The famous composer made soundtrack music that lived on its own. Each piece was an expressive universe in itself.
Photo: Tiziana Fabi / AFP via Getty Images
My parents tell me that when I was a baby one of the few things that could keep me from crying was Ennio Morricone’s score for a handful of dollars. It certainly makes sense. I don’t know when I first heard the name “Morricone”; he is lost in this distant region of childhood inaccessible to memories. I remember the soundtrack of the LP – which also included the score for For a few dollars more, and featured a snarling close-up of Clint Eastwood on his orange-brown blanket – was a constant presence in our home, and I wore it out so badly that it eventually had to be taped and placed in a protective covering in plastic. Soon after, he was joined by the soundtrack album of Days of paradise, and several of the late maestro’s collections. When I was a kid, if you asked me who my favorite musician or band was, more often than not I would have answered Ennio Morricone.
For years, I took this as a sign that I was an adult and precocious child. But in recent years, as I tried to figure out what Morricone’s work had such an effect on me (and, as I eventually discovered, on so many others who also discovered his music when they were young), I realized that the appeal of music had almost nothing to do with me and everything to do with it.
Morricone’s classical composition is built around what begins as a very basic, sweet, almost childish melody – softly whistled or softly sung or played on a simple instrument, a solitary flute or a tinkling piano or even a sorry harpsichord; sometimes it’s a musical pocket watch. Hear the central motifs of A handful of dollars, Where For a few more dollars, Where Duck! you sucker, Where 1900, Where Come on Maddalena, Where The mission, Where The Tartar Desert, Where The bird with the crystal plumage. They might as well be lullabies. Of course, a child would have answered it.
It was Morricone’s genius. Or at least, part of it. Because he took such tender melodies and built dark and complicated sound worlds around them, mixing these lullabies with rock, jazz and sometimes even avant-garde. The sweet and singing air in the heart of a handful of dollars soon enters a chaotic universe of electric guitars, whips, bells, castanets and choral barks of “We can fight!” (And, in the opening credits of the movie, we also hear rhythmic gunshots over the music, which makes it feel like they might as well have been part of the score.) It’s beautiful. and primitive, maybe even a metaphor for life: one day you whistle happily, and the next thing you know, there are guitars, gunshots, bells, and men yelling at you. Music loses its innocence, but never its soul. The motif is under siege, but it endures and grows stronger, and all these disparate elements achieve a sort of glorious and galloping harmony.
Time and time again in Morricone’s work we hear this structure repeated. An innocent and expressive melody ambushed by distant drums and trumpets and improbable sound effects – animal cries, menacing dull noises, hyena howls, mysterious night chants – rolling towards a formidable new beauty. It was a perfect match for spaghetti westerns as it told the story of this whole subgenre, in which a group of Italian Marxists took this most American form and used it for their own ends, creating films that were both subversive. and forgiving. (Yes, they reinvented and breathed new life into the western, but really, they also ushered in the dissolution of the genre.)
A lot of people wrote and worked on Morricone’s music. I certainly did, and I do. (I listen Stanno Tutti Bene as of this writing.) My friends have. I know now George Pelecanos does. John Singleton wrote Boyz n the Hood powered by the music of Morricone. Without having to search, I would bet several body parts that Quentin Tarantino does. This also makes sense. The simplicity of his compositions – dramatic, evocative, never too busy – connects you to something elementary, and then allows you to build your own creation around the music. Just as music evolves from the disarmingly basic to the complex, you take one word, then another word, then a phrase, and you go from the simple to, hopefully, the complex and the deep, never losing the thread of it. that you’re trying to do – although most of us don’t end up with 1900 at the other end of it.
And then there are the occasional reversals of Morricone’s core approach, which are themselves magnificent. Take “Frank’s Introduction” from Once upon a Time in the West. Its opening is anything but soft: a piercing electric guitar crushes the opening notes, while an atonal harmonica swirls in the background as if blown by the wind. But watch how the play works in the movie itself. A boy has just seen his whole family massacred. Music does not have to build towards a loss of innocence; it’s happened before, and that first guitar squeaks against a sudden close-up of the child. Then, as the music acquires a sort of expansive grandeur, characters emerge from the bush – men in long coats, like something out of a Western dream (this is what, after all, Once upon a Time in the West is). And then, the camera turns around their leader to reveal his face, and we see that it is Henry Fonda, this eternal good guy of American cinema, who finally embodies a heartless villain. But maybe it’s also precisely at this point that we realize that the tune these aggressive electric guitars have been playing from the start is still, deep down, something melodious and lullaby – and for a fleeting moment the music calms down and we hear the central motif played softly, as the film cuts between close-ups of Fonda and the child. It’s a brief sham, a momentary feeling that maybe everything will be fine. It’s Henry Fonda, after all.
And then the music goes out… and Fonda shoots the boy. A horrible moment given to the mythical and existential power of Morricone’s music. The scene is over 50 years old at this point. I’ve probably seen it that many times, and I’ve certainly heard the song itself – one of Morricone’s best-known compositions – many, many more times. But none of that ever loses its power, because the music isn’t just about what’s happening on screen. Once upon a Time in the West, the film, is a masterpiece, but even so, its score could stand alone, and it does. You don’t need the movie at all. That’s what Morricone gave us, I think. Each piece was an expressive universe in itself. It was an original soundtrack, but it lived on its own. He was his own musical genre.