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Morricone: Maestro of Music and Image

Morricone in the Festhalle Frankfurt in 2015. Photo: Sven-Sebastian Sajak, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Born in 1929, the masterful composer Ennio Morricone, who died this week at the age of 91, made his entrance into the world just after the advent of synchronized cinematic sound. The Jazz Singer had come out just two years earlier. Over a life that spanned the history of the movie soundtrack, Morricone shaped the combined arts of music and image as few others have or will.

His melodies tended to the simple, even fragmentary: groups of three or four notes stolen from nature or the imagination (assuming there’s a difference) or even lifted from someone else; then a hesitation or pause before moving forward again. His harmonies were rarely adventurous, however rich and compelling. Yet Morricone was a revolutionary, transforming, even inventing ways of making music for moving pictures that exerted a huge influence on his contemporaries, his admirers, and, most enduringly, his audience. He was born and died in Rome, but his music for films stretched across the globe molding the way we see and understand landscapes, people, and history, from the South American rain forest to the grasslands and deserts of the North American West.

As a boy Morricone wanted to become a doctor: he admired his pediatrician, who also looked after Mussolini’s children. It was the age of movies and of fascism. Morricone’s father was a professional trumpet player, who gave a horn to his son and told him music not medicine would be his livelihood. The boy obeyed, and also studied composition from an early age, and his father’s contacts in the Roman music scene landed him arranging gigs in film and television.

Even in the midst of his toweringly prolific career as a composer of soundtracks and concert music, Morricone continued to play the trumpet as a member of the composers’ collective Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza from 1964 to 1980. The ensemble’s impressive and varied output reflected Morricone’s own more innovative impulses and his talent for drawing on disparate musical sources. Listen to his trumpet work on The Group’s 1970 LP the feed-back, a recording that brings together experimentalism with free jazz and funk, and hear how he strove to avoid producing conventional sounds from his instrument. Yet his timbre echoes Miles Davis, whom he admired, and in these spontaneous ideas meant to contribute to the whole rather than burnish individual glory, one can hear the thrilling High Plains pyrotechnics he ignited in the trumpet soloist for his Western scores, Michele Lacerenza.

The improvisation ensemble’s work grew indirectly out of the required pilgrimage Morricone and some of his colleagues made to the summer courses at Darmstadt, mecca of the European musical avant-garde, in 1958. But he turned away from modernism’s isolating, mathematical strictures in order to produce works that were, in his words, “to be listened to, rather … than remain an incommunicative theoretical system.”

The accessibility and vividness of his film scores often had a searing quality informed by his profound knowledge of music history and technique. Morricone was an erudite musician, basing his work on a foundation of study and hard-won technical skill, commitments he advised younger musicians to adopt. Among the many who heeded that advice was his admirer, Alessandro de Rosa, who collaborated with the composer in a wonderful book published in Italian in 2016 and translated in 2018 as Ennio Morricone: In his Own Words—an honest, thought-provoking, often unexpected, and ceaselessly informative book about the composer, his modes of creation, his aesthetic ideas, and the cast of fascinating and influential musicians and filmmakers he worked with over his six decades of dogged labor.

Rather than subject his musical material to abstruse procedures (though he was capable of these, too), Morricone often turned to the past, reanimating it through intuition and imagination. Daunting, disorienting chromaticism was a hallmark of his modernist contemporaries, but Morricone had a gift—and the attendant skill—for bringing it into the service of cinematic and political action. The credit sequence of his score for Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) in which the French forces raid the freedom fighters’ hide-out is driven by the gunfire tattoo of the snare drum. The heavier caliber of the piano adds to this barrage with a bass line that ascends through three half-steps then leaps down and presents the mirror image of that same figure.

Morricone took the motive from an antique Ricercar—a genre devised, as the word suggests, “to search” after new combinations of thematic material—by the seventeenth-century organist of St. Peter’s in Rome, Girolamo Frescobaldi.

Frescobaldi’s treatment of his theme was as recondite as anything the post-war intellectuals could devise. (Ten years before scoring The Battle of Algiers, Morricone had published a volume of piano pieces called Invenzione, Canone e Ricercari that paid homage to the ancient masters of polyphony.) But in his redeployment of Frescobaldi’s chromatic line, Morricone militarizes the researches of his Roman forebear from three centuries earlier like a commander barking orders at his musical troops. As the French counter-terrorist action unfolds on screen Morricone charges the brass to take over the same ascending chromatic figure but at a slower, warier pace, as if another unit were penetrating the Arab quarter. More winds then join the operation as it spreads through the Casbah. Through this ingenious contrapuntal collage the venerable motive is transformed into something unforgiving, remorseless, decisive. The music of attack becomes an attack on French colonial rule in North Africa, even an attack on oppression across the globe.

The theme for one of the leaders of the Resistance, Ali, is given to an African flute, straining at first against the shackles of European tonality.

The throaty notes rock incessantly between a pair of interlocking major and minor thirds heard above a tragically heroic orchestral accompaniment. The melody appears trapped in its own prison, but will not give up the fight. During preparations for the film, Morricone heard Pontecorvo, himself a musician, whistling the tune, but waited until the premiere of the film to disabuse the director of the notion that the theme had been transmitted to the composer clairvoyantly.

A distinctive melodist, Morricone proved himself equally adept at rhythm, whose possibilities imbued the images with energy and portent, as in the sequence from The Battle of Algiers where a group of Arab women, disguised as Europeans, place bombs in a café and club.

Morricone intensifies the urgency of this plot with North African percussion patterns that sound like motors: the machinery of history chugging towards tragedy, but continually slamming into the sounds of the city or, more terrifyingly, silence. These gaps in the soundtrack stretch the tension towards its terrible breaking point as the dancers and diners enjoy themselves in the final seconds before they are converted from occupiers to victims. A bass drone spurs a frenzy of wallops on the tenor drum that seems to detonate the bombs.

Kindred attempts—successful, if sometimes fraught—to clear sonic and ethical space for musical traditions that had resisted, or even been erased by European aggression moved Morricone to create one of his greatest, most opulent scores, that for Roland Joffé’s The Mission (1990). Set in eighteenth-century South America, the film elevates music to an affirmative force even in the clash between Old and New Worlds. The scene in which a Jesuit missionary (Jeremy Irons) captivates the Guarani warriors with his oboe (first alone, then with a studio symphony orchestra), can’t help but cast the European civilizer as Orpheus—and therefore the natives as wild beasts. With its tapestry of embellishments that Morricone gives to this Father Gabriel to play, his music evokes the baroque style of the film’s period.

Thanks to its rapturous melody and life-affirming orchestral backdrop, “Gabriel’s Oboe” became a huge hit, recorded by Yo Yo Ma and other international heavyweights.

Morricone was no ethnomusicologist, but he tried nonetheless to reclaim in The Mission something of what he imagined to be the lost music of the indigenous peoples by wedding simple choral acclamations with wistful Andean flute lines above yearning orchestral surges buffeted by the thump of jungle drums.

The result is romantic and utopian, exoticizing and intoxicating— a skeptic would rather say excessive, even schmaltzy. But this elixir can be so exhilarating because the ideal will be wrecked by the history the film portrays.

In counterpoint to the enchanting tones of the priest and the joyous music of the indigenous peoples, Morricone depicts the worldly imperatives of the Catholic church with quasi-renaissance vocal polyphony that could be (and probably by now, has been) heard in the Sistine Chapel. As the credits of The Mission roll Morricone brings all three elements together in a tour-de-force of polyphonic layering in a piece called “As Earth as it is in Heaven”—a final effusion of ambrosial, healing world music.

This reconciliation is celestial rather than terrestrial. The murdered will not be raised from the dead by the conquerors’ musket and sabre. Music, however radiantly ecumenical, cannot heal these wounds, forgive these crimes.

But this virtuosic, irresistible skill at contrapuntal combination in evoking places that Morricone had seen on film but never visited found its most famous expression in the films directed by his Roman schoolmate, Sergio Leone. In the first of the director’s Westerns, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Morricone repurposed an arrangement he had made of Woody Guthrie’s Pastures of Plenty for a recording of that song by Peter Tevis, a California singer then popular in Italy.

Morricone’s setting called on the whistle and whip to summon visions of the open range. The tolling of the bell and the chanting of the chorus (its English tinged by Italian accents) seems to suggest that a lone singer is riding with his own posse, or perhaps being urged on by the voices of destiny. This was hard-bitten, intrepid music, leagues distant from Guthrie’s plaint of struggling dirt farmers and herders.

Guthrie had based his song on the nineteenth-century ballad “Pretty Polly,” so Morricone was well within his rights to equip that same accompaniment with a new melody. He gave the newly-inserted invention to his celebrated whistler, Alessandro Alessandroni, the wind-riffled tune shot through with bolts from the electric guitar of Bruno Battisti D’Amario.

However popular and crucial to the composer’s subsequent success this music became, both Leone and Morricone thought A Fistful of Dollars their weakest, ugliest work.

The blatantly anachronistic electronics and studio effects could reach unprecedented levels of viciousness, as when D’Amario’s guitar slashes across a devastated homestead until the camera finds its way to the perpetrator—blue-eyed Henry Fonda, taking an unexpected turn as the black-hatted bad guy in the greatest of the Leone/Morricone Westerns, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).

A similar, if richer, texture to Morricone’s Pasture of Plenty /A Fistful of Dollars encompasses the three-way duel at the end of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). The rocking guitar figure is now taken by the piano; rather than a clear male voice, an English horn intones a solemn, sweeping melody. The chime tolls. The bass now moves with the force of fate. The musical tableau expands inexorably, magnificently towards the horizon. Lacerenza’s trumpet soars. The incomparable soprano Edda Dell’Orso—one of the singers in Alessandroni’s choir, Cantori Moderni., that is also heard in these Westerns offers up a benediction for the death soon to descend.

These pastures of plenty are full of the dead and the loot, the spoils of war and the winning of the west.

At the end, the coyote cry of the famed opening theme returns to lacerate the landscape. That musical utterance is so much more violent than the sounds of the animal itself. The soundtrack tells us that human deceit and revenge are unique in nature.

That Morricone’s score soared over the credits after the battle was done proved that, however closely tied to the images like the noose around “the ugly” Tuco’s head, music wins the final duel between sound and image.

Morricone received an honorary Oscar in 2007, handed to him by Clint Eastwood, whose first starring role had come in A Fistful of Dollars. In his speech, Morricone said that the prize represented not a point of arrival but of departure. He kept on riding. Nominated for a sixth time for his grand score (the penultimate soundtrack of the more than 500 he delivered) for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight in 2016, Morricone become the oldest winner of a competitive Academy Award. He was as old as Oscar himself: Morricone and Academy Awards had both been born in the fateful year of 1929.

That evening in Los Angeles, Morricone spoke in Italian, with Eastwood translating. In Morricone: In His Own Words, the composer expressed regret that he never learned English or another foreign language. For all its ennobling mixture of diversity and specificity, technique and imagination, Morricone’s soundtracks speak a global language, immediately and powerfully understood and loved. Morricone shrugged off Tarantino’s fawning comparison of him to Mozart and Beethoven. The Maestro was modest about how history would judge his work, but his music doesn’t just survive him, it glorifies him and his visionary hearing of the world.