Ennio Morricone, Rome, Italy, 1993. (Photo by Luciano Viti/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

In memoriam Ennio Morricone: the man who defined film scoring

Alexander Larman remembers one of the most prolific composers in Hollywood

When I got married just over five years ago, my fiancée and I spent a considerable, even unnatural, amount of time discussing the music that we wanted to have playing as she walked up the aisle. After rejecting the obvious choices (Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, Hande’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba) as being both stuffy and clichéd, we started wondering whether film music was a possibility. There is always the problem in these circumstances that one can end up getting it horribly wrong. I remember a famous story from the early Nineties that a couple wanted Bryan Adams’ then-ubiquitous ‘Everything I Do’ as their wedding song, but the organist, being asked for ‘that song from Robin Hood’, cheerfully played ‘Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen’ as the no doubt disgruntled bride marched up the aisle. So it would have to be something beautiful, elegant, moving and – crucially – recognisable.

He wrote music for over 500 films, many of which are unknown to all but the most committed of cinephiles

After a very long time, we realised that the only effective piece of music that fulfilled all of these criteria, and sounded good played on an organ, was Ennio Morricone’s composition ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’, from the now all-but-forgotten film The Mission. The soundtrack is rightly regarded as one of Morricone’s finest achievements (he once said, candidly but accurately, that he deserved to win an Oscar for it, rather than the less deserving recipient Round Midnight, and he called his loss ‘a theft’) and its central theme is impossibly affecting. It has been made familiar to new listeners by its use in film trailers, adverts and innumerable compilations (often with the dread words ‘the sound of the pan pipes’ somewhere in their title), but the swelling, gorgeous melody can never have its infinite variety staled by custom.

Its great composer has now died, at the considerable age of 91. The Washington Post, confirming its steady decline as a newspaper of record, chose to announce his death by tweeting ‘Ennio Morricone, Italian composer of ‘ah-ee-ah-ee-ah’ theme of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, dies’. This was greeted with deserved ridicule by Morricone’s admirers, one of whom wrote that this was akin to describing Beethoven as the ‘dun-dun-dun-duuun’ guy’. Yet the ignorance and reductive nature of the paper’s headline did at least reveal two things. Firstly, like it or not, Morricone will always be associated with the scores that he wrote for the so-called ‘spaghetti westerns’ of Sergio Leone, despite the hundreds of other films that he composed music for, and secondly, the immense popularity of these soundtracks gave Morricone a rare place in both his lifetime and, now, posterity as one of the very few composers for film who is a true household name, along with John Williams, Hans Zimmer and John Barry.

He wrote music for over 500 films, many of which are unknown to all but the most committed of cinephiles. Once, various Soho record shops might have sold these scores on dusty out-of-print vinyl records lurking unnoticed in basements, but alas these days have long since gone, and instead his surviving soundtracks are mainly to be found on Spotify or other streaming services. Quentin Tarantino, naturally, was an admirer, and often repurposed some of his more obscure tracks in his own work. Morricone was supposed to score Inglourious Basterds, dropped out because of the massively compressed production schedule, and finally won his only competitive Oscar for his work on Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. His brooding, menacing score was probably the film’s most successful element and deserved its acclaim.

Yet he will always be remembered most vividly for his ‘ah-ee-ah-ee-ah’ scores for Leone’s trilogy of A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and, most famously, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. To listen to the scores, with their inspired use of unusual instrumentation, not least wailing mariachi trumpets and electric guitars, vast choirs and overwhelmingly epic feel, is to understand how the much-misused word ‘operatic’ can actually be appropriate. By the conclusion of the latter, in which Clint Eastwood, Lee van Cleef and Eli Wallach silently face off against one another in a graveyard, a vast amount of the drama and suspense of the scene has been derived from Morricone’s magnificent score, the cue for which – ‘The Trio’ – is arguably the single finest thing he ever wrote. Countless composers have imitated the spaghetti western sound ever since, to varying degrees of success, but none of which can come close to the innovation and brilliance with which Morricone brought to the music. Even now, it is impossible to hear the cues and not be overwhelmed by their thrilling, dynamic magnetism.

Morricone worked with Leone, whom he had known since childhood, several times, and produced two of his greatest scores for Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West and Once Upon A Time In America. The actor James Woods, who starred in the latter, took a brief break from baiting the left on Twitter to reminisce about his involvement with Morricone in the film, writing that ‘Sergio Leone had him orchestrate the final scene of Once Upon a Time in America before filming. As shooting commenced, suddenly the music soared live on the sound stage.’ Woods concluded that it was the ‘greatest movie experience of my life.’ The relationship between Morricone and Leone was one of the two defining partnerships of his professional life – the other being with the director Giuseppe Tornatore, for whom he scored Cinema Paradiso – and is, in all likelihood, what he will be remembered for. Yet this does his extraordinarily prolific and interesting career a grave disservice.

Morricone scored his first American film, John Huston’s The Bible, in 1966, and continued to work in Hollywood – despite never living there or speaking English – for the next half-century. His work was astonishingly eclectic, and he moved between genres and filmmakers with ease. Some of the pictures that he scored were excellent, such as Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables or Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. Others were not, such as de Palma’s space film Mission To Mars or John Boorman’s notorious Exorcist II: The Heretic. Yet even when Morricone scored a bad film (and Boorman’s was truly terrible), his music was usually distinctive and interesting, sometimes wildly so, as if he was liberated from the demands of restraint and good taste by the sheer inanity of the picture that his music was accompanying.

It was exceptionally rare, possibly even unheard of, for him to produce an actively poor soundtrack

Occasionally, when he was asked to score the sort of dull drama that no composer could have done much with, he produced something tasteful but unmemorable, but it was exceptionally rare, possibly even unheard of, for him to produce an actively poor soundtrack. He was prolific, even insanely so, writing endless symphonies and classical works amidst the many films that he scored every year. During the course of his long and successful career, he sold over 70 million records, and when, late in life, he began touring internationally and conducting vast orchestras and choirs playing his work, he was met with an ecstatic reception from sold-out arena audiences. He played his final concert in his home city of Rome in January this year: a fitting swan song for a man who remained inextricably associated with Italian cinema all of his life.

As is the way of these things, he was much courted by musicians and rock stars who wanted the stardust of a Morricone orchestral arrangement to give respectability to their work. Although the likes of Radiohead and Muse claimed him as a major influence (and, more regrettably, Kasabian), he never collaborated with them, nor many of the other acts who reportedly wanted to draft him in for their albums, reportedly including the likes of David Bowie and U2. On the occasions that he did work with other musicians, it was often in a more unconventional way; he co-wrote the Pet Shop Boys’ magisterially mournful lament ‘It Couldn’t Happen Here’ and arranged the orchestration for Morrissey’s song ‘Dear God, Please Help Me’, although the original flamboyant score was apparently much edited and toned down by the producer Tony Visconti. Given the song’s subject matter – Morrissey explicitly singing, for the first time in his career, about having sex with another man, as ‘there are explosive kegs between my legs’ – it is possible that Morricone’s intentionally fruity score was a wry attempt to puncture some of the high drama of Morrissey’s lament, but the two did not collaborate again.

Morricone was always regarded as good value by interviewers, despite the need to use an interpreter, and to be referred to as ‘Maestro’ at all times. He was often candid to a point that PRs found frustrating, openly disparaging Tarantino as obsessed with blood and gore and using his music in an ‘incoherent’ fashion in his films. In one especially riotous interview with The Quietus, he even took issue with the idea that he was over-prolific, saying ‘It is not much to compose 12 or 13 cantatas in one year because if you think about it Bach, for example, used to compose one cantata a week. He had to compose the music in time for it to be performed in church on Sunday so if you just consider Bach, you will see that I’m practically unemployed!’

There are few film composers who could compare themselves to Bach and not immediately be accused of pointless grandiosity. Ennio Morricone could, and although it is a source of some regret that we shall not see his like again, we have his scores to enjoy, and I can only hope that someone, somewhere, will be walking down the aisle to ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’ again before too long.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Critic magazine cover