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“Here’s to you Nicola and Barth…”

The legacy of Ennio Morricone

by Dimitra Kyrillou

Music composer Ennio Morricone (1928-2020), who passed away on July 6th is almost the definition of music for films. With more than 500 credits for film and television, dozens of classical compositions, not to mention songs, concerts and live recordings, he influenced the musical concept of artists so diverse as Metallica, Yo-yo Ma, Radiohead and Muse, Bruce Springsteen and Roy Bittan of the E-street Band, he even inspired the creation of two bands, the Spaghetti Western Orchestra (formerly the Ennio Morricone Experience) and the Morricone Youth.

His score for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western trilogy (“For a fistful of dollars” (1964), “For a few dollars more” (1966), “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1967)) is familiar to millions of people and has been re-produced and celebrated in all sorts of versions, remakes, even (self) parodies across the globe. Truth is, that the music he composed for the trilogy gave soul to the deliberately one-dimensional “cartoonist” characters of Leone, not just the lonely “man with no name” impersonated by Clint Eastwood but to the entire cast and finally shaped the style and the substance of the trilogy, showing in practice how the musical score can be not just complementary but a decisive factor in movie making.

Used to a tight budget

Less known is that all this accomplishment far from being planned was a result of the tight budget of the first film, which wouldn’t afford Morricone a full orchestra, as was the norm in Hollywood’s legendary western films. He therefore had to use tricks such as gunshots, whip cracks, whistle, ominous voices, mouth harp, trumpets, and the new (at that time) Fender electric guitar instead. The outcome was a twisted sound, a “rei-nvention of American folk music” in his own words. To do this is not a matter of charisma or improvisation, but rather having a profound musical education and a sense of classical and avant-garde music, which he actually did. For almost 20 years was been member of “Gruppo Improvvisazione de Nuova Consonanza”, a.k.a. “The Group”, a session of composers dedicated to improvisational avant- garde music and also a laboratory of combining musical genres as diverse as classical music with free jazz and funk! It was there that Morricone experimented in the mixing of real sounds with musical sounds and discovered that he could use this mingle in a film score to convey different feelings and psychological conditions. With more than 500 credits for film scores and belated international recognition “Maestro” was a lot more than a prolific film score composer.

Born in Rome’s neighborhood of Trastevere in 1928 to a numerous family of musicians, he was educated in music since his childhood by his trumpet-player father, while remembering growing up in the hard times of the Second World War, under foreign occupation and scarcity of food. Although he developed rapidly skills in performing and composing and wrote his own music from the age of six, it was pretty hard as a young grown-up to earn a living for himself and his family. So in the 1950’s he had to work for the national radio and television network, play as jazz trumpeter in sessions and write music for theatre and television, occasionally under different names or as a “ghost writer” (credited to already well-known composers)!

A prolific career

In 1961 he made his official debut with Luciano Salce's “Il Federale” (The Fascist). In 1963 he composed for Lina Wertmüller’s “I Basilischi” (The lizards), but it was the “Dollar” trilogy of his former school classmate Sergio Leone which raised his profile and opened a new concept in writing music for the screen.

His following collaboration with Leone in “Once upon a time in the West” (1968) introduced a novelty: The music had been completed before the filming began, therefore Leone’s camera movements related directly to Morricone’s score and not the opposite which is how films are normally scored. The harmonica is the instrument seen in the hands of one of the protagonists, Charles Bronson dubbed “Harmonica”, but it gradually turns into a symbol of revenge. The piece “The man with the harmonica” became synonymous with the film, but it can also be a “stand-alone” melody. This feature changed the relationship between image and sound in film making and would establish the “Maestro” and his music. One recognizes a film by merely hearing its musical score.

The list is enormous and versatile. Morricone would compose for Sergio Corbucci’s westerns, for dramas, for horror and “giallo movies” (Italian horror b-movies, named “yellow” after the page colour of the paperback stories they are based on). He would write pop-hits for Rita Pavone, Milva and Demis Roussos but also continue tirelessly his experimentation and recordings with the “Group”. He would create for big Hollywood productions, but also for obscure Italian movies, for Pedro Almodovar (in his early “Ata me”), Eduard Molinaro’s “La cage au folles”, for short films and serious documentaries. And he certainly produced for Hollywood but never let himself be assimilated to it. His last work with Leone in “Once upon a time in America” (1984) is a stand-alone epic, based on the rich tradition of American jazz. Another milestone was his collaboration with Roland Joffé in “The Mission” (1986), the epic of a redeemed conquistador in the jungles of the Amazon, a score that actually overwhelmed the film and although didn’t finally win the expected Oscar award, had impact on global scale. Other high moments include Brian de Palma’s films (“The untouchables” and “Casualties of war), Warren Beatty (“Bugsy”, “Love affair”, “Bulworth”) and of course Quentin Tarantino, with whom he won the Oscar award for “The hateful eight” in 2016, following seven nominations and one honorary award in 2007.

Of particular influence was his collaboration with Giuseppe Tornatore, which was initiated in 1988 with the nostalgic “Cinema Paradiso”, a bitter-sweet homage to the magic of cinema and continued to the entire filmography of Tornatore.

Despite finally gaining international recognition, he constantly kept his distance from Hollywood and basically resided in central Rome. "I was offered a free villa in Hollywood," he once mentioned, "but I said, 'No thank you, I prefer to live in Rome!'”. Deeply critical of the Hollywood trend for composers to write a score that is then sent to a professional arranger, he would insist to do the orchestration himself. He did not bother learn English and never considered his decision as a sort of limitation, as he commented. And of course he opted for handwritten scores over the newly modernized forms of computer scoring. Morricone always viewed himself as a composer for whom film work was only a part of his career. At his regular live performances, he would program some of his concert pieces alongside selections from his film music.


Less mentioned in his resume but absolutely significant and remembered are his contributions to historic-political dramas created by radical filmmakers. These were not just notable moments in his career, but a sequence of collaborations. Morricone worked aside Gillo Pontecorvo, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Marco Bellocchio, Mauro Bolognini, Paolo and Vitorio Taviani and others. But most striking remain his scores for “The battle of Algiers”(1966), Giuliano Montaldo’s “Sacco e Vanzetti” (1971) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s “1900” (1976). All three inspired an entire generation of radicalism and revolt. The lyrics of “Here’s to you” from “Sacco e Vanzetti”, performed by Joan Baez consisted just of four verses, which nevertheless said it all about the two anarchists who were framed and executed by US authorities in 1927, as they were based on an actual statement of Bartolomeo Vanzetti:

If it had not been for these things, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life we could have hoped to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man's understanding of man as we now do by accident. Our words—our lives—our pains—nothing! The taking of our lives—lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler—all! That last moment belongs to us—that agony is our triumph.”

(The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti, Penguin Books, 2007)

It is remarkable how a professional who defined himself politically as a “Christian leftist” could grasp the momentum and significance of radical heroes and revolutionary procedures and transform them into musical expression and consecutively inspire audiences for the cause of rebellions. His relationship with left thought was mysterious but not accidental. Even at the apogee of his career, he did not hesitate to write the score for two documentaries at a pivotal moment of the movement against capitalist globalization: “Un altro mondo è possible” (Another world is possible), a chronicle of the Genoa protests against the G8 summit in July 2001 and “Carlo Giuliani, ragazzo” (Carlo Giuliani, a boy), Francesca Comencini’s recount of the shooting of 23 year old protester Carlo Giuliani during these protests on the 20th of July 2001.

This is an unknown legacy to remember from “Maestro” Ennio Morricone.

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