Ennio Morricone: The man behind the most famous music in cinema

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The life of Ennio Morricone, the prolific Italian composer responsible for the soundtrack of The good the bad and the ugly, and more

“I’m still an idea and if an idea tells me to use unusual combinations of instruments, I’ll do whatever works.”

Ennio Morricone was talking about the famous two-note trill theme he composed and arranged for Sergio Leone’s 1966 western. The good the bad and the ugly.

“I wanted to differentiate three stamps to represent each one,” he said. “A silver flute, which sounds sweet, is the good. The bad are the voices singing together, wrong. The ocarina is the ugly.”

The scarcity of the soundtrack reflects the harsh desert landscape in which the film takes place, the economy of composition echoing the conciseness of the dialogues. In Morricone’s musical vision of the American West, the spaces between the notes counted as much as the notes themselves. It allowed the listener to feel the dry heat and thirst of a cutthroat landscape through music that flirted with minimalism and atonality while becoming one of the most famous movie soundtracks of all. time.

If Leone revolutionized the genre with his spaghetti westerns, Morricone did the same with his music. Before their collaboration emerged in the 1960s, westerns were sanitized representations of a brutal period in American history accompanied by sweeping, sweeping orchestral themes. Leone and Morricone kept dialogue, action and music to a minimum, perfectly combining their talents to create an atmosphere so tense, tense and sunburnt that audiences never felt comfortable in their seats. , which means Morricone was as much responsible for creating the spaghetti western. like Leone, Clint Eastwood and the landscape of Almeria itself.

He scorned the term, however. For him, they were Italian westerns.

The couple first collaborated on a handful of dollars, released in 1964. They had actually been to school together in Rome when they were young, although this had no influence on their work together.

“Sergio Leone didn’t recognize me at first,” recalls Morricone. “When he came and asked me to write the music for a handful of dollars, he didn’t know I was the same Morricone as the kid at school.

While the two were discussing what kind of sound Leone wanted for a handful of dollars, Morricone played the director’s arrangement of Woody Guthrie’s 1962 version of Peter Tevis Pastures of abundance.

“That’s it,” Leone said, tapping the table, “that’s the sound. “

“Some of the music was written before the movie, which is unusual,” Morricone said in 2007. “Leone’s films were made this way because he wanted the music to be an important part of them: he often kept the scenes longer just because he didn’t want the music to stop, which is why movies are so slow, because of the music.

He might have had a bad opinion of the project, at least in hindsight – “it’s the worst movie Leone made and the worst music I’ve ever made” – but a handful of dollars set Morricone on the path to international fame and a remarkable career for combining variety and longevity.

Even in old age, his production was relentless. He was 88 when he won his first and only Oscar for Best Original Music for his work on Quentin Tarantino’s western. The Hateful Eight and is estimated to have worked on over 500 movie soundtracks. In addition, he composed over 100 works for the concert hall in which he always strove to achieve “the highest ideals of composition”.

It’s a remarkable legacy, especially in the way its prolificacy has never compromised the quality of its creations. Whether he writes fanciful instrumental interludes for a light comedy or composes compositions like his disturbing and discordant cantata Voices of silence, written in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, Morricone’s work has always been impeccable. Not that he ever thought he was really prolific.

“The idea that I’m a composer who writes a lot is true on one side and not true on the other,” he said. “Maybe my time is better organized than that of others. But compared to classical composers like Bach, Frescobaldi, Palestrina or Mozart, I would define myself as unemployed.

For an unemployed composer, he compiled quite a CV. Besides Leone and Tarantino, he wrote film scores for big names like Pier Paolo Pasolini, Brian De Palma, Bernardo Bertolucci, Terrence Malick, Barry Levinson and John Carpenter, composing for films ranging from La Cage aux Folles at The battle of Algiers Going through The mission. During particularly productive periods, he produced more than 20 film scores in a single year.

Still, Morricone was probably happiest when he composed music not designed for the screen. He was a key member of the Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, a collective of avant-garde composers and musicians active from the mid-1960s to the dawn of the 1980s. While the collective enjoyed a rotating membership, Morricone was a founder and a pillar. Il Gruppo was determined to push the boundaries of musical composition and improvisation, producing music of discord and atonality using unusual instrumentation and experimental studio methods which led to a series of albums still popular today. ‘hui.

Il Gruppo was the perfect channel for Morricone’s innate musical curiosity. Even in old age he searched for new combinations of instruments, new tones and new soundscapes. He has demonstrated a commendable openness to formats, genres and commissions, supporting projects as diverse as the official theme of the 1978 World Cup in Argentina and It couldn’t happen here, a song he co-wrote with the Pet Shop Boys for their 1987 album In fact.

All this he realized although he rarely leaves Rome. Hollywood has made several attempts to tempt him across the Atlantic – it has often been offered to use a luxury apartment for free – but the lure of the dollar has never been successful. Rome has remained his base and, indeed, his world. He was the happiest there, straining to compose at his desk, hearing the music in his head so vividly that he didn’t use as much as a piano during the creation process.

He was born in the city to a professional trumpeter father and a mother who ran a textile business. From the age of six, Morricone was composing arias and transcribing classical works he heard on the radio, which led to his admission to the Conservatorio Santa Cecilia to study trumpet and composition at the age of 12. . As a teenager he began playing in jazz clubs and upon graduation he carved out a reputation for himself as a gifted musical arranger. In 1958, he was hired by the Italian public television channel RAI, but quickly resigned – some say it was on his first day of work – when he learned of the existence of a rule prohibiting the broadcasting of compositions. original by company employees. He moved to RCA and established himself as the main arranger at their Rome studio.

During the 1960s, Morricone composed for artists as diverse as Françoise Hardy and Demis Roussos, writing his first film soundtrack in 1961 to accompany Luciano Salce’s film. He federal, ‘The fascist‘, and entering into a relationship with the director as productive as his work with Leone, though never more famous.

He federal also launched a career path that was never meant to last.

“When I was 35, I said to my wife Maria, OK, when I’m 40 I’ll stop writing film music and just write absolute music”, a- he said in 2006. “But I’m always here to write music for films, so you can never tell when you’re going to stop.

Even though he couldn’t say when he would stop, he had at least prepared for it, having previously written the public announcement of his own death when it occurred in 2020 at the age of 91.

“I, Ennio Morricone, am dead,” he began, sparking a worldwide wave of headlines and obituaries which almost all led to references to his theme for The good the bad and the ugly.

Still, it’s arguably the film’s climactic shootout scene that features Morricone at his best. As the three protagonists clash wordlessly in the cracked and parched central arena of a secluded cemetery, hands shaking beside their cases, Morricone’s music raises the tension to an unbearable level with simple patterns of three or four notes, the tempo picks up and slows down, each cadence unresolved, a guitar, piano, and trumpet all played so loudly they’re barely tuned.

Leone’s camera closes until we just see the characters’ eyes come and go, the music surging towards a climax that never comes because suddenly there is silence, punctuated by the lonely scream. , dry and hoarse of a crow.

It’s intense, it’s tense, it’s claustrophobic, it’s nerve-wracking and it’s Morricone at the height of his powers.


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