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Ennio Morricone: The Sound of the Movies

An appreciation of the Italian film composer who changed how moviegoers heard the Wild West— and gave us some of the most memorable scores of all time

Ennio Morricone, conducting a session in the U.K. in 2001. The Italian composer passed away at the age of 91.

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Scoring over 500 movies and television shows, as well as over 100 classical works, film composer Ennio Morricone (who passed away at 91) wrote, orchestrated, and toured ceaselessly, refining and expanding his repertoire to accommodate different visions and the ever-shifting sounds of the day. Yet despite its eclecticism — or rather, because of it — the music of “the Maestro,” as many called him, was unmistakably Morricone after the first few bars. His name would become synonymous with the spaghetti Western, particularly his collaborations with director Sergio Leone on films like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the Dollars trilogy, and Once Upon a Time in the West. But he lent his services to host of other great filmmakers, too, including Bernardo Bertolucci, Dario Argento, Don Siegel, Brian De Palma, John Carpenter, and Quentin Tarantino, whose Western The Hateful Eight earned him his only Oscar for Best Original Score.

Morricone was born in Rome in 1928 and never left Italy, so resistant to courtship from Hollywood that he never gained fluency in English. (His emotional acceptance speech for an honorary Oscar in 2007 features translation from Clint Eastwood, Leone’s favorite star.) Morricone wrote his first composition at age six, and showed prodigious gifts were apparent when he entered the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, a famed conservatory, at 12 and wrapped up a four-year harmony program for trumpet in six months. In his early career, Morricone wrote orchestral pieces and played in a jazz band, but his extraordinary malleability as an artist eventually brought him to RCA, where he became a top studio arranger and composed music for popular artists. It’s a sign of the breadth of his work that songs later written for Pet Shop Boys, k.d. lang, Andrea Bocelli, Sting, and others barely register as a footnote.

In the early ’60s, Morricone transitioned into composing film scores, cutting his teeth on light comedies, but two events in the year 1964 would determine the course of his career. First, he joined Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza (or “Il Gruppo”), a collective of classical music composers dedicated to incorporating improvisation and avant-garde techniques into their work. Then he was hired by Leone to write the score for the spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars, beginning a director-composer collaboration as significant as Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock or John Williams and Steven Spielberg. All the elements of a Morricone score were in place: A simple, memorable hook — here by a strong whistle overlaying a gentle acoustic strum — supported by unexpected embellishments, including the sound of gunfire, the clomping of horse feet, the clang of a church bell, and a more robust guitar line.

Morricone’s music transformed the Western genre in concert with Leone, giving the wide-open spaces of a traditional oater an offbeat, alien majesty that heightened the action and poetic longueurs of Leone’s work. Everyone remembers the howls, yodels, whistles, and whipcracks that buttress the main theme to 1966’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, perhaps his most famous score, but the key sequences in the film that would be absurdly drawn-out without Morricone’s support. “The Ecstasy of Gold,” an exquisite fusion of piano and horns that rides strings, drums, and a female soloist to a rousing crescendo, runs over shots of Eli Wallach dashing around a graveyard. “The Trio,” accompanying the climactic three-way showdown, uses blasts of trumpet to give a slow-developing scene an unforgettably epic quality.

In accepting the Golden Globe on Morricone’s behalf for The Hateful Eight, Tarantino, who’d sampled the Maestro’s work before in Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds, likened him to Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert, but wanted him to be appreciated outside the “ghetto” of film composition. But one of the hallmarks of a Morricone score is that it’s stitched into the fabric of the movie, not just slathered on top of it. Morricone would use sound effects like instruments and associate specific riffs with different characters, like in Once Upon a Time in the West, which linked a lonely harmonica to Charles Bronson’s (anti)hero, or his delicate score for The Mission, which had Jeremy Irons’ Jesuit priest playing the oboe.

Beyond Leone and the spaghetti Western genre, Morricone composed such a variety and volume of wide-ranging, beautiful work that no two Morricone fans could agree on the same playlist. A “Greatest Hits” primer might include his work for Leone, The Mission, and Cinema Paradiso, which climaxes with a montage of movie kisses that uses woodwinds and strings to squeeze the tear ducts like a wet sponge. Beyond those, the relative obscurities are as delightful as the hits: the trippy ’60s funk of Danger: Diabolik; the protest drums, wails, and subtle harpsichord of The Battle of Algiers; the layered tribal screams of Navajo Joe, which viewers are more likely to recognize from Kill Bill or Election; the haunting mix of piano and the almost theremin-like tremors of female vocalist on the otherwise uncelebrated Il Segreto (The Secret). In effect, Morricone produced astonishing music faster than all but his most devoted acolytes could take in.

Morricone’s legacy extends far beyond his film work, with pop stars like Jay-Z, Metallica, Radiohead, the Ramones, Muse, Gnarls Barkley, and many others claiming his music as either sample or influence or both. He was also the rare composer to inspire listeners to buy soundtracks, selling over 70 million records over the course of his career. He kept on working long past any plans for retirement, too: Most honorary Oscars are bestowed on artists the Academy is putting out to pasture, but Morricone used his as fresh inspiration, winning an award outright nearly a decade later at age 87.

Ennio Morricone was the sound of the movies. Ennio Morricone was the movies. Turn on a Morricone soundtrack, close your eyes, and be transported to a genre paradise of gunslinging action, lush eroticism, and heart-stopping beauty. The Maestro may have finally closed his eyes, but the highlight reel plays on forever.