The late Ennio Morricone was not only one of the greatest composers of all time but one of the great story tellers. His work has been revered and applauded for generations. His contribution to the film industry means that his work will not be forgotten for many years to come. Morricone was, and remains one of my biggest influences. His scores shaped the way I experienced stories, never failing to bring a lump to my throat.
Morricone’s genius is his ability to convey a story or moment in time without any visual stimulus. This is evident in his Once Upon A Time In The West (Leone, 1968) score, particularly the main theme. Closing your eyes and listening, you feel the desperate struggle of those who moved out west just trying to put a dollar to their name. Tingling with melancholy at the sparse desolate landscape that many are trying to make habitable, you admire the hope of those starting anew, unsure whether in time it will work or not. This from a simple suggestion of the setting from the title and the beautiful score. It has an emotional impact on it’s own but paired with Leone’s wide scoping shots of the scenery it becomes magical; bringing a moment, that passed over 100 years ago back to life. Morricone often wrote the music before filming began, adding credence to how perfectly he captures a mood without even seeing the finished product. On this particular film, Sergio Leone had the actors listen to the score in the background whilst on set. Undoubtedly, his score influenced the actors performance, creating a moving depiction of the old west.
In The Mission (Joffé,1986), Morricone demonstrates his skill to understand and communicate a setting numerous times. Gabriel’s Oboe magnificently paints the serenity of the South American jungles whilst conveying the power and beauty of god that compels the Jesuit priests to achieve their “mission” of educating and converting the natives. What contributes to this effect is Morricone’s ability to adapt. The score includes liturgical chorus’, Spanish guitars and native drumming in an effort to display the varying cultures and the time setting depicted. It doesn’t stop there! Not only could Morricone adapt, he could innovate. You only need consider why there is electric guitar in his scores for westerns to see this. ‘Man With A Harmonica’ is an excellent example. Firstly, the knife edge splitting Harmonica motif, perfectly capturing the tension of Charles Bronson’s character, then the distorted exploding electric guitar descent that pushes the tension further and further. It would not be the same track without this. Yet, if you were to accurately score the film for the time, the guitar would be absent, robbing the character’s theme, and the scenes it plays over, of the elevated tension. Time and again Morricone has demonstrated his ability to adapt, innovate and chronicle what he is tasked with describing to any audience, at the same time, breaking language, cultural and social barriers.
Morricone’s skill does not stop there, another feature being how recognisable his work is. His work is undeniably memorable, his melodies are catchy and yet never diminishing the overall sound. All you have to say is “the good, the bad and the ugly” and the theme strikes up in your head. Let’s not forget his delicate ‘Chi Mai’ which reached number 2 in the UK charts in 1981. Part of his memorability is down to the catchy motifs and their repetitive nature, but also because of how good the music is. Speaking as a film buff myself, to walk away from a cinema remembering the score as much as the events in the film is rare. Morricone can even improve the films presence in ways you may not even notice. Whenever you hear that combination of notes, or chord progression Morricone arranged, be it a fanfare from The Untouchables (De Palmer, 1987) or the unnerving dissonance and bass notes from The Thing (Carpenter, 1982), you will be taken back to the lasting image of the film in your head. This brilliance is another one of the reasons Morricone is remembered so fondly.
These significant aspects of Morricone and his work are instrumental to explaining why he is so influential. Hans Zimmer, one of the most notable composers of the 21st century, credits Ennio Morricone with inspiring him to become a film composer. During an interview with Gramophone, Zimmer notes upon seeing ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’ he walked away knowing his career path. What made Morricone stand out to him was the penchant for taking the influences of Bach and Mozart (who inspired both composers) and used “both styles so well and (gave) it completely his own voice.” He goes on to state how personal Morricone is with his scores, “each piece Morricone writes seems to be personal to the individual listening to it, and that’s a really amazing achievement.” I concur having had conversations with other people who each come away with their own experience of the music, yet still able to completely understand the main message behind the score.
Film director Quentin Tarantino has often stated Morricone’s scores as influential when growing up; going on to include numerous scores of his in his films. Not only have film industry professionals credited him as influences but bands such as Muse, Dire Straits and Metallica too. Personally, Morricone is a huge influence on my style of songwriting and writing in general. When writing a song, I take Morricone’s method of conveying a mood without having to state such. When I write melodies and chord progressions I want my listener to feel what the song is about before they even hear the lyrics. One of the main ways I compose is to imagine the moment or film scene in my head and write about what I see, trying to create the perfect accompaniment for that scene. I constantly ask myself as I compose ‘What would play over the top’? This method is directly attributable to my love of cinema. If I rely solely on the lyrics to convey what I’m trying to say I consider that a failure in the same way a director may feel having to rely solely on exposition. I also try to innovate and adapt. If I am working in a different genre than normal I will use the instruments or song structures of those genres whilst putting my own stamp on them by taking an unusual theme or lead instrument. Morricone, among other influences has not only helped me craft my own style of writing but style within in my genre too.
It is easy to see why Morricone is so influential and adored. His scores are technically interesting and inspiring, his melodies making strong impressions that people remember. Morricone is one of the greats, never to be forgotten and with over 500 contributions to the musical world, it is astounding that he only achieved one Academy Award for original score in his lifetime. Yet, Morricone has never been about winning. He has always been about the music, baring his soul and message to the audience. Words cannot describe the true emotion of his scores but it is the reason we keep returning to them. Last year was one of the worlds greatest losses to the music industry but because of his legacy his magnificence will be with us forever. May his work continue to inspire future generations as they did me.
Ennio Morricone 1928-2020
Once Upon A Time In The West Soundtrack - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=efdswXXjnBA
The Mission Soundtrack - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oag1Dfa1e_E