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Ennio Morricone, Pioneering Soundtrack Composer, Dies At 91

Famous for scoring Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns, the Oscar-winning composer also produced the sounds and music for ‘The Untouchables,’ ‘Cinema Paradiso’ and many more.

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Ennio Morricone, the Oscar winner whose haunting, inventive scores expertly accentuated the simmering, dialogue-free tension of the spaghetti Westerns directed by Sergio Leone, has died. He was 91.

The Italian composer, who scored more than 500 films passed away in Rome following complications from a fall last week in which he broke his femur. His death was confirmed by his lawyer, Giorgio Assumma.

Decca Records issued the following statement: “Decca Records are deeply saddened at the passing of world-renowned Italian composer Ennio Morricone, at the age of 91. During an extraordinary professional career which spanned more than six decades, he created over 600 original compositions. The maestro signed to Decca Records in 2016, when he celebrated his 60th anniversary as both composer and conductor.

“Ennio Morricone composed over 500 scores for cinema and television as well as over 100 original musical works and is one of only two film composers in history to have received the honorary Academy Award for his lifetime achievement. Morricone’s score for The Good, The Bad And The Ugly holds the number two position in the Top 200 ranking of best film soundtracks ever composed.

“Morricone did not retire from live performance until the age of 90, with his final concerts receiving standing ovations and overwhelming critical acclaim, further cementing his position as one of the most prolific and influential film composers of all time.”

A native and lifelong resident of Rome whose first instrument was the trumpet,  Ennio Morricone won his Oscar for his work on Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight in 2015 He also was nominated for his original scores for Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), Roland Joffe’s The Mission (1986), Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), Barry Levinson’s Bugsy (1991) and Giuseppe Tornatore’s Malena (2000).

More recently, the legendary composer signed a new deal with Decca Records in 2016, resulting in Morricone 60: marking Morricone’s 60th anniversary as a composer and conductor and featuring brand new recordings with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, with whom he had collaborated on major international movie scores. Morricone’s “Cinema Paradiso” also provides the title song for Katherine Jenkins’ new album, which was released through Decca Records on 3 July.

Always “The Maestro”

Known as “The Maestro,” he also received an honorary Oscar in 2007 (presented by Clint Eastwood) for his “magnificent and multifaceted contributions to the art of film music,” and he collected 11 David di Donatello Awards, Italy’s highest film honors.

Morricone’s atmospheric sounds enriched Leone’s low-budget spaghetti Westerns A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), plus Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Duck, You Sucker (1971).

“Part of the screenplay itself”

“The music is indispensable, because my films could practically be silent movies, the dialogue counts for relatively little, and so the music underlines actions and feelings more than the dialogue,” Leone, who died in 1989, once said. “I’ve had him write the music before shooting, really as a part of the screenplay itself.”

The composer was renowned for his pioneering use of unusual sounds, employing whistles, church bells, whips, coyote howls, chirping birds, ticking clocks, gunshots and women’s voices to add textures to scores not associated with the typical studio arrangement.

Morricone also partnered about a dozen times with Guiseppe Tornatore, including on Cinema Paradiso (1988), winner of the Oscar for best foreign-language film.

His remarkable body of work also includes collaborations with other notable directors like Gillo Pontecorvo (1966’s The Battle of Algiers), Don Siegel (1970’s Two Mules for Sister Sara), Bernardo Bertolucci (1976’s 1900), John Boorman (1977’s Exorcist II: The Heretic), Edouard Molinaro (1978’s La Cage aux Folles), John Carpenter (1982’s The Thing), William Friedkin (1987’s Rampage), Brian De Palma (1987’s The Untouchables), Pedro Almodovar (1989’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!), Franco Zeffirelli (1990’s Hamlet), Wolfgang Petersen (1993’s In the Line of Fire), Mike Nichols (1994’s Wolf) and Warren Beatty (1998’s Bulworth).

Writing from the age of six

Born in Rome in 1928, Morricone took up the trumpet and wrote his first composition aged six. He studied classical music and after graduating began writing scores for theatre and radio. He was hired as an arranger by the label RCA in Italy and also began writing for pop artists; his songs became hits for Paul Anka, Françoise Hardy and Demis Roussos, and he later collaborated with Pet Shop Boys. He also made boundary-pushing avant garde work with Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza, a collective of experimental, improvisational composers.

But it was his film scores that brought him the most fame. He began in the mid-1950s as a ghostwriter on films credited to others, but his collaborations with Luciano Salce, beginning with Il Federale (The Fascist), established him in the industry.

Morricone went on to work in almost all film genres, and some of his melodies are perhaps more famous than the films for which he wrote them. Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s 1971 film Maddalena is little remembered today, but Morricone’s two pieces for the film, “Come Maddalena” and “Chi Mai”, are among his most loved, the latter reaching No 2 in the UK Top 40 following its reuse in the BBC drama series The Life and Times of David Lloyd George.

His 1960s scores for Sergio Leone, backing a moody Clint Eastwood in the Dollars trilogy, were huge successes and came to define him: with their whistling melodies, and blend of symphonic elements with gunshots and guitars, they evoke the entire western genre.  Those films, and Morricone’s scores, were a clear influence on Quentin Tarantino who hired him for his western The Hateful Eight. It earned Morricone his first Oscar outside of his lifetime achievement award. Tarantino also used his music in Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, with Morricone writing an original song for the latter.

A touring attraction

He frequently toured highlights from his catalogue, and was still conducting his orchestra in 2019. He sold more than 70 million albums, and as well as his two Academy awards, he won four Grammy awards and six Baftas.

The British film director Edgar Wright paid tribute on Twitter. “Where to even begin with iconic composer Ennio Morricone? He could make an average movie into a must see, a good movie into art, and a great movie into legend. He hasn’t been off my stereo my entire life. What a legacy of work he leaves behind. RIP.”

Quentin Tarrantino wrote: “RIP The Legendary #EnnioMorricone.” Another great contemporary film music writer, A.R. Rahman, added: “Only a composer like #EnnioMorricone could bring the beauty, culture and the lingering romance of Italy to your senses in the pre-virtual reality and pre-internet era…all we can do is celebrate the master’s work and learn!”

Listen to the Best of Ennio Morricone on Apple Music and Spotify.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Victoria C Wendel

    July 7, 2020 at 3:37 am

    I loved his score for “The Mission.”
    That alone should get him into heaven….

    Rest in peace, sir.

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