The scores of Ennio Morricone: a cinematic giant

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Getintothis’ Adam Scovell looks at the man behind the unmistakeable music, composer Ennio Morricone. 

The word prolific is one of the more overused descriptions that writers often apply to artists. Very few actually deserve the title as it is one that implies an artist that creates a huge volume of work without sacrificing its level of quality; the dichotomy and balance that any creative person struggles to overcome.

With the changes in film industry practices of the digital revolution, it’s easy to argue that many film music composers of the pre-digital era were prolific and workman-like in their approach but, even in this context, Italian composer Ennio Morricone stands out as being almost superhuman in both the quality of his output and the sheer amount of it.

To contextualise this astonishing musical achievement, comparisons to Morricone’s intergenerational peers shows just how fantastical it really is. The average amount of scores varies from composer to composer but the number often ranges in between one hundred and two hundred film scores. John Williams and Franz Waxman both average at just over one hundred and fifty each while Bernard Herrmann on the other hand has barely over fifty. Morricone is still working today and has over five hundred composer credits for both film and television to his name.

The scale of his work means that looking at it in depth and concentrating on its high points can be difficult but not necessarily impossible. Though most famous for his score for Sergio Leone’s westerns, Morricone has had numerous relationships with other types of director, turning his hand to every type of genre and film that would pay. Quality invades Morricone’s scores for a number of other works outside of his westerns, very few of which are mentioned when the composer is discussed.

One relationship in particular that deserves far more attention is the composer’s musical collaborations with Italian director, Pier Paolo Pasolini. Pasolini was more than a provocateur but a persistent prodder of the establishment who backed his shock with meaningful and often aggressive politics. Morricone reflects this very Italian branch of satire with an array of different musical styles that suggests the composer’s wide range of interest and skill.

For Pasolini’s Theorem (1968), a vaguely counter-culture-esque film about Terence Stamp seducing an entire bourgeois household, Morricone composes both pop songs for the diegetic reality of the film and Bitches Brew style jazz ensemble pieces for the score (which also brings in a number of pre-existing songs too). In polar contrast, Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) uses Morricone’s arrangement of Son Tanto Triste which bookends the film with such joviality that it adds to, what is perhaps, the most disturbing cinematic experience ever made.

Morricone worked on several other less controversial works with Pasolini, all of which carry a sly musical humour. Films such as Hawks and Sparrows and the films in Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life (1971 – 1974) all vary in musical styling and eccentricity, reflecting the narrative mixture of comedy, satire, and classics. The former’s score in particular reflects the different leanings that Morricone could put on guitar based pop music and a comparison to the guitar music of Leone’s Dollar western of the same year is intriguing for its shift of emphasis in the same style. Musical satire was far from all the composer had to offer though. Alongside westerns and political treatises, Morricone also worked with several of Italy’s most prominent horror directors; his music becoming the omen of terrible happenings in 1970s Italian Giallos.

Before Dario Argento would turn to the prog-space band, Goblin, for his musical scores, the director looked to Morricone to begin his cycle of vicious but vibrant early 1970s work. Scores for films such as The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970), Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971), and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) provided the newly emerging director with a powerful, creative ally, adding a sheen of Hitchcockian mayhem to the pulpy tales of leather-gloved hands doing unspeakable things with sharp objects. It’s hardly surprising then to find Morricone in constant demand for a variety of horrors from different countries and directors.

Fellow Italian horror maestro, Lucio Fulci, would use him for his wonderfully named A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (1971) whilst Morricone would find scoring work in such horror flicks as Armando Crispino’s The Victim (1975), John Boorman’s Exorcist II (1977) – his score perhaps being the only decent thing about the film itself – and, most famously, in John Carpenter’s hyper-gory remake of The Thing (1982).

Morricone would also find work in less horrific films where his skill would be consummate quite simply because he had had so much practice in all types of films. In 1969 alone, he composed over twenty film scores which suggests the prowess of the man as a composing machine. This range is quite flabbergasting when considering scores for such films as Samuel Fuller’s White Dog (1982), William Friedkin’s Rampage (1987), Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988), and Pedro Almodovar’s Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (1989); all coming from one man and still managing to retain a sense of uniqueness and an overall level of quality composing.

In the end, Morricone will be best remembered for his work with Sergio Leone. From the guitar-led melodies of A Fistful of Dollars (1964) to the pocket-watch-based tinkling of For A Few Dollars More (1965), the epic expanses of both The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly (1966) and Once Upon A Time In America (1984), to the harmonica-based motif of Once Upon A Time in the West (1968), Morricone is a clear giant of cinematic music; a composer whose level of work and influence is too vast to do justice to in so few words.

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