Ennio Morricone: The Maestro

Like many motion picture fans, I became aware of the great scores Ennio Morricone worked on.  It turns out that most people, me included, don’t really know the bulk of his work.  His style has been emulated but not topped.  His style and music has also been ingrained into filmmakers and composers in the years since.  His popular and impressive work with Giuseppe Tornatore and Sergio Leone just scratches the surface of his film work. 

N.B. For sake of continuity, I’ll put the English title first, with the original title in parenthesis when necessary. 

Born in Rome in 1928, he started his musical career playing trumpet, like his father –a jazz trumpeter.  But it was composition that interested him.  He began to compose around age 6 and in school met Sergio Leone, who would become one of his biggest collaborators.  He took harmony lessons at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory, continuing trumpet and eventually composition with renowned composer Goffredo Petrassi.  Through the 1950s, Morricone performed, arranged and orchestrated music for radio shows and television. 

His first score was the 1961 film The Fascist (Il Federale).  He started writing numerous films each year.  With the scores 1963’s Gunfight at Red Sands (Duello nel Texas) and 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari), Morricone began his work on the spaghetti western genre.  Both films he is credited under the pseudonym Dan Savio.  Fistful of Dollars also marked the beginning of the collaboration with director and old classmate Sergio Leone.   His western-style melodies and interesting orchestrations made Morricone incredibly sought after.  He continued composing for other spaghetti westerns such as Bullets Don’t Argue (Le Pistole non discutono) [1964], A Pistol for Ringo (Una Pistola per Ringo) [1965] and the next Leone film For a Few Dollars More (Per qualche dollaro in più) [1965].  One of the best tricks Morricone uses in the film is having the source music pocket watch eventually blend into the score.  This is a trick that Morricone used a few more times in the Leone films.  In the westerns, he introduced new instrument techniques, whistling, electric guitars, jew’s harp and non-traditional vocal techniques.  One of the most recognized, and imitated score is certainly The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo) [1966].  One of the best Morricone moments is the final shootout of the film – with Leone and Morricone’s work fitting perfectly. 

Working on at least 10 films a year; Morricone certainly hit a stride in westerns and other genres such as crime dramas and films like the war drama The Battles of the Algiers (
La battaglia di Algeri) [1966].  He worked with Leone again in 1968 for Once Upon A Time in the West (C'era una volta il West).  In the case of this film, on Leone’s preference, he actually composed the score before filming even began.  As done before, the harmonica becomes more than just part of the score, but tying the film and score together.     

The list of films done in the 1970s is truly staggering.  In addition to feature films, he worked on several TV mini-series and documentaries.  Highlights of the numerous films in the 1970s include: Sacco & Vanzetti (1971), Day of Judgment (1971), Maddalena (1971), the Dario Argento trilogy of Italian thrillers like The Cat o’ Nine Tails, and another Sergio Leone film in 1971 Duck, You Sucker/Fistful of Dynamite (
Giù la testa).  In 1978 Morricone received his first Academy Award nomination for the Terrence Malick film Days of Heaven.        

The 1980s contained some of Morricone’s biggest box office hits and his most highly regarded scores.  The list selected certainly shows his diversity as a composer.
We have the scary thriller score to The Thing (1982), the BAFTA winning Leone epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984), the religious epic The Mission (1986), the Oscar nominated score to Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables (1987), Roman Polanski’s Frantic (1988) and the best of Morricone’s collaboration with director Giuseppe Tornatore – Cinema Paradiso (1988).  The Mission made it 25th on the AFI 100 Film Scores.  Cinema Paradiso’s love theme was composed by Morricone’s son Andrea – and they shared the BAFTA win for Best Score. 

With so many films in his career, it is surprising that he had time to compose anything else.  Since before his film career started, Morricone has composed several concert works, many that feature soloists and interesting instrumentation.

The 1990s and 2000s have been just as busy for Morricone.  He began working on many religious TV movies including many other popular films, working with many prominent directors.  These include Hamlet (1990), Oscar nominated score for Bugsy (1990), Wolf (1994),
U Turn (1997), Bulworth (1998), another Tornatore film - The Legend of 1900 (1998), Mission to Mars (2000), and the Oscar nominated Malèna (2000).  He continues to score tons of projects each year.    

Like Alex North before him, Morricone was given his first Academy Award (albeit honorary) in 2007 “in recognition of his magnificent and multifaceted contributions to the art of film music.”

With his extensive film career and impressive output, Morricone truly is the Maestro.

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  1. I've seen that this blog contributes a lot about Musicians who do film scores.. I'd like to see one more Maestro being added to this list.. Ilaiyaraaja