1978 was a watershed moment in the career of Ennio Morricone, seeing him nab his first Oscar nomination for Terence Malick's acclaimed "Days of Heaven", the visually astonishing, if emotionally distant, tale of 1920s factory workers who flee the city to work in the wheat fields. Of course, their anticipated utopia turns out to be anything but, Nestor Almendros' lushly tranquil "golden hour" photography contrasting with the more complex human dynamics at the centre, as seen through the eyes of Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Linda Manz.
For the film, Morricone composed one of his most exquisite, spine-tingling masterpieces, although, frustratingly, Malick gave as much weight to Saint-Saen's Carnival of the Animals in the final sound mix (a similar situation befell James Horner on The New World). For his own part, Morricone has always had a seemingly preternatural ability to concoct spellbindingly beautiful melodies out of thin air but it's hard to top Days of Heaven's opener, "Harvest", an intoxicating, deeply moving, pastoral four note theme passed between soft winds and stately strings. It's absolutely gorgeous; but, in deference to the films narrative, perhaps with more than a hint of melancholia underneath. "Threshing" is a change of pace: a clipped piano keeping pace with more rhythmic strings, capturing the mechanised nature of the labourers around whom the film pivots.
The beauty is taken to the next level in "Happiness", featuring some of the loveliest woodwind writing ever to come from Morricone's pen. It's a perfect rendition of the pastoral idyll the characters find but of course it can't last and the score moves into much darker territory. "The Honeymoon" maintains the melodic air but is a tad despondent, while "The Chase" is a thrilling piece of string/piano based action music.
In between, a new theme is introduced for "The Return", a hauntingly low key piece for acoustic guitar, almost anticipating an imminent change of pace. "The Fire" on the other hand sees Morricone's equally awesome gift for composing despair, an abrasive, minimalist rhythm rising up to operatic proportions as the soothing music of earlier is consumed, the plaintive woodwinds crying out in counterpoint. Subsequently, "Ashes and Dust" which follows features a colder version of the main theme, a more mature sound in the wake of the preceding tragedy. The wind interval in the middle is heartbreakingly sad, lamenting the events seen in the film, before a reprise of The Return theme in "Days of Heaven" concludes the score, finishing on a considerably more downbeat note than when it started.
A score such as Days of Heaven shows Morricone's storytelling prowess at its peak, balancing thematic integrity with rich melodies and innovative asides. Which is why it's so frustrating that the score has never been released on CD on its own, coming as a double feature alongside another hidden gem, Two Mules for Sister Sara, from 1970. Don Siegel's film stars a pre-Dirty Harry Clint Eastwood as a lone gunman who teams up with nun Shirley MacLaine.
Musically, it inspired Morricone to write in his spaghetti western vein, albeit in a more low key sense, allowing the focus to go on the brilliantly intricate interplay between aspects of the orchestra. All the ingredients are there: jaw harps, high winds, martial strings, vocals (in this case fragmentary female voices uttering presumably Italian lamentations), to create a gripping, eccentric, hip atmosphere. Main Title introduces us to the quirky brew, but the most intriguing aspect of the Sister Sara score is the amount of variation Morricone wrings from the acoustic guitar, inviting comparisons with his earlier classics, yet at the same time stripping the focus down so we can hear what the instrument is really capable of. "Night on the Desert" features some fiendishly intricate acoustic work alongside the piercing sound of the oboe and wooden percussion.
These stylistics continue in the lengthy "Sister Sara's Theme", a prolonged example of remarkable instrumental performance, balancing the guitar alongside hooting wind effects and castanets. Throughout, the score maintains a remarkably hypnotic atmosphere, especially in tracks such as "The Braying Mule" where the emphasis flits around at ease between the guitar (taking up the vocal melody), winds and woodblocks. The standout track however has to be "The Battle", a controlled yet ferociously exciting piece of action music from a longstanding composer not especially famous for it; there's more than a hint of Jerry Goldsmith in the rumbling piano beneath the chopping strings, brass calls and percussion.
Ultimately, there are two equally excellent scores here from one of modern cinema's finest dramatists, ones that demonstrate the flipsides of Morricone's career. On the one hand a superb innovator (how did he reinvent his own "standard" western sound so often?), on the other possibly the finest tunesmith and melody maker film music has ever seen, it's tempting to buy it just for the more accessible Days of Heave... but this would be wrong. Truly these are both masterpieces from a master composer and both are worthy in one's collection.