Ennio Morricone once said that he was actually a concert composer – film music was just a side hustle. But the name Ennio Morricone is usually not associated with concert music – no other composer stands as much for legendary film music of the 20th century as Ennio Morricone. Morricone was more than a composer: his way of composing music for movies was more like co-writing the screenplay. His music was able to say more than the dialogue of a film.
The name Ennio Morricone is closely linked to that of Sergio Leone: the two were bound together by a collaboration that spanned several films.
The famous Italo-Western director Sergio Leone directed some of the most famous Westerns of the 20th century: the films were always graced by Ennio Morricone’s music.
Among others, Morricone composed the music for the Western Once Upon a Time in The West [C’era una volta il West, 1968], which would hardly be the same film without the score. The numerous sequences in which the theme music is heard carry the plot of the film and make watching it an incomparable experience.
There was a reason that Morricone repeatedly said during interviews that he was not a film composer, but rather a screenwriter: he was one of the very few film composers whose music was at least as important to the film as the screenplay. In Once Upon a Time in The West, one even has the feeling that the music is more important than the screenplay.
Training and beginning of the career
Ennio Morricone’s career began as a simple trumpet player, receiving his trumpet diploma in Italy a year after the end of World War II: The genre of the Italo-Western had not yet been born, and Italian cinema was almost meaningless. Westerns, at that time, were still synonymous with Hollywood. That was the only place where the top-class filmmakers stayed and where one had the financial means to shoot costly Westerns.
In 1954, Morricone completed his training as a composer in Italy: he was taught by Maestro Goffredo Petrassi, a major figure in the Italian musical scene of the time.
Without this well-founded training, Morricone’s career would hardly have taken the same path: he repeatedly emphasized that without the special conditions in the Italian musical landscape of the time, he would not have become what he later became known for.
In the already established structures of Hollywood, hardly anyone would have been interested in Morricone in the forties and fifties.
He composed not at the piano, but at his desk
Not only is the quality of Morricone’s film scores impressive, their quantity is also groundbreaking: since the 1960s, Morricone has written the music for the record-breaking number of 450 films. In the process, he collaborated with Italian and international directors, including Pier Paolo Pasolini, Roman Polanski, Warren Beatty, and Quentin Tarantino.
With Quentin Tarantino, Ennio Morricone’s music made the leap into the 21st century: The film Django Unchained (2012) in particular proves that Morricone’s film music serves timeless tastes while always fitting into a specific film genre: the Western.
Especially in the 21st century, Morricone enjoyed some Hollywood successes, but his heart was always with the Italo-Western genre. Morricone wrote his film scores for Italowesterns with heart and soul, but he made one thing clear: he always composed at his desk and – contrary to the romantic illusion of the composer – not at the piano. Only dilettantes would compose at the piano, he once said.
Founding father of today’s film music
Today’s film composers have to accept the accusation that when they can’t think of anything else, they base their film music on Ennio Morricone: Connoisseurs are convinced that after Morricone, no one just like him has come along in the world of film music.
But one thing must be said: with his life’s work, the maestro of film music also set the bar unusually high for future film composers.
To some extent, Morricone is considered the founding father of today’s film music: if one listens to current film scores, one can always hear stylistic devices and slightly modified passages by the maestro of film music. This may also have something to do with the fact that audiences have become accustomed to Morricone’s musical style over the decades and use it as a criterion for evaluation.
In 1965 Ennio Morricone joined the improvisation group Nuova Consonanza: The group was committed to New Music. The aim was to establish new stylistic devices in the musical landscape and to break new ground in composing music. Sometimes the stylistic devices of New Music are perceived as radical, but often they are subsequently incorporated into the standardized musical jargon. When Morricone was looking for new inspiration for his music, he used drafts and ideas from the Nuova Consonanza and adapted the music to the needs of the cinema audience. The result was works that were perceived as revolutionary in the world of film music: Morricone knew how to combine established stylistic devices with novel, initially unfamiliar sequences of notes to leave a lasting impression on cinema audiences.
In the heyday of Morricone’s career in the sixties and seventies, Hollywood had no film composer to offer who could hold a candle to him: It was the first time Hollywood looked to Italy, and not the other way around.
Throughout his life, Morricone sought to present to the public not only his work as a film composer, but also his work as a composer of “serious music,” musica assoluta, as he liked to call it.
If one attended one of his concerts in the last years of his life, he had a ten-minute film about himself shown on a screen before his performance, which presented him primarily as a composer of serious music. However, Morricone could not do without the works of film music during his concerts: Until today the name Ennio Morricone is synonymous with film music, his “serious music” remained above all one thing: his personal passion.
A unique phenomenon in film music
Morricone’s work was by no means limited to the Italowestern: Ennio Morricone composed the score for the French action film The Professional [Le Professionnel, 1981] starring Jean Paul-Belmondo. The title tune Chi Mai became a instrumental music hit and accounts for much of the charm of the film The Professional.
The activity of the maestro of film music was by no means limited to a single genre or nation: Morricone often expressed his annoyance when he was reduced by an interviewer to a genre or even a single film.
His work is one of the most diverse in the world of film music and continues to serve as musical inspiration for film composers and hip-hop artists alike.
Cover picture: © Simon von Ludwig