In Memoriam: Ennio Morricone

July 6, 2020 | By

Ennio Morricone finally gets the Oscar.


A good 10+ years ago, some friends had the idea of packing into a car and driving to Montreal where Ennio Morricone was scheduled to conduct a lone Canadian performance of his travelling concert featuring his best-known work and a few lesser-known themes & gems to North American audiences, but not unlike the announced Jerry Goldsmith concert with the TSO at Roy Thompson Hall a good 30+ years ago, it never happened.

Morricone’s closest venue was going to be in NYC, but that was cost-prohibitive to film fans, home video collectors, and Canadians well aware of the still off-balance exchange rate between Canadian and U.S. dollars, so it became a dream that could only be experienced through either his massive discography – even by the early 1990s, an enormous quantity of his hundreds of scores had been released on LP & CD around the world, primarily in Italy and Japan – or a series of filmed concert DVDs which certainly captured the scope of his work going back to his breakthrough spaghetti western scores of the 1960s and 70s, the political thrillers of the early 70s, the giallo films of the late 60s / early 70s, the sex comedies of the 70s, the horror films of the 70s and 80s, the odd sci-fi film of the 70s and 80s, or work in TV, a series of Biblical-themed movies, and oddities.



There were non-film concert works – his chamber music is exquisitely aggressive – and his film and non-film work with the Gruppo di improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza where like-minded composers from or working in other idioms with an experimental bent gathered and made weird sounds with weird objects, and sometimes parts of instruments. It was creative, fun, and whatever Morricone hashed out, he’d cherry pick the right sounds for the right score for the right genre to achieve the right effect.



There’s a short documentary on the group in which Morricone is sputtering squawks through a trumpet mouthpiece – a sound he’d use in giallo scores as well as other genres, not to mentioned whole trumpet squawks, breathy eroticized voices gasping for life, and sometimes maniacal earworm themes (delve into The Burglars with extreme caution).

His technique of interweaving gentle layers of chords using strings & brass was equally effective as the high register strings Hollywood giant Alfred Newman applied to melodrama, wrenching as many tears from the listener as possible in masterpieces like The Song of Bernadette (1943).

Other composers recognized the effect of ‘Newman’s strings’ and applied it to their own selective work, and Morricone was no exception in being oft-imitated, or at least inspiring composers in wholly different genres and venues to experiment.

There’s a period during the early 70s in which over 2-3 years he’s credited with scoring 20+ films per year – the Italian film industry was a productive engine that gave composers from all walks of life opportunities to dabble in film – but Morricone was The Standard. Frequently 70s collaborator Bruno Nicolai could apply the Morricone sound to horror (AntiChrist) and giallo scores; and the haunting voice of Edda Dell’Orso, a vital element to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), was either used or mimicked by other composers in westerns and gialli, and in the taped live Morricone concerts of the 2000s, when one watches the guest soloist perform Dell’Orso’s vocals, it showed the challenges & demands Morricone placed on his musicians.

The theme for Companeros (1970) is addictive yet feels strange, because for the spaghetti western, Morricone took a Gregorian chant and gave it a reggae beat; for Enzo Castellari’s Cold Eyes of Fear (1971), it’s the Gruppo’s gnashing jazz and musique concrete fusion which evokes the terror of a home invasion by scumbags; the vocal incantations of The Mission (1986) proved so endearing to audiences, it also became the signature underscore for a coffee company; and the nutty lyrics of “Deep Deep Down” added to the perfection of Mario Bava’s comic book masterpiece Danger: Diabolik (1968) – the brilliant, idiosyncratic director’s biggest budgeted film.

Morricone also worked with Tinto Brass on lower budgeted softcore erotic dramas – The Key (1983) being a highlight – and did cross the ocean to Hollywood for the odd international co-production – Guns for San Sebastian (1968), the truly weird The Red Tent (1969), Orca (1977) – and worked with some of the best filmmakers in the world, although I love the story of him being asked to watch Heaven’s Gate (1980) and not getting the gig because when director Michael Cimino turned around, he saw the composer had fallen asleep.

Morricone didn’t write scores in a specific idiom; he took underpinnings, thematic or instrumental elements, and created his own sound. It could be soothing, unnerving slightly jazz (Frantic); shrill experimental vocals (Exorcist II: The Heretic); or draw from his familiarity with popular music, and with his knack for rhythm and melody, craft The Untouchables (1987). His score for Casualties of War (1989) actually tempered the dour, heavy-handed tenor of the film with gut-wrenching chorus, and his bizarre male ‘wah-wah-wah, wah-wah-wah, wah-wah wah-wah wah wah’ vocal launched Bluebeard (1972), a weird, overlong film arguably saved by a beautifully bizarre main theme and chilling chase piece.

Morricone reportedly never saw Michael Ritchie’s The Island (1980), a dud pirate film based on Peter Benchley’s novel, but the score works – perhaps because it was written by a prolific composer who could read a script and get the gist of a film’s intended tone.

Whereas veteran Hollywood composers like Newman, David Raksin, Miklos Rozsa, and others were eventually superseded by a new generation often unfettered by a specific studio sound or rigid dictates; Jerry Goldsmith did score TV and studio productions, but Franklin J. Schaffner and John Frankenheimer wanted experimentalism in Planet of the Apes (1968) and Seconds (1966) respectively.

Goldsmith may be one of the few American parallels to Morricone, but where the former developed new ideas for films within Hollywood productions, Morricone frequently worked with filmmakers wanting to stretch the boundaries of narrative, hence a perfect marriage of misdirection, non-linear editing, and (mis)perception in Elio Petri’s psychological thriller A Quiet Place in the Country (1968).

Morricone worked steadily from the early 1960s to the 2000s, and although he was more circumspect in selecting projects, and used his time for concerts and maybe just relaxing after a dizzying 40+ years, he nevertheless remained in demand by filmmakers because he was Ennio Morricone – not a brand, but one of God’s Film Composers, if you will, and the guy many film fans and soundtrack collectors knew from the myriad releases and re-releases, compilations, and bootleg LPs (remember Hornet’s Nest?), and later expanded scores on CD.

America’s Cerberus Records was perhaps the first non-studio label to seek out unreleased music from his Italian catalogue – hence a sampling of his giallo, crime, and horror scores – while A1 Record Finders, importers, and local shops with exceptional buyers would seek out some of Morricone’s more recognizable genre works, often available from Beat Records, RCA, Cinevox, and more.

Japan’s SLC Communications reissued rare titles on CD, as did Dagored, DigitMovies, and others, for a while it seemed the composer’s massive back catalogue sustained the soundtrack industry during seasonal dips, but with so much music to choose from (not to mention LP, cassette tape, and CD samplers), everyone has their favourites, because a film and its music affected them in some unique way.

Whether it was the operatic finale of Sergio Leone’s TGTBATU, the Latin incantations within The Mission, the addictive doom-laden musical denouement of The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971), or John Carpenter’s eerie The Thing (1982), from which tracks were interpolated into Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015), it’s easy to pull out a favourite, many of which will get extra spins today as word of the icon’s death at 91 navigates through international media.

When a film composer passes away, there’s one less unique creative mind at play, no longer adding to the pool of music that will flow through history. While there are homages, soundalikes, and inspirations, perhaps because Morricone was involved with so many iconic films and elevated specific genres to modern art, his legacy will endure for generations. TGTBATU is 50+ years old, and yet the film and its music are still beloved, and while the music can be enjoyed on its own, it’s so firmly married to the filmmaker’s work that the mere mention of a title or a track or a sequence or a character immediately conjures images and sound.

The same holds true for Morricone’s giallo scores, wherein he paired lullaby themes with vulgar, abrasive pieces that enhances a serial killer’s malignant sadism, and captured the horrific anguish, torment, and death throes of a victim. The joy within What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) isn’t from the composer making truly heinous actions attractive, but providing a raw impression of multiple perspectives in solo, in contrasting, and in colliding pieces; you can revel in the artistry, but the impact remains solemn. Even the backbeating rhythm in Cat O Nine Tails’ “End Credits” isn’t hip, because the final shot is the elevator cables down which the killer slid and shredded palms before an inevitable demise. The vocalist’s shriek pretty much conveys the death throes.

So it’s unsurprising the personal tributes are flowing (and probably gushing by the evening) from filmmakers, journalists, musicologists, composers, musicians, artists & fans. Italy gave Film a rare Mozart with an astonishing body of work, much of which is packed with a rare combination of inventiveness, experimentalism, and popularity.

So instead of a personal anecdote or a link to a favourite theme, I’d rather highlight the playfulness of a genius, feeding off the energy of fellow musicians, composing on the spot, and already codifying some of the iconic sounds of the giallo score, in all its weird, profane beauty:


Thanks for reading,



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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