When Ennio Morricone received his Honorary Oscar in 2009, the generosity of his speech moved me deeply. He thanked the directors for their films and their faith in him. More importantly, to me, he said that receiving the Oscar is not a point of arrival, but of departure from which to keep working to improve his music in the service of cinema. Below are five of his movies that stand out in my mind.
The Hateful Eight
I thank Quentin Tarantino for giving Morricone the opportunity to create an original score for The Hateful Eight, for which the Academy honored Morricone with an Oscar for Best Original Score. Please listen to how the mysterious, ominous, compelling theme is woven expertly throughout the film. The low register of the bassoons and contrabassoons highlight the drama in a mesmerizing way, putting us under the music’s spell again and again. To understand more of the process, watch il Maestro at work in this clip of him conducting the music for the scene, “Ultima Diligenza per Red Rock” at the recording session, intercutting to that scene in the film.
Please watch the entire film and listen carefully to the detail of the score. It’s interesting to see how Morricone composes with, or in counterpoint to, the emotion of each scene. ‘Cues,’ or scene-specific music, are but part of a string of pearls that make up the score. One cue is like seeing only one of the figures in Picasso's Guernica.
I also highly recommend listening to his acceptance speech at the Oscars. Observing the man behind the music adds so much to understanding the creative genius behind it. His depth of emotion, grace, humility, and, above all, his love for his family and his work is very moving.
If you are not acquainted with the score for Roland Joffé’s remarkable film The Mission, please watch the interplay between the music and the film. I thank Joffé and his producers for hiring and bringing back Morricone to scoring films after he had decided to take a hiatus from work in the ‘80s because he was being underpaid. If not for the producers of The Mission paying him his due, we may never have had some of his subsequent scores. The exquisite music in Joffé’s film includes the moving composition “Gabriel’s theme.” Just listen to the long, exquisitely composed melodic line of the oboe. I listen to it and feel as if someone is sitting me down and telling me about the meaning of life. It is one of Maestro’s many extraordinarily profound and beautiful themes. It would be enough as the only theme in the score, yet other magnificent themes guide us through the drama and emotion of the story. For a different experience of the music, I invite you to watch il Maestro conduct the theme at St. Francis’s Church in Assisi for Natale.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
In comparison, we look at the creative brilliance of the tight eight-note phrase based on the call of a coyote in the iconic film score that defined the Italian Westerns. When you recall what I wrote about Leone and Morricone’s method of work, I hope you will experience The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in a deeper way. Considered the most iconic of all of Morricone’s film scores, to be able to say so much in so few notes is an extraordinary gift. What I love, and suggest you listen for, is Morricone’s use of everyday sounds woven into the ensembles of more traditional instrumentation, though his choices even there are unique. Morricone would use tin cans, typewriters, whip cracks, and all sorts of objects as part of his unique approach to connecting the music to our everyday world. Listen to how the themes and sounds help define the characters and their stories.
There are numerous films to exemplify this, but for his epic themes, we go to the film 1900, one of the many extraordinary films by the brilliant Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci. The score touches upon Italy’s folk music for the peasants and farmers, but also has the sweeping epic themes brilliantly orchestrated by Morricone. I paraphrase Bertolucci, who said that in his film score for 1900, Morricone created two or three national anthems for his country.
The Battle of Algiers
I like the story behind The Battle of Algiers and, of course, the film is amazing. I was surprised to learn that director Gillo Pontecorvo shared the composer credit with Morricone. I wonder how it worked out. It seems, from what the two have said, that Pontecorvo came up with the motif and Morricone wrote and supported everything around it. The score is quite unique in comparison to Morricone’s other scores.