Ennio Morricone, the illustrious maestro and Academy Award-winning composer of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, The Mission, and The Untouchables, died this week (at the time of this post). He was 91 years old.
According to The Associated Press, Morricone, died in a Rome hospital after experiencing complications from his previous injury of breaking his leg following a fall in his home. He asked for his funeral to be private, his lawyer, Giorgio Assumma, told CNN.
The Learnings of Ennio Morricone
If you are a cinephile of any level, you appreciate the power of a film score. The ability for a simple melody to sweep you up into a scene and transport you to another time.
Certainly, there are names who do it beautifully (i.e., John Williams, Howard Shore, Hans Zimmer, Thomas Newman), but even they would tell you Ennio Morricone was in a class to himself.
Consider what Ennio Morricone’s ear and spirit did for the gothic westerns in America. Quentin Tarantino was inspired by Morricone so much, he asked him to score The Hateful Eight. Of which, Ennio Morricone was given the Oscar — his first, if you can believe that.
The man single-handedly reimagined the sound of music for Western movies with his classmate Sergio Leone. It all began with the “Man With No Name” trilogy starring Clint Eastwood — A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966).
His ability to communicate through music inspired not only directors, but also other musicians like Dire Straits, Portishead, Orbital, and Radiohead. And while that was completely true, Morricone was more esoteric about the subject:
Inspiration does not exist…What exists is an idea, a minimal idea that the composer develops at the desk, and that small idea becomes something important.Ennio Morricone, AP, 2004
The Life of Ennio Morricone
Consider this: Ennio Morricone lived to be 91 years. In that time, he scored more than 500 feature films over seven of those decades. Truly, he was one of the most influential ingenues of cinematic music. “Maestro”, as he was simply called by those who knew and respected him.
Born in 1928, Morricone began writing music at the age of six. The childhood prodigy entered music conservatory at age 12, which is where he finished a four-year course at the National Academy of Santa Cecilia…in six months! Obviously, his passion for audio utopia never let up, as he was seen composing (pictured above) just last month in Rome.
And he defined “crossover talent.” His composition, “The Ecstasy of Gold” (the theme to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly…no the coyote cries and whistling wasn’t the theme), was a staple for the spaghetti western.
It was the song that would define his career and has been replicated by classical genius (Yo-Yo Ma), and used to open punk rock legends (The Ramones) and even a heavy metal icon (Metallica).
When he said “a minimal idea that a composer develops at his desk,” he was literally talking about just that. Morricone was a cerebral composer, known for being couped up in his Roman Palazzo for weeks at a time — and not once would you hear the keys of a piano. The music was all in his head, so he wrote it all in pencil on score paper before he actually heard a single note.
As a matter of fact, when Sergio Leone made his mythic spaghetti westerns, he would have Morricone write the score before shooting his scenes of ultra-close-up eye twitches and smirks. The music mattered that much and to so many.
Today, the Italian health minister tweeted to the country’s icon: “Goodbye Master. Thanks for the emotions you gave us.”
The Legacy of Ennio Morricone
Today’s composer are revered for their craft. They have made themes that have stirred our souls and created the pulse of cinema today. If people acknowledge greatness based on the gold on someone’s mantle, they may miss Ennio Morricone’s fingerprint on cinema.
“In the films that established his reputation in the 1960s, the series of spaghetti westerns he scored for Mr. Leone, Mr. Morricone’s music is anything but a backdrop,” The New York Times critic Jon Pareles wrote in 2007. “It’s sometimes a conspirator, sometimes a lampoon, with tunes that are as vividly in the foreground as any of the actors’ faces.”
Although he was given a lifetime achievement award by AMPAS in 2007, it wasn’t until The Hateful Eight in 2016 that he actually won an award. It would be his penultimate score, leaving room for only Giuseppe Tornatore’s 2016 film The Correspondence.
Back to Parales, Maestro had a humble retort to define the man behind the myth:
The notion that I am a composer who writes a lot of things is true on one hand and not true on the other hand. Maybe my time is better organized than many other people’s. But compared to classical composers like Bach, Frescobaldi, Palestrina or Mozart, I would define myself as unemployed.Ennio Morricone, The New York Times
Talk about a composer baton drop.
When you look back and see he wrote and composed film scores for The Battle of Algiers, Once Upon a Time in America, La Cage Aux Folles, Cinema Paradiso, and even The Thing, you would be sadly mistaken. So, please kick back and listen to the life, learning, and legacy of the Maestro.
Believe me, the sound of film will never be the same again.