on both classical and modernist — a real duality if there ever was one — that allowed Morricone to successfully partner with filmmakers who were unafraid to hand him scenes with little or no dialogue, letting his music tell the story within the story.
Morricone’s skill and range, his ability to mesh with director Sergio Leone so effortlessly, was due to the aforementioned director’s own tendency to look beyond the norm. Was it a previous effort in cinema that caught the director’s eye when it came to Morricone? No. According to Leone biographer Sir Christopher Frayling, Leone found the film scores, especially one Morricone did for Mario Caiano’s 1964 Pistols Don’t Argue, to be terrible. As the writer explains,
“Sergio Leone thought Morricone’s early scores terrible and Morricone….apparently agreed”.6 Indeed, what it was that impressed Leone the most was a rather odd arrangement that Ennio did anonymously for the Woody Guthrie folk song Pastures of Plenty.7 Proof positive that Ennio took enormous pride in constantly defying convention wherever and whenever possible.
The maestro would continue to explore concert music even as his reputation with film scores was growing. His mantra was always to be doing something that had not been done before. This approach to his music was evident when he joined Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza (The Group, as it would be called for its first American LP The Private Sea of Dreams in 1967) as a trumpeter, playing for the renowned composer Franco Evangelisti in the mid-60s. Each member had to be a composer and accomplished artist. There was no repetition of sound. No individual had priority, no cliches, and absolutely no egos of any kind. The project was about surrendering to pure musical flow. Gone was what was called, by Evangelisti himself, “improvising improvisation”. A lot of work in the areas of time, pitch and group listening followed. An effect of a squeak of a cello or violin, for example, was to elicit a collective reaction. This was heaven for the spontaneous truth seeker of a different sound, as Morricone was.
As his career went on and he amassed credits and accolades at an astounding rate, Morricone once again sought a re-invention of himself. Yet, it is amazing that, although he was quite a spiritual man, his faith never consciously inspired him. It does, on occasion, find its own way into his creations. One instance of particular note happens to be one of my favorite examples of the maestro’s work: his score for Roland Joffe’s 1986 epic The Mission; starring Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons. The film is all about the character Father Gabriel ascending the mountains of Brazil, to bring Christianity to the natives.
In an interview with the National Catholic Register’s Edward Pentin (November 9, 2009), Morricone explains how his spirituality influenced the composition, even if he felt that conscious inspiration was never there,
“I was obliged to present the music of the Indians. What was the music of the Indians? I didn’t know, so I had to invent it. The miracle of the music of this movie was the influence of the oboe. So I wrote a theme for the oboe. The post-conciliar motet was very important, because when Cardinal Altamirano came to the mission, the Indians welcomed him with this Occidental, European song. And, of course, writing all of this into the film, you hear the first theme of the film, that of the oboe, then the second musical theme, the post-conciliar music, and then the third, ethnic music. So you hear these three themes — one, two and three. The great thing about this movie is its technical and spiritual effect: that the first and second theme go together, the first and third can go together, and the second and third go together. At the very end, all three themes are contemporary. That was my technical miracle, which I believe had been a great blessing.”8
In summary — going back to the Dazed July 2006 interview with Dino Gollnick — the writer asks the icon whether he had pride knowing that groups like Metallica and the Ramones were using his music. “I’m very pleased about it, actually. It means that my music is simple and precious at the same time.”9 Simple and precious do not adequately describe the artistry of Ennio Morricone. In fact, it could be argued that the totality of who he was as a music creator/innovator defies description. And I think the composer would be more than happy with that. As a result, when he left us, it’s not surprising that fans from around the globe raised their collective batons to the maestro, as he ascended to that final symphony, in the heavens.
6. Charles Leinberger (2004).Ennio Morricone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: A Film Score Guide.Scarecrow Press. pp.1–3.
7. Charles Leinberger (2004). Ennio Morricone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: A Film Score Guide. Scarecrow Press. pp. 1–3.