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Ennio Morricone


Publicity posters on the wall in Castiglione della Pescaia for a 2021 concert celebrating Ennio Morricone's life in music

To an adolescent boy who was spellbound by the ‘spaghetti westerns’ in 1969 it doesn’t get any better than sitting outside on a warm summer’s evening exactly fifty years later listening to the man who composed the soundtracks for those films, Ennio Morricone, personally conducting a live orchestra playing his distinctive and original music.


The Good, the Bad and the Ugly film poster
A film poster above my desk, a 50th birthday gift

In Morricone’s final public concert before his death in July 2020 at 91 years old, he wrapped up his farewell tour on June 29th 2019 as part of the Lucca Summer Festival. We didn’t buy tickets because our apartment was just yards from Piazza Napoleone and listening to his famous soundtracks from our balcony allowed me to light up one of those gnarly brittle Tuscan cigars that Sergio Leone made Clint Eastwood smoke in the three films they made together.

Apparently Clint hated these Tuscan cigars which in fact were traditionally made in the centro storico of Lucca for 100 years before the factory moved outside town. I understand why Clint was never fond of them because their peculiar flavor came about when a batch of Kentucky tobacco became too hot and damp and fermented on the voyage to Italy. But they made the cigars anyhow and a tradition was born which survives to this day; however they are something of an acquired taste for those accustomed to Cuban cigars.


I didn’t realize it at the time when watching ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ in 1969, three years after its release in Italy, but Morricone’s music was completely revolutionary for the Western genre. The typical cowboy movie soundtrack up until then had always been more of a sweeping orchestral composition filled with crescendos like ‘The Big Country’ or my favorite ‘The Magnificent Seven’ written by Elmer Bernstein, who was my next door neighbor in Southern California for a few years before his death in 2004.

Just like The Wild Bunch in 1969 was to change the film making style of westerns by showing for the first time gruesome details like explosive bullet exit wounds in slow motion, Morricone created something so unique that his soundtrack became more memorable than the actual film itself, at least with regard to the first of Sergio Leone’s trilogy, ‘A Fistful of Dollars’.

Morricone’s genius lay in the way he was able to improvise, something that he was forced to do because Sergio Leone’s budget was so small that there was no money left for an orchestra.


The soundtrack he composed included unconventional musical instruments for a film score like the raw sounds of a jaw harp and the Fender electric guitar but even more revolutionary and original was the use of whip cracks, whistling, gunshots and the sound of a coyote howling in the background, all of which suited the enigmatic ‘man with no name’ much better than the more usual melodious orchestral composition.


Listening to the soundtracks on the Sergio Leone film trilogy you have to wonder perhaps whether the guitar instrumental ‘Apache’ by The Shadows, which was released in 1960 and topped the UK singles charts for 5 weeks, was one of Morricone’s influences because there is a clear thematic similarity.

The first film with Sergio Leone, ’A Fistful of Dollars’, represented a turning point in Morricone’s career, not least because it marked the beginning of a legendary collaboration with Sergio Leone, who in fact had been a childhood classmate for a short while at school in Rome.

Some of Morricone's best work was done for Sergio Leone between 1964 and 1984 and the pair became internationally famous as a result but Morricone's output was so prodigious in both quantity and quality that these films made in collaboration with his friend do not define him as a composer. A glance at the long list of Morricone's original film scores and his compositions for famous singers over seven decades reveals a composer and musician of incredible versatility and breadth.


He was something of a child prodigy musically and followed in his father’s footsteps as a trumpet player; in the 1950s he played in a jazz band while establishing himself as a musical arranger and composer. 1961 marked the start of his film career and the start also of a prolific decade of work by the end of which he had become a household name.


Though he was known mostly to foreign audiences for his western soundtracks, in Italy he was equally if not more famous for the wide variety of other Italian and French film compositions, many of which feature in my list of favorites below.

You have to wonder if the fact that Morricone hardly ever left Rome to compose his music and also never attempted to learn English contributed to him being overlooked for an Oscar for so many decades. Particularly egregious and difficult to explain on the grounds of artistic merit was his magnificent score for ‘The Mission’ losing out on the Oscar for Best Original Score to Herbie Hancock’s ‘Around Midnight’, when in fact most of the score for that winning movie was not even original.


The classic Sergio Leone films ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ and ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ didn’t even earn Morricone Oscar nominations, despite both of them being amongst his best work, and so you can’t help feeling that the Honorary Oscar awarded to Morricone in 2007 was by way of an apology by the Academy for snubbing him for so long. He went on to finally win an Oscar for his original soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s ‘The Hateful Eight’ in 2017 but it was a poor reward for such a lengthy career of excellence and originality, spanning 7 decades and 400 films.


My personal list of favorite Morricone film scores:

For a Few Dollars More 1965………………..…Main Theme

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly 1966………Main Theme and Ecstasy of Gold

Once Upon a Time in the West 1968….....…Man with a Harmonica and Jill’s Theme

Once Upon a Time in America 1984……......Cockeye’s Song, Deborah’s Theme and Childhood Memories

The Mission 1986…………………....….Gabriel’s Oboe, Falls and On Earth as it is in Heaven

The Untouchables 1987………………..Death Theme

Cinema Paradiso 1988…………………Love Theme and Maturità

La Califfa 1971…………………………….La Califfa

Maddalena 1971…………………….…....Chi Mai

H2S 1969………………………………......H2S

Queimada 1969…..………………………Abolisson

Metti Una Sera a Cena 1969…………Main Theme

Faccia a Faccia 1967……………………Misterioso e Ostinato

La Cosa Buffa 1972..........................Come Giulietta e Romeo

Revolver 1973……………………………..Un Amico

Novecento 1976……………………….…Romanzo

La Cuccagna 1962…………………….…Quello che Conta

A Fistful of Dynamite 1971……………Giù la Testa main theme and I Figli Morti

Le Clan des Siciliens 1969…………….Main Theme

Vergogna Schifosi 1969………………..Matto,Caldo,Soldi,Morto.. Giro Giro Tondo and

Una Spiaggia a Mezzogiorno

Sacco & Vanzetti 1971…………………..Speranze di Libertà, La Ballata di Sacco & Vanzetti I & III

and Here’s to You

Alain Delon and Monica Vitti

And finally, not from a film but a great song composed by Morricone in 1966 which became one of Mina’s top hits is ‘Se Telefonando’. Confusingly the song is played on youtube with a video from the movie L'Eclisse directed by Antonioni and starring Alain Delon and Monica Vitti. The film was released in 1962 so the song doesn't really belong with this video, though it does seem a very good fit.




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