Two months ago, a music icon passed away. Ennio Morricone, father of melodies embedded in the collective memory of entire generations. With a career that spans 70 years, it’s needless to list his countless awards and record sales. Suffice it to say that he is one of the only film composers to have received an honorary Oscar for his lifetime achievement.
Morricone was one of the most prominent composers, author of cult film scores that have become universally recognizable. It is enough to think about the soundtrack of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: written half a century ago, it still remains to this day one of the most well-known scores in the history of cinema.
Yet he was much more than the simplistic label of ‘Spaghetti Western composer’ unjustly attributed to him by some news outlets in wake of his demise. As much as his western soundtracks can overshadow other compositions in terms of popularity, these constituted merely an infinitesimal part of his musical output – as he used to point out.
Having written for almost every genre of film, from dramas to comedies to historical epics, Ennio Morricone redefined what cinema can express. His melodies transport and move us, triggering our auditory senses and adding an extra dimension to the film.
“Composing for the cinema implies that one has knowledge of all musical languages”, the Maestro once explained. The language of cinema is in turn made up of so many languages, which amplifies the complexity of such a role as a film composer.
What is incredible and sometimes taken for granted is that by listening to Morricone’s scores one can clearly picture a scene in all its detail.
A revolutionary of the relationship between music and image, he was able to brilliantly build the mood and rhetoric of the film just through his music.
When asked “who is Morricone?”, Maestro Loprieno, director of the Ensemble Symphony Orchestra for the show The Legend of Morricone in 2019, replied:
“He’s a genius. His music has had the ability to live beyond the films that it was written for. He’s the Puccini of today, the timeless art that transcends generations. He is action, romance, drama and dreams.”
This unique sensitivity and his hard work led Morricone to collaborate with directors such as Tarantino, Almodovar, Polanski, De Palma, Pasolini, Bertolucci and Stone. Another notable working relationship is the one with Sergio Leone, which changed Morricone’s career.
Fulfilling the dream of any composer, he had found a director who was willing to shoot the film after the music had been composed, instead of asking to compose a score for a film that had already been finished. This gave his music the primary role it deserved. As a result, he had the occasion to experiment and create revolutionary soundtracks which would blend with the image in an unprecedented way.
Director Sergio Leone understood the universality of music, deeming it to be even more expressive than dialogue. Although ultimately, and with great humility, Morricone believed that his music was there to serve the movie. And while good music cannot save a bad film, even bad music cannot ruin a good film, as he used to say.
However, a word in favour of music and sound: have you ever tried watching a muted film? It is a much less fulfilling experience. Sound and music in films are generally not given much importance when present; it is when they’re missing that their role becomes obvious to us. There’s a reason why even early silent films were accompanied by musical scores.
I mentioned sound as Morricone is also known for incorporating real-world sounds into his music, contrary to what had been done in the field of film scores up to the 1960s. In those years he began experimenting, influenced by musique concrète – non-instrumental recordings.
Before rock discovered noise, as in the use of real-world sounds, it was in Morricone’s scores that harmonies mixed with sounds, like percussions or actual parts of the melody. He managed to evoke memorable themes through these sounds: whiplashes, screams, rubbing rocks and the military march of The Battle of Algiers which sounded like a machine-gun.
Morricone may be gone, but his melodies and the emotions they inspire will remain immortal heritage for the world of music and cinema.
“I don’t write for success. I write for myself. Besides, music is intangible, it has no form, it is like a dream: it only exists if it is performed, taking shape in the mind of the listener.”