Morricone is best known for his Spaghetti Western scores, particularly for the "Dollar" series starring Clint Eastwood. These are a small sample of his partnership with classmate and director Sergio Leone, who produced a large number of films during the 60s and beyond, often released in Italian and then dubbed into English. With this combination of the Italian background and the tough-guy western, it is perhaps not surprising that the partnership also made some gangster films. If you include "Two Mules for Sister Sara" and "In the Line of Fire" it also seems as though Morricone (like Lalo Schifrin) worked regularly with Clint Eastwood! Although English speaking cinema-goers only became aware of him with the appearance of these westerns, Morricone was an established composer prior to this. He was born in Rome in 1928 and studied trumpet and composition there at the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia, as had Nino Rota previously. His subsequent career brought his music to radio and television as well as the concert hall, before scoring films for the Italian cinema.
Morricone's music stood out on those early Western movies as something quite new and original. With its unusual instruments and sound combinations it seems to fill in for the action when the characters are in close-up, eyeing each other and waiting for the first move. Then it punctuates the scene like a punch-line when the action is all over in a flash. The composer seemed to have the right musical instincts to emphasise the screen portrayal of legendary, larger than life characters. Those instincts could also create a timeless reverential aura for a story spanning generations for "Cinema Paradiso" and the same timeless magic is recreated for "The Untouchables" and "Once upon a Time in America". As well as these broad slow themes, "Once upon a Time in America" occasionally breaks out into period dance numbers or Dixieland Jazz. It also includes some unusual instrumentation, such as panpipes and banjo. This ability to juxtapose different styles came to the fore in "Two Mules for Sister Sarah" where he highlighted both pseudo-serious and lighter comic elements to combine the nun's supposed religious background with the suggestion of a mule's braying and trotting gait (see Humour in Music).
These examples highlight the composer's knack for deftly spanning the divide between the sublime and the ridiculous, with his seeming ability to mix unusual sound combinations and trashy pop elements with an atmosphere of legendary or religious reverence. This quasi-religious element, although often present as a subliminal undercurrent, became uppermost to great effect in the score for The Mission. This mixes hymn-like chorales with poignant solos, wordless ethnic chanting, drums and panpipes to bring out the South American jungle setting. The exhuberant chanting uses short detached notes, an usual effect which Morricone also employed on his well-known piece called Chi Mai. First used in the film "Maddalena", this theme was used again in "The Professional" and later the BBC also used it for the Television series "The Life and Times of David Lloyd-George".
Ennio Morricone received an honorary oscar for his contribution to film music, presented by Clint Eastwood at the oscar ceremony in 2007. Morricone has had a total of 5 nominations for Days of Heaven (1978), The Mission (1986), "The Untouchables" (1987), "Bugsy" (1991) and "Malèna" (2000), but had not yet won the winner's statuette. Check out our review of the composer's Concert given in London in 2010, 7 years after his previous conducting appearence in the city.
In his long career Morricone has collaborated with many artists and in the past 2 years there has been 2 concept albums with the composer specially adapting his film music for two very different singers to interpret. In 2011 "Paradiso" was released by Hayley Westenra (available at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com), and in 2012 "Morricone Uncovered" was released by Romina Arena (available at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com). After a long association with tracks included on the director's films "Kill Bill" (1 & 2), "Inglourious Basterds" and "Django Unchained", Quentin Tarrantino has finally convinced Morricone to score his latest film The Hateful Eight. Although the album features song tracks and dialogue tracks, the compoer's score is well worth a listen.
In 2015 Morricone composed a Mass called "Missa Papae Francisci" in honour of Pope Francis, and in 2019 Morricone (now aged 90) in turn was awarded with the Gold Medal of the Pontificate for his services to music, peace and spirituality.
The composer has many credit in television for theme tunes, incidental music and one-off use of existing music on the soundtrack. Though much of this work is for Italian television, English-speaking viewers will be familiar with some of his TV work, so here is a small sample:
You will find almost any CD by Ennio Morricone to be rewarding. Check out our review of The Mission or listen to any collection of Great Western Themes which will no doubt include several by Morricone. There are some links below to essential Morricone soundtracks.
Although sometimes hard to find, there are now several sheet music publications with music by Ennio Morricone. The following items can be ordered from these online stores: