The Greats: Ennio Morricone
Updated: Jun 1, 2022
I have been putting off writing this one. How do you do justice to one of the fathers of film scoring? Not only has he created some of cinema's most memorable tunes, but he was fundamental in redefining what film music could be in the mid 20th century. Ennio created staples for many different genres of film that other composers would try to replicate for decades to come.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
This classic western is one of Morricone's most iconic scores. His take on cowboys and 19th century USA quickly became the go-to sound for this kind of spaghetti western cinema. Daring whistles and the dirty twang of cheap electric guitars are sounds that easily replay in ones mind. Hans Zimmer comments on this trope, pointing out the absurdity of hearing a electric guitar in the wild west, long before they were invented in the mid 1930s. But at the same time complimenting Morricone on his originality, innovation, and ability to craft a score to suit his audience. "He took the zeitgeist of the late ’60s and put it into the 19th century," Zimmer writes.
Much like Hans, Ennio clearly values his melodies above all else. They reach out from the screen and pull you into a musical world that is incredibly well orchestrated to support the main idea. "The Ecstasy of Gold" from this film is a great example of a melody, arranged and repeated in a way that leaves any audience member humming the tune as they return to their lives.
A film about cinema itself, Ennio takes audiences to a heightened emotional state with this orchestral score. Perhaps one of the composer's greatest skills was his understanding for each individual instrument. Everything is in its place and there for a reason. Without the benefit of a DAW (digital audio workstation) which all film composers are using nowadays, all of Morricone's music needed to be played live and recorded perfectly. This means writing parts that make sense for each instrument, and are actually playable. For example, you can't write endlessly sustained notes for a flautist, because they need a moment to breathe! Just like you wouldn't hear a tuba playing a C5. The music in all of Morricone's scores, but especially Cinema Paradiso, sounds like each part was written by a professional performer of that instrument. Ennio played the trumpet, but for many other instruments he would have had to spend a lot of time watching and studying their techniques to be able to write such convincing parts. I suspect the composer's own love for cinema contributed to the beauty of the score. It's almost like a love letter to film-makers and movie lovers alike. For this one, check out "Love Theme for Nata". It's got some really wonderful strings that will just take you away. Many of the films scored by Ennio Morricone were before my time, but the music lives on, and it echoes throughout many releases in the film industry today - especially those that value the art of filmmaking over the financial prospects.
More Than Music
For a film composer, music that doesn't aid the story is useless. I think Ennio understood this better than most. It is all about telling the story of the screen through music. Sometimes that means simple is best. The music to "For A Few Dollars More" chooses a simple instrumentation, yet strongly communicates the emotional weight of each scene. Being another spaghetti western, Ennio had more than one chance to explore multiple aspects of the genre; this film actually predates The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It feels more intimate and less grandiose. The score features a jaw harp (an ancient instrument with variations found in many different cultures). The point however, is that everything has purpose. Sometimes the scene doesn't require an entire orchestra. Perhaps much less. The track, "Watch Chimes", uses harmony with intention to create a haunting yet enchanting theme, but is minimal in instrumentation. I would recommend checking it out if you are interested in finding out more about the music of the late great composer. As always, links to the music I've mentioned are down below.
"I always think that when something is currently very trendy, it's already very old" - Ennio Morricone.
All in all, Ennio Morricone has influenced my writing - maybe not directly, as I don't often find myself listening to film scores of the 60s, 70s, and 80s - but certainly through the innovation that he brought to the industry, and the way that he has influenced countless other composers I now admire. I think every musician wants to leave behind a lasting legacy like Ennio's, but if he has taught me anything, it's that one must be original, a true pioneer of their craft, and be true to themselves.
Links to music:
"The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"