Ennio Morricone: The Maestro of Death Melodies
In the desert, a confrontation of two men in a duel. The wind howls, and there is dust in the air. An account of a shadowy past will be settled. One man remembers a horrific act of the other, who has forgotten the event. He remembers in a lyrical flood of images the murder of his brother and then comes the moment of truth…
The climax of ‘C’era Una Volta il West / ‘Once Upon a Time in the West,’ is one of the most famous movie scenes from the twentieth century, thanks to the hypnotic gaze of Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda, the sophisticated camerawork of Tonino Delli Colli and the virtuous direction by Sergio Leone. And of course, thanks to the intense melancholy sounds of Ennio Morricone’s ‘Man with a Harmonica.’
The western from Leone from 1968 marked the international breakthrough of Morricone (Rome, November 10, 1928), who was introduced to the world as a music composer, although he already had a great state of service in Italy as a conductor and writer of pop songs.
In 1964 Morricone, with his former classmate Leone, revolutionized the western. ‘Per un Pugno di Dollari’ / ‘A Fistful of Dollars,’ ‘Per Qualche Dollaro in Più’ / ‘For a Few Dollars More,’ (1965 ) and ‘Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo’ / ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966 ) were indeed full of references to Leone’s American favorites such as Shane, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Warlock.
But they also possessed a unique style, in which realistic violence, innovative film music, and superb photography – using electric guitars, cracking whips, and savage yells – merged in a unique way.
The Spaghetti Western (a term Morricone incidentally hated) was born and conquered the world, as did the soundtracks.
With the album Once Upon a Time in the West, the composer featured in many hit-charts. Morricone’s trademark – melancholic passages with ethereal female vocals, overwhelming atonal musical compositions with bursting horns and frazzled violins – the composer demonstrated his unique talent to express the essence of a film in his compositions.
The notoriety of Morricone then rapidly increased, partly because the Italian film was a major power in world cinema. Morricone delivered music at a grueling pace. From 1968 to 1972 alone, there were more than forty soundtracks of his hand for Italian horror films, westerns, and thrillers.
He presented himself as a master of death melodies, in addition to over twenty collaborations with respected directors such as Henri Verneuil and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Who looks into this phase of the maestro is overwhelmed by the prolificacy and beauty of his compositions.
Take Lucio Fulci’s ‘Una Lucertola con la Pelle di Donna’ / ‘A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin’ (1971), a psychedelic thriller for which Morricone composed a wonderful, dreamy score. Or ‘Città Violenta’ / ‘Violent City’ (1970), in which hard rock tracks guide Charles Bronson, as a disillusioned assassin, to his dramatic finale. And who saw ‘Chi l’ ha Vista Morire?’ / ‘Who Saw Her Die?’ (1972), in which a (child) killer terrorizes Venice, the disturbing vocals and lyrics of a children’s choir conducted by Morricone are hard to forget.
The collaboration between Leone and Morricone, who also yielded ‘Giù la Testa’ / ‘Duck, You Sucker’ (1971), continued. But Morricone had a special bond with other Cinematographers too. For the ‘proletarian’ Westerns of Sergio Corbucci, the composer made five excellent soundtracks, and even with the underrated Sergio Sollima (six films), Ennio had a special bond.
Less well known outside Italy were the politically engaged films by Elio Petri, with whom Morricone forged a strong connection. Five of Petri’s films had soundtracks in which Morricone outdid himself with complex and experimental pieces, culminating in ‘Indagine su un Cittadino al di Sopra di Ogni Sospetto’ / ‘Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion’ (1970), with which Petri won an Oscar, and the Jury Prize in Cannes. A tour de force of actor Gian Maria Volonté helped to make this movie a highlight of Italian cinema.
From 1980, Morricone became increasingly focused on performing with various orchestras. The Italian film industry was in crisis. Morricone felt humiliated by U.S. producers, who offered him only low wages. And the fact that the Academy, despite five nominations never gave him an Oscar, did not help his state of mind. With the fiasco surrounding The Mission (1986), having lost from the soundtrack of ‘Round Midnight,’ which consisted mainly of old jazz work, Morricone felt deceived.
The death of Sergio Leone in 1989 marked a turning point. The productivity of the composer decreased, and he made more performances instead. Remarkably, during the past few years, the work of Morricone was brought to the attention of a young audience by Quentin Tarantino, who used some classic western songs of the Italian for ‘Kill Bill’ (2003/4), ‘Inglourious Basterds’ (2009 ) and ‘Django Unchained.’
Ennio Morricone has written the scores for more than 500 movies and TV series, as well as works for concert halls. In 2007, he received an honorary Oscar for his ‘magnificent and multifaceted contributions to the art of film music.’