The Dreaming Arm’s occasional contributor Philip “We like birds we’re ornithologists/Postman Plod he’s a miserable sod, the tattoo on Biffa Bacon’s Mum’s arm, it’ll be ye ootside and ye’ll hoof us in the knackaz” Larkin is back to pay homage to arguably the world’s greatest living composer (and without a shadow of doubt the world’s greatest ever composer of soundtracks to 1960s spaghetti westerns and films about 18th century Jesuit missionaries in South America) Ennio Morricone.
I am sitting down to write this small tribute to one of the greatest modern composers for the blog before it is too late, and he has passed on. CW and myself have prevaricated and “hummed and hawed” about this piece, but happily the legend that is Morricone still remains with us today. Morricone will never read what I have written, but I feel it only fair that the blog should acknowledge him: CW and I are both big fans. I very much regret not going to a concert of his in London a number of years ago, but if such an event ever happens again (and I hope that it will), you may bet that I will be in the audience, whatever my circumstances may be. I am writing this piece to the haunting strains of the “Ecstasy of Gold” which accompanied the frenzied searches of Tuco for buried gold in the vast cemetery during the final scenes in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Some people in this world have an instinctive genius for being able to stir deep emotions within us, accessing these by a profound knowledge of what fires our most primitive senses. Winston Churchill was able to do this through the medium of words: his speeches remain possibly his greatest legacy to the United Kingdom and its people. Laurie Lee, in his Cider with Rosie had a similar talent for choosing exactly the right combination of words to evoke pictures in our mind’s eye of a young boy growing up in the Cotswolds in the 1920s. I would say that Ennio Morricone, the Italian composer of whom I write, similarly possesses this wonderful talent, except that he expresses it through the medium of music. It is as if he visualises human emotion like the cords of a violin, and knows instinctively which ones to play in order to produce a wonderful reaction in each of us.
I do not know much about his background, except that he is obviously Italian and has been classically educated in music. For those who are unfamiliar with the name of Ennio Morricone, he wrote the music for many of Sergio Leone’s Western Films, for example, A Fistful of Dollars, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, For a Few Dollars More, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Once Upon a Time in America, to name but a few. Practically everyone knows at least some of these tunes. In addition to the work he did for Leone, Morricone also composed the highly memorable soundtrack for the film The Mission, and so many other pieces that it would be tedious to try and catalogue them here. I feel personally that his music works in particularly perfect harmony with Leone’s films, their look and feel, their mood, and their environment. This partnership may have worked so well because both were Italians and Latins, and had an instinctive understanding of what the other was looking for.
Morricone’s background music never fails to capture the right mood in a film scene, and almost draws the viewer deeper into the ambience of the picture. Who can fail to be moved by the strains of “Death of a Soldier”, when Clint Eastwood’s ministers to a mortally wounded young confederate, dying alone, in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly? In that same film, (and with a similar music score), during the scene when Tuco and the man with no name enter the monastery for help, we are filled with empathy and compassion at the sight of the monks in simple brown habits binding and washing the wounds of the helpless, starving, confederate refugees. Sticking with The Good…etc, remember that part when our two anti-heroes, Eastwood and Wallach, are marched into a dust caked, fly-blown prisoner of war camp by their Union captors? By the use of the whistling and ever-so-slightly wistful marching tune, we almost can believe that we are being shepherded to the same camp.
Changing the film and the mood entirely, remember the wonderful score in Once Upon a Time in the West which accompanies Claudia Cardinale’s character as she alights from the train and we see the birth of a bustling new western town, and the music conveys both hope for future progress, but also wistful regret at the demise of the old “Wild West” and its (often warped) code of honour? In our deepest core we know, without realising it, that civilization as represented by the new town spells death to the Old West, yet the mere footage in this film of the stage town alone could not convey this knowledge to the viewer: Morricone’s musical score darkly hints at the notion in our sub-conscious. Sometimes the melancholy invoked by Ennio’s pieces can be almost overpowering: I would not recommend anyone in a dark mood to listen to “Deborah’s Theme” from Once Upon a Time in America.
Part of the reason for Morricone’s success is that he is prepared to be highly innovative in his approach to musical scores. For instance, during one duel scene in For a Few Dollars More, the feverish, oven-like tension is accentuated by the sepulchral strains of organ music punctuating the classic Western stand-off. Similarly, no other composer could have made work as well as Ennio the frog croaking “wop, wop, wop” “March of the Peasants” in A Fistful of Dynamite. Neither, as with the “Ecstasy of Gold”, was he scared to use female soprano singing in the score. Somehow, the music seems entirely appropriate to the scene of the film.
Some people take a very snobbish view towards composers such as Ennio Morricone, accusing them of being “populist”, and selling their work for pure profit. I do not agree. Ennio’s work has touched the lives of millions of people, even without us being aware of it, and brought fine music within the remit of those of us who do not ordinarily know our Rachmaninov from our Tchaikovsky.
Good on you Ennio!