Ennio Morricone, 1928–2020

Highlights of a Prolific and Celebrated Career

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Ennio Morricone, 1928–2020

Ennio Morricone recently passed away at the age of 91. Having worked until very near the end of his life, Morricone will be remembered primarily for his legendary career in film soundtracks and his pervasive influence on several generations of musicians across different genres. His career included lasting collaborations with a number of the most highly regarded directors in the world. Certainly his work for Sergio Leone and others in the Western genre, resulting in million-selling soundtracks, is familiar to most TAS readers and easily constitutes some of the most iconic and widely-appreciated film music ever made.

Those hoping to explore more of Morricone’s music should be aware that his soundtracks have been very well represented since the mid-90s in reissue and compilation formats. While it’s practically impossible to maintain a completist approach to these releases, it’s never been easier or more affordable to do a deep exploration. This is probably also the case for fans that prefer to collect the films themselves in DVD/Blu-ray formats in order to appreciate the music in context, although the audio releases often have unedited longer tracks and additions. Personally, I have opted for a mixed approach that leans toward Blu-ray films but also includes soundtrack LPs for certain favorites.  

For all the widely recognized classics such as Once Upon a Time in the West and The Mission, there are many other scores of the same quality; this is not a catalog where random picks represent a great risk. To begin to get a sense of the whole, one might start with lesser- known Westerns (The Great Silence, Two Mules for Sister Sara), a few horror titles (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, The Thing),  crime and action films (Diabolik, Le Professionel, Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion), European arthouse films (Teorema, Veruschka), and some of his more elegant and restrained work (Cinema Paradiso).

Morricone began studying music at a very young age, eventually including years of work with noted Italian composer Goffredo Petrassi. As a professional, Morricone began as an arranger for television and radio before moving into film. Aside from his many hundreds of soundtracks, he also left behind a large body of classical/modern compositions, collaborations with several decades of pop artists from around the world, music for commercials and sound libraries, and experimental/free improvisation with a group called Il Gruppo di Improvizzatione Nuova Consonanza. Nuova Consonanza has become better known than ever in recent years thanks to reissues of records that were previously very difficult to find, and a sampling of their output provides a good illustration of Morricone’s openness and playful side, which was clearly critical to all aspects of his career. There are often individual pieces, sounds, or ideas in any given work that defy expectations in a way that feels light and never cynical or rote. Humor, boundless yet concise melodic invention, and emotional depth were always present.

Since in most cases he was delivering recordings rather than scores, Morricone naturally had a stake in the recording process, which became a deep interest. He considered the recording engineers he worked with most closely to be important collaborators, and through his involvement in creating a large world class studio in Rome called Ortophonic with other like-minded composers, he had the means to ensure access to current equipment and techniques and the time to explore them. This interest and method of working was already evident in his 1960s Western scores with their guitar effects, close microphone techniques, extensive reverberation and equalization, and creation of what would otherwise be considered sound effects, and continued through his career as he incorporated automated mixing, digital effects, and looping. 

At the close of a prolific and celebrated career, it’s natural to note the work ethic and dedication required to produce such a huge body of work. In Morricone’s case, other themes that might help explain his success are a confident and grounded open-mindedness, a frequent lightness and playfulness, and, rather than having a few closely-guarded hard-won collaborators and a specific personal style, a willingness to have many different working relationships and embrace change and risk.