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By Iva Dobreva on

Ennio Morricone’s contribution to sound in cinema

This year’s Widescreen Weekend includes a tribute to Ennio Morricone. Iva Dobreva looks back on the legendary composer’s life, work and contribution to the use of sound in cinema.

From the first utilisation of synchronised sound in the cinema industry in the 1920s to the adoption of the Moviola editing device and animated sound in the 1930s, sound has gradually become an integral part of moving imagery throughout the last century. As early as the 1930s it became an industry standard for each major Hollywood studio to have its own music department with contracted composers, arrangers, orchestrators, copyists, librarians, music editors, resident orchestra, and a senior music director. Film scoring was typically the product of intense work combined with extremely tight and health-threatening deadlines.

Scores and soundtracks

To fully grasp the concept of film scoring and how demanding a field it is, it’s essential to distinguish between two types of music in film: score and soundtrack. While a score refers to a musical piece or incidental music that accompanies a specific scene or moment in the film, the soundtrack consists of the full compilation of sounds and songs within the whole film. Soundtracks can feature vocal music by various musicians, artists, and bands; scores are typically in the form of instrumental music created by one or more composers and performed by an orchestra.

Still from L'Assassinat du duc de Guise
In 1908, Camille Saint-Saëns composed the first score for use in the motion picture L’Assasinat du duc de Guise

About Ennio Morricone

Ennio Morricone is widely regarded as one of the greatest film composers of all time. Born in Rome in 1928 when Italy was under fascist rule, Morricone wrote his first compositions at the age of six and learned to play several instruments with the help of his father. At the age of 12, Ennio entered the Conservatorio Santa Cecilia to study trumpet, composition and choral music, enrolling in a four-year programme which he completed in six months.

He started his career as an arranger and continued to write music for theatre as well as classical music for voice and piano such as ‘Imitazione’, ‘Intimità’, ‘Distacco I’ and ‘Distacco II’.

Ennio Morricone
Ennio Morricone at the Estadio Bicentenario de la Florida, 2013. Gonzalo Tello, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ennio’s resume comprises scores for more than 70 award-winning films as well as musical compositions for Paul Anka, Mina, Milva, Zucchero, Andrea Bocelli, and the 1978 FIFA World Cup. It’s interesting to note that he was part of Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza (G.I.N.C.) between the years of 1964 and 1980. G.I.N.C. or ’Il Grupo’ (The Group) was a Rome-based ensemble of composers who were dedicated to the development of avant-garde improvisations and the exploration of new music methods.

First film score

After graduating from the Conservatorio Santa Cecilia, Ennio Morricone began arranging music as a ghostwriter for films credited to well-recognised composers. Seven years later he achieved his first big film debut with Luciano Salce’s Il Federale (The Fascist). The movie’s soundtrack consisted of over 20 scores composed and orchestrated by Morricone, some of which are ‘Combattimento’, ‘Manovre Grotesche’, ‘Tema Dell’Auto Anfibia’ and ‘Inseguimento’.

The film’s soundtrack has historical value within the music industry, as it is Ennio’s first film score assignment and contains features and elements that are distinctive to his style of work. It’s a brilliant combination of upbeat, humorous and dramatic original scores that demonstrate Ennio’s musical brilliance. Il Federale marked the beginning of the composer’s long-term collaboration with Italian director Luciano Salce.

The Dollars Trilogy (1964–66)

1964 was another turning point in Ennio Morricone’s career as his work intrigued former classmate and film director Sergio Leone. The first film that Ennio and Sergio collaborated on, named A Fistful of Dollars (1964), was first released in Italy and later in America, further popularising the Spaghetti Western genre.

What’s interesting about the soundtrack of this film is that, due to the tight budget, Ennio had limited access to an orchestra and improvised with the recording of most of the sounds. He used trumpets, gunshots, voices and whistles, whips, and the new Fender electric guitar. Each of Morricone’s scores perfectly sets the scene of a town in rural Texas and a mysterious main character played by none other than Clint Eastwood himself.

The Italian composer then went on to score Leone’s two further Dollars Trilogy movies: For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). In 2007 Ennio commented:

‘Some of the music was written before the film, which was unusual. Leone’s films were made like that because he wanted the music to be an important part of it; he kept the scenes longer because he did not want the music to end.’

‘The Ecstasy of Gold’ from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) not only turned into a classic but also became one of Morricone’s most recognisable pieces and a favourite of the American heavy metal band Metallica.

Two decades after its initial release, the film score was adopted as an introductory song to Metallica’s shows. The band offered a different take on Morricone’s piece and further popularised it within the heavy metal community. In fact, the song became so strongly associated with Metallica that when Ennio performed it at one of his concerts at the O2 Arena in London in 2018, the audience stood up and headbanged.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Two years later, in 1968, Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone collaborated on another masterpiece titled Once Upon a Time in the West. The main theme that Ennio composed encompasses the operatic voice of Edda Dell’Orso as well as chimes and strings that evoke feelings of hopelessness and despair.

Leone’s faith in the Italian composer was so strong after working together on the Dollars Trilogy that he had him compose the key elements before filming the movie. Sergio then used Morricone’s music to inspire his cast while shooting the film. This goes to show how brilliant Morricone was in all his compositions, as most composers would typically have to write music based on the images in the post-production stage of a film.

In 2007, his score for Once Upon a Time in the West won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Performance.

The Untouchables (1987)

Throughout his scoring career, Ennio Morricone worked with American film director and screenwriter Brian De Palma. The Untouchables (1987) tells the story of the legendary Chicago crime boss Al Capone, whose illegal liquor business is being investigated by federal agent Eliot Ness in an effort to expose the mobster.

One of the most distinguishable scores on the album is the eighth track, ‘The Strength of the Righteous’, which is the main theme and defies all rules and norms in music compositions. The unconventional combination of harmonica, piano, brass, strings, and synths conveys a sense of urgency, mystery and unpredictability which is reflected in the scenes of the film.

Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Cinema Paradiso (1988), written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, is an exceptional example that demonstrates how Ennio Morricone’s rich portfolio spans several mainstream film genres including drama and romance.

The film’s ‘Love Theme’, composed by Ennio and his youngest son Andrea Morricone, instantly captures the viewer’s attention, reflecting the love of Salvatore and Elena. Each second of the score is breathtaking and magnificently written to encapsulate the depth and intensity of Salvatore’s feelings through the sounds of the alto saxophone, piano gentile, and strings romantico.

The Hateful Eight (2015)

The soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino’s film The Hateful Eight (2015) includes 50 minutes of original music composed, orchestrated and conducted by Ennio Morricone. The film takes place in post-Civil War Wyoming and revolves around eight strangers who are seeking shelter from a blizzard at a stagecoach passover called Minnie’s Haberdashery. The music was largely inspired by The Hateful Eight’s screenplay and has a moody, thriller-like sound.

Despite Ennio’s pieces on The Hateful Eight soundtrack winning him Golden Globe, Academy and BAFTA Awards, surprisingly they remain some of his least favourite works throughout his whole career.

Although considered a giant in the music and Hollywood industry, Ennio Morricone never left Rome to compose his music and never learned to speak English. He had film directors, artists, and brands from all over the world turn to him for original music for films, albums, events, and even ad campaigns.

To learn more about Ennio Morricone’s life and career, visit the official Ennio Morricone website.

Don’t miss our tribute to Morricone’s work at this year’s Widescreen Weekend film festival (7–10 October 2021)—the programme includes screenings of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Thing, The Mission and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, as well as an illustrated talk on Morricone’s career by Professor Sir Christopher Frayling.

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