Ennio Morricone - Film Composer Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Ennio Morricone - Film Composer

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In and around the 1960s, something happened to America's favourite film genre; the Western. Cowboys got dirty, and started staring evilly from under their universally dark hats. No one was shooting the guns out of each other's hands anymore; now they were playing for keeps. The source of this new kind of western was not Hollywood, it was Italy. The spaghetti western had arrived, bringing a grimier view of the Old West, and a whole new sound that would rock the world of western scores.

The man behind that sound was Italian composer Ennio Morricone.


Ennio Morricone was born in Rome, on 10 November, 1928. At the age of ten, he entered the Santa Cecilia Conservatory, studying trumpet. Here, he impressed his teachers greatly, being selected for a tour of Veneta at 13, raised from the complementary harmony to principal harmony courses, and beginning to study composition at 16. He concluded his study of composition in 1954 with a grade of 9.5/10, having already attained a 9/10 for band instrumentation, although he abandoned a course in choral music and direction.

After a brief spell 'ghost-writing' scores1 for other composers, Morricone spent a short time in the military. He began arranging music for television variety shows in 1960. He wrote his first soundtrack in 1961, for Luciano Salce's Il Federale, but his career as a film composer remained lacklustre until he was hired by Sergio Leone to compose the score for the seminal spaghetti western Per un Pugno di Dollari (A Fistful of Dollars) in 1964.

The influence of the 'Dollar' series (Per Qualche Dollaro in Piu/For a Few Dollars More in 1965, and Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo/The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in 1966 following A Fistful of Dollars) on western scores, both in Italy and in Hollywood, can only be compared to the influence that the spaghetti westerns, and in particular the films of Sergio Leone, had on the western genre as a whole. Even as Hollywood cowboys began to get darker, so their soundtracks began to drift away from stirring orchestral works towards the more disconcerting likes of Morricone's twanging guitars and wordless vocals.

The Morricone Canon

Like many composers, Ennio Morricone has come to be associated with a particular type of film, in his case, the spaghetti western. As in most of these instances, this typecasting is utterly unfair. Morricone has composed over 400 scores in his career - and continues to compose and conduct, despite his advancing age - across a variety of styles and genres. He has written for westerns (including seven collaborations with Leone), thrillers (including a trilogy of Italian 'giallo'2 movies for cult director Dario Argento), horror movies (such as John Carpenter's The Thing), historical dramas (his widely-acclaimed score for The Mission is often held to have been unfairly denied an Oscar), political comedy (Bullworth), straight drama (such as his five films with Bernardo Bertolucci) and science fiction (Mission to Mars).

The fact that - despite five nominations - Ennio Morricone has never won an Academy Award is often considered nothing short of scandalous; not least by Morricone himself, who felt deeply cheated when the score of The Mission lost out to the jazz soundtrack for 'Round Midnight in 1987.

That score really deserved the Oscar and everybody thought it would get it... The music to that film really represents everything I am - both on a technical and spiritual level.
Ennio Morricone talking to BBC News Online

Away from the Oscars, Morricone has found greater acclaim, winning five BAFTA awards and two Golden Globes - one of each for The Mission - as well as a Grammy for David Mamet's The Untouchables. He has also won assorted David di Donatello3, Cesar4 and other European awards for his work on non-English language films. No less spectacularly - although some might say unfairly - his scores for The Thing and Butterfly actually netted Morricone an unenviable double Golden Raspberry nomination for worst Musical Score in 1983.

More information on Morricone's work can be found at his entry at the Internet Movie Database.


Ennio Morricone is a minimalist, in the best possible sense. He rarely uses big, orchestral sweeps, favouring instead the use of a strong theme played on a few instruments. His most memorable scores typically utilise a single instrument as the centre of the piece, a lone voice against a background, usually of strings, or in the case of the spaghetti westerns, those jangling guitars. These central themes usually reflect the central character of the film or of the scene, while the accompaniment reflects the backdrop of the film, be it placid or chaotic. Often, as well as using this central instrumental theme as a voice, Moriconne will use voices as instruments, and choral or solo singing in his scores is typically wordless.

Morricone is also not afraid to make a bad noise when called for. It is not that his music is bad, but his celluloid music is written for the film, not for the concert hall, and where appropriate, the score can become jarring, almost painful to listen to, as in the case of the marvellous cacophony of 'Death Rattle' from Once Upon a Time in the West. In 'Death Rattle' the voice-theme - playing alone, without backdrop - reflects a dying character's last, stumbling movements; stuttering, stopping, starting again, and finally dying in a drawn out, unmusical rattle.

Outstanding Works

Theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

Not the first, but the most famous, not only of Ennio Morricone's but of all western scores. The whistled theme, and the wailing vocals - inspired by the cries of coyotes - have been reused time and again as the riffs in pop songs, and homaged in a dozen showdown scenes, and for many are the absolute ideal of western scoring. The racing, cacophonic blare of cornets which follows this legendary introduction is less familiar, but encapsulates the chaotic nature of the western setting; the harsh, lawless and nonsensical backdrop of Leone's films.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)

Once Upon a Time in the West is an outstanding score, including the foreboding 'Man With the Harmonica', the laconic 'Farewell to Cheyenne', and the almost painfully atonal 'Death Rattle'. Beyond this, however, it is notable for the fact that it was not only written before the movie was shot, but that Morricone actually conducted the music, on set and location, while the film was being made. Consequently, it is integral to the timing and mood of the film in a way that few other scores, however good, can be.

Gabriel's Oboe, from The Mission (1986)

Regarded by many - including Moriconne - as his best work, the score from The Mission proves beyond any doubt that the composer has far more to him than spaghetti western themes. 'Gabriel's Oboe' is the pinnacle of the work, with subtle strings providing the background for a hauntingly peaceful theme, played on a single oboe, before taking up the theme themselves. Then the strings die down, and the theme is repeated once more on the oboe, once again alone.

Further Reading

1He was either arranging material, or even writing it himself without credit.2Giallo is a type of Italian thriller. The term comes from the colour - yellow - used on the covers of books of this type, a similar derivation to the term 'pulp fiction'.3The premier Italian film industry awards.4The premier French film industry awards.

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