The famous composer created 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 make me stop 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 loses himself in that distant region of childhood inaccessible to memories. I remember that the soundtrack LP – which also included the score of For a few dollars more, and featured a snarling close-up of Clint Eastwood on its orange-brown cover – was a constant presence in our home, and I’ve worn it so badly that it eventually had to be fortified with duct tape and placed in a protective covering in plastic. Soon after, it was joined by the soundtrack album of sky days, and many of the collections of the late maestro. When I was a kid, if you had asked me who was my favorite musician or band, most often I would have said Ennio Morricone.
For years I took this as a sign of the precocious adult child that I was. But in recent years, as I tried to figure out what was in Morricone’s work that 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 the music had almost nothing to do with me and everything to do with him.
Morricone’s classical composition is built around what begins as a very basic, soft, almost childlike melody – softly whistled or softly crooned or played on a simple instrument, a solitary flute or tinkling piano or even a desolate harpsichord; sometimes it’s a musical pocket watch. Listen to the central motifs of A fistful of dollars, Where For a few dollars more, Where Duck! You suckerWhere 1900Where Come MaddalenaWhere The missionWhere The Tartar DesertWhere The bird with crystal plumage. They might as well be lullabies. Of course, a child would have answered them.
It was Morricone’s genius. Or at least, part of it. Because he took such tender melodies and built around them dark and complicated sound worlds, 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, whippings, bells, castanets and the choral barking of “We can fight!” (And, in the film’s opening credits, we also hear rhythmic gunfire over the music, which makes it sound 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’re whistling happily, and the next thing you know there’s guitars, gunshots, bells and men shouting at you above. Music loses its innocence, but never its soul. The motif is beleaguered, but it endures and gains strength, and all these disparate elements achieve a kind of glorious, galloping harmony.
Over and over again in Morricone’s work we hear this structure repeated. An innocent, expressive melody ambushed by distant drums and trumpets and improbable sound effects – animal cries, menacing knocks, hyena moans, mysterious nocturnal songs – rolling towards a fearsome new beauty. It was a perfect fit for spaghetti westerns because it told the story of that whole subgenre, in which a group of Italian Marxists took that most American form and used it for their own ends, creating movies that were both subversive and indulgent. (Yes, they reinvented and breathed new life into the western, but really, they also ushered in the dissolution of the genre.)
Many people have written and worked on Morricone’s music. I certainly did, and I do. (I listen Stanno Tutti Bene as I write this.) My friends did. I know now George Pelecanos does. John Singleton wrote Boyz in the hood powered by the music of Morricone. Without having to look, I’d bet several body parts that Quentin Tarantino does. All of this also makes sense. The simplicity of his compositions – dramatic, evocative, never too busy – connects you to something elemental, and then allows you to build your own creation around the music. As the music evolves from disarmingly basic to complex, you take a word, then another word, then a phrase, and move from simple to hopefully complex and deep, never losing the line of what you’re trying to do – even though most of us don’t end up with 1900 at the other end of it.
And then there are the occasional inversions of Morricone’s basic 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 piece works in the film itself. A boy has just seen his whole family massacred. Music doesn’t have to build towards a loss of innocence; it’s happened before, and that first guitar creaks against a sudden close-up of the child. Then, as the music acquires a kind of expansive grandeur, figures emerge from the maquis—men in long overcoats, as if from a Western dream (which, 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 man of American cinema, finally portraying a heartless villain. But it may also be at this very moment that we realize that the tune those aggressive electric guitars have been playing throughout is still, deep down, something melodic and lullaby – and for a fleeting moment , the music quiets down and we hear the central motif playing softly, as the film cuts between close-ups of Fonda and the child. It’s a brief feint, a momentary feeling that maybe things will be okay. It is Henry Fonda, after all.
And then the music goes off…and Fonda shoots the boy. A horrible moment to which Morricone’s music gives a mythical and existential power. 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 times. But none of that ever loses its power, because 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 on its own, and 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 soundtrack music, but it lived on its own. He was his own musical genre.