Perfect Sound Forever

Ennio Morricone's Finest Scores

Photo courtesy of Ennio Morricone Fan Page

by James Parker (November 2001)

Are the people who choose the Oscar for best musical score deaf or something? Ennio Morricone has been composing for most of his life; his latest non-Oscar for Malena is the latest kick in the teeth. Along with John Williams (Star Wars), Jerry Goldsmith (Chinatown), Bernard Hermann (Taxi Driver) and those crazy cats that did the score for Apocalypse Now, Morricone stands amongst the best.

Several of his scores are unsurpassed for sheer beauty, like the scores for Once Upon a Time in the West, Once Upon a Time in America and The Mission; all tug on the heartstrings like Tuco's neck at the end of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

However, it is Morricone's earlier work on Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Western trilogy which includes A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly which stands out most. In comparison to other composers Morricone is the Aphex Twin to John Williams (early) Beach Boys, mixing strange noises that are part of the very fabric of the score, deconstructing the very strict rules of classical/film score music.

He was commissioned in 1964 to compose a score for a remake of Japanese visionary Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo called A Fistful of Dollars. The film itself was remarkable for it's violence and was perhaps the most realistic depiction of the Wild West.

Morricone was a big fan of traditional Mexican folk music and particularly the use of the human voice as an instrument. Taking Woody Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty" and adding this element, Morricone came up with something simple and quite remarkable. Using a human whistle and a guitar, both performed by fellow Italian Alessandro Alessadroni, the music sounds like a paradox, sad and lonely compared to the violence of the film. The use of the whistle was meant to suggest the solitude of the outlaw (played by Clint Eastwood) character in the film, much like Handel's use of instruments in Peter and the Wolf to represent different characters. The track typically also uses the shouted voices ("We can fight"), the bell and the definitive change of pace towards the end of the piece.

In the next film For a Few Dollars More (1965), Morricone extended his musical palette, the score was similar with Alessadroni just doing the whistling without the guitar, but with more human voices and an instrument that sounds as though it belongs in native Australian folk music. Also this time Morricone used more traditionally classical instruments such as violins. The influence of the violin played fast is evoked in '70's classic funk such as Isaac Hayes Oscar winning Theme from Shaft.

Morricone perhaps didn't change the basics because the score was a great part of the identity of Eastwood's central character and the 'Spaghetti Westerns.' An electric guitar (from a classical composer!) plays the simple central motif which like the similar "Apache" by The Shadows has been used in free-style hip-hop and on Babe Ruth's brilliant "The Mexican." Typically novelty barroom orchestras have also turned the score into 'cheesy shit.'

The success of the first films had bought Morricone and Leone time. All along Leone had wanted music that fitted to every action, every bit of silence was there for a reason.

The extra time and resources given to Morricone ended up with one of the best opening film scores ever. Like Vertigo's central piece and sleaze jazz, it is an essential part of the film. It also has been well parodied by Eastwood's later film Kelly's Heroes. Although undeniably pompous and operatic the main theme for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) is stunning in it's originality and it's emotional depth. It's central 'Wah-wah-wah,' performed with whistle and human voices, will always bring to mind any Western. It's both dense but accessible at the same time. Morricone effectively mixes concert music and simulated animal sounds (which Morricone used to represent the savage nature of the Wild West); you cannot take it in the first time you hear it.

Like all the other themes it starts relatively calm, then the military drums come in (definitely representing the theme of war in the film), the drumming does get more frantic, typically electric guitar then main/vital choral voices join. All the instruments converge at the end in some kind of wild and over the top crescendo. The best way to describe it would be Beethoven on acid, trapped in a forest full of wolves. The main refrain is relentlessly repeated throughout the film like a motif, especially on plot changing moments and those of a comic nature.

Taken in the context of the period, the mid '60's, it fits in well with the experimentation of the acid scene that was sweeping culture in general. The Beatles were making astonishing music what with "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "A Day in the Life." It also appears that classical composers were getting on the experimentation boat as well as the popular artists.

After the success of all three films both Morricone and Leone moved on to more serious work. Their next film together, Once Upon A Time in West, yielded both a more serious, heartfelt story and less operatic but no less beautiful music. Westerns generally disappeared from view after the Spaghetti Westerns, Michael Cimino's epic Heaven's Gate in 1978 being a swansong for the genre.

Morricone and Leone effectively destroyed the genre that '50's Western master-actor John Wayne and director John Ford had tried to portray America's birth as a nation as a golden age. If anything Morricone had composed the soundtrack to which these 'lies' were stomped underfoot, and that's no bad thing.

Also see Alan Bishop's Morricone tribute

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