Ennio Morricone: A Fistful of Film Music

In just four short years from 1964 to 1968, Italian film director Sergio Leone and the soon-to-be-prolific composer Ennio Morricone made four groundbreaking movies together.

A Fistful Of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good The Bad and The Ugly, and  Once Upon a Time in The West were all cowboy pictures, and among the few movies filmed in Italy and Spain to find box office success in the States at the time. Americans audiences – first derisively, and then admiringly – dubbed them the “Spaghetti Westerns”.

As cinema, these movies were masterful pulp that inspired a hundred trope-filled copycats. As soundtracks, they would forever change the way music could be used in film.

The Loudest Silence You’ll Ever Hear

If certain moments in Leone’s films seem like a precursors to the music video, that’s because they are.

Each of these Westerns is marked by long stretches of slow-rising tension, free of dialogue and punctuated by brief flurries of stylized violence. Whenever Morricone’s music is present in a Leone film, the effect is beyond mere “over-scoring.” It’s central to the experience.

In the climax to Once Upon A Time in The West, two duelists stare each other down for more than 8 full minutes. They’re interrupted, just barely, by 9 simple words of dialogue and a brief flashback. The scene, dominated by extreme closeups of Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda’s weathered faces, is equally dominated by Morricone’s harrowing score.

Without his music, the sequence would probably be unwatchable. With it – a lone, dissonant harmonica supported by tonal and commanding strings – the scene is tense, heavy, gripping, and in an instant, it’s over.

Leone himself said that that Morricone’s music “stood in for a lot of the dialogue”.

Or, in the words of one reviewer, “These are operas where the arias aren’t sung – They’re stared.”


(The gripping climax of Once Upon a Time in the West. If you’re afraid of spoilers, feel free to read this study on why spoilers don’t actually spoil anything.)

As a modern Americans, we’ve been trained to shy away from movies like these, and smartphone addicts may find them difficult to watch at times. To the unconvinced, they can seem like kitschy relics, shopworn and overlong. But to his fans, Leone’s westerns are meditative, darkly comic, and endlessly watchable.

Regardless of how well Leone’s films have aged, Morricone’s scores have fared flawlessly and are as novel, unexpected and as inviting now as they were then.  Each of them does everything a great score should: They’re sweet but haunting, tense yet satisfying, lyrical and comic all at the same time.

You're Welcome

Your reward for staring at 8-minutes-worth of surly cowboys set on killing each other: Claudia Cardinale as Jill in Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West

According to Morricone, Leone wanted “simple themes” that were “easy on the ear”, what he called “tonal, popular themes”. But he also saw the the south of Texas, where these films take place, as a “passionate, overheated place,” and Morricone has said that “I tried to recreate in my music, a sense of wilderness.”

This balance is where he succeededs most. In his piece “Sixty Seconds to What?” from For A Few Dollars More, a music-box is overlaid with castanets and an aggressively strummed classical guitar. Suddenly, they’re overtaken by the sound of a overdriven church organ that vanishes in the face of mournful mariachi fanfare.

These unexpected jumps in sound and mood still sound startling and unrestrained, even after countless listens.

The Father Of Modern Arrangement

Ennio Morricone

Ennio Morricone

Although he is a strong and inventive writer, Morricone’s greatest innovations were textural.

Shortly after earning his degree in composition, he left a life of teaching and writing contemporary “serious” music in order to earn comparatively meager wages as an arranger in the Italian recording industry. According to Leone biographer Christopher Frayling, Morricone became known in Italy as “the father of modern arrangement”.

To him, “all sounds are in the realm of music.” In his scores, sections of the symphony are replaced with bells and whips, jaw harp, electric guitar, or a lone whistler. Harmonicas are layered with operatic singer, and the unmistakable crack of a shaken spring reverb tank is notated onto the page. Morricone would take inspiration from the sound of a coyote’s howl, the clacking of a typewriter, or the slow squeak of a windmill, and work them all into his orchestrations.

But for all this adventuring, Morricone’s scores never sound “experimental”. They’re palatable and memorable, novel without sounding gimmicky.

Perhaps his greatest obstacle is that his best works with Leone (such as the theme to The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly) can suffer the same challenges faced by Chopin’s Funeral March or Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Because so few of us can remember a time when these tunes were unfamiliar, the actual pieces become all-to-easy to take for granted. Without hearing them in their entirety, it’s hard to imagine that the melodies which have been so frequently referenced and parodied would captivate modern listeners. But they can and do.

The first time I listened to the theme  from The Good The Bad and The Ugly from start to finish, I had the same reaction I’ve seen in musician friends many times since: The jaded, preemptive boredom melts away, the jaw slackens, and a look overcomes the fact that seems to say: “Wow. I had no idea it was this… good.”

A Man Of Texture

Morricone’s genius in this period was in writing simple, interlocking lines that allowed him to explore timbre, space and nuance. This focus led to the creation of sounds that were nearly impressionistic caricatures of themselves.

Good, Bad, UglySo many of his unique textures are difficult to duplicate with studio trickery. This is because,  for the most part, they’re manipulated at the source. That may be one of the best lessons producers and musicians of today can take from his scores.

Instead of fussing with studio machinery, Morricone had to work with his players individually to coax them into making unconventional statements on their instruments. He solicited unorthodox new sounds by trying unusual combinations of textures, and most of all, he would put his energy into finding sounds to suit his musical lines, rather than the other way around.

As of today, Morricone still invents new sounds — sometimes to replace old ones. When he tours the world with a symphony to perform his scores live, a clarinet is played in a way it was never intended to approximate the coyote calls of The Good The Bad And The Ugly. It’s eeire, both like and unlike the original recording, and it’s perfect.

At First, He Hated It.

The other key lesson to take from these scores is that at the start, Leone resisted even talking with Morricone. Quite simply, he hated the guy’s work.

Morricone with director Sergio Leone

Morricone with director Sergio Leone

When they finally met at the behest of Leone’s studio, Morricone cheerfully presented the director with a grade-school photograph that showed they were once in the same class.

Leone was cordial but unimpressed. He’d heard the scores Morricone had done for a couple of earlier low-budget westerns and thought they were abysmal. (For the most part, that’s true.) Leone called them, as politely as he could, “Dimitri Tiomkin-lite.”

Editor’s Note: For those of us who don’t know him, Tiomkin was a Russian-born composer who has the ironic distinction of  leaving the Soviet Union to make his career composing innocuous scores to the most apple-pie of mainstream 1950s American blockbusters.

Morricone was unfazed, and surprisingly mercenary, saying that since the director had wanted a Tiomkin-lite score, so it was his duty to deliver one. By these standards, it was a success.

For him, there was no “selling out” and “not selling out.” There was “feeding his family” or “not feeding his family”; “realizing the aesthetic goals of a film” or “failing”. As brilliant as he could be, Morricone began as a workingman’s composer in every way. If his earliest directors wanted schmaltzy unobtrusive underscoring, they got it. Leone, who wanted something uncompromising, unusual and irreverent, would get that in droves.

The Origins of the Spaghetti Sound

A few years earlier, Morricone had worked with an aspiring American folk singer named Peter Tevis. Tevis had come to Italy to take advantage of the expert musical instruction he could afford thanks to a strong U.S. dollar.

In what was probably a misguided move, the folk singer trained with accomplished, classical voice instructors whose influence left him with a style that was hokiness personified: Dylan-esque 60s folk sung in a pale Pavarotti impression.

Although Tevis’ albums are tough to listen to, Morricone’s arrangements for them were unlike anything else at the time, and Leone decided to plunder them.

When the two met, Morricone dug up an unsual arrangement he wrote for a Peter Tevis performance of Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures A Plenty”. Upon hearing it, Leone changed his tune instantly: “Ennio,” he would say, “You’ve made the film. Go to the beach. Your work is over. That’s what I want. Just get a hold of someone who is good at whistling.”

Morricone would enlist longtime friend Alessandro Alessandroni, who he said “could whistle as if it was a musical instrument like any other…One thing is for certain, without the sound of [his] whistle those films wouldn’t be what they are.”

Alessandroni bragged that  while others’ whistles were “50% air”, his was “90% note.” And there’s truth to that; his is a rare whistle that the microphone loves.  In addition, he would play electric guitar and direct his own chorus of singers, the Cantori Moderni, to provide an accompaniment of unforgettably unusual harmonies.

Doing The Job

The underlying lesson here is that Morricone landed his contract with Leone because he kept his cool approached it like a job.  Westerns weren’t his first love, but he turned this slim opportunity into a significant one, and once he got the job, invested himself in it deeply.

Clint Eastwood, the American star of these pictures, came to work in Spaghetti Westerns in a similarly mercenary way.

He was acting in supporting TV roles at the time, and finding it impossible to break into feature films. Eastwood took the part of Leone’s “Man With No Name” simply because it was the only feature role that was available for him to do. His gamble was that Fistful Of Dollars would either become a huge international hit, or remain completely unseen in the United States, and would never come back to haunt him.

As the sole American star on set, Eastwood was surprised to find out that one of the reasons Morricone’s scores were so stylized is that the Italians shot entirely without sound. Whatever sound effects or dialogue appeared would have to be dubbed later, if possible, by the actors appearing on-screen. Eastwood himself didn’t even record his parts until years after the Italian-language version had taken that country by storm.

At first, he found it unnerving to adjust to shooting scenes in an environment where no one said “quiet on the set!.” He would have to learn how to remember his cues as crewmen chatted idly with one another in the background, or (literally) took to playing frisbee during the shoot.

To everyone’s surprise, what began as a mercenary endeavor quickly became a main creative outlet for all the parties involved.

Beginning with The Good The Bad And The Ugly, Leone demanded that his studio come up with a budget that would allow Morricone to compose his scores long before filming even began.

While composers generally score to picture, writing their music to a final cut of the film, Leone wanted Morricone’s score available on set so that he would be able to shoot his film to the score instead.

To a man who’s talents he once dismissed, it was the ultimate compliment.

Ennio Morricone

Morricone, here looking over scores in the studio, composed at his office desk rather than at the piano.

Watch and listen to Morricone conduct The Ecstasy of The Gold  from The Good The Bad And The Ugly.

Watch and listen to the final 3-way Duel to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Or, buy some of Ennio Morricone’s records. Any best of collection, or better yet, original complete soundtrack is a good call.

This entry was posted in All Stories, From The Vaults, Music: Making it, Listening to it., September 2011. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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