In the spring of 2004, my junior year of high school, I enrolled in an elective that was split between Theatre Arts one semester and Analyzing Cinema the next. One of the more polarizing films shown in class was Sergio Leone’s epic Western The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – the class of 16 and 17-year-olds didn’t entirely jibe with the lengthy takes, surreal logic (complete with characters surprised by events that couldn’t be seen within the frame), or the score, which was firmly Western in terms of genre and compositional sensibility but was awash in cacophony, all howling vocals and thickly-plucked Stratocasters.
I was hooked, and thus began an appreciation for the work of Ennio Morricone, the legendary composer whose passing at the age of 91 was announced today. The Italian composer’s work is quite literally voluminous: some 400 scoring credits and an estimated 70 million records sold worldwide. The list of the most acclaimed titles would serve as a life’s work alone: Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy starring Clint Eastwood (A Fistful Of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and the aforementioned The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) and epics Once Upon a Time In The West and Once Upon a Time In America; John Carpenter’s The Thing (partially unused but recently remastered); Cinema Paradiso, The Mission and The Untouchables all the way to his first Oscar win for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015).
Morricone gradually earned and deserved a mainstream appreciation for his body of work that is traditionally only offered a few mainstream film composers. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was popular enough that Hugo Montenegro’s re-recording of the theme for RCA Victor peaked just under Simon & Garfunkel’s chart-topper “Mrs. Robinson” in 1968; the soundtrack to The Mission went gold a decade after its release, and a 2004 collaboration album with Yo-Yo Ma spent two years on Billboard‘s classical survey. A 2007 tribute album, succinctly titled We All Love Ennio Morricone, featured covers of his work by Bruce Springsteen, Quincy Jones, Celine Dion and Metallica.
A Roman trumpet prodigy who completed a four-year conservatory program in six months at the age of 12, he moved from arranger to ghostwriter before stepping out as a noted composer. It’s by this path that his music – and the feelings that come from it – came to matter above all. Perhaps, just as Leone was able to synthesize the myths and legends of America’s West to meaningful impact around the world, that was Morricone’s greatest gift.
The genius of Ennio Morricone will quite literally live on in the weeks, months and years to come; La-La Land Records is planning on debuting his score to the Clint Eastwood-Shirley MacLaine Western Two Mules For Sister Sara (1970) later this month. But for now, and for always, we have Il Maestro’s endlessly moving, deeply human music to soothe our hearts.