Three gunslingers in a standoff, their eyes darting to each other, waiting for one of them to make the first move. Bandits waiting for their target in a deserted train station. An audience watching, entranced and moved by the film onscreen – in the small cinema of a tiny Italian town. These are classic film moments elevated by music from a man known as one of the greatest film composers of all time – Ennio Morricone. This week, the worlds of music and film mourn the loss of one of their greatest creators at the age of 91. As such an influential storyteller in sound, we simply had to pay tribute to the man who became known as the Maestro.
Born in 1928 in Rome, Morricone was creating music at the age of six, after taking up the trumpet. An education in music paved the way to a lifelong career and Morricone started with scores in the theatre and radio, before writing for pop artists. But it’s his work in film that is his lasting legacy, which he continued tirelessly up until the very end of his life.
IMDB records 520 composer credits for Morricone, from 1960 up to 2020 – an almost unfathomable body of work. It’s his creations within in the Western genre that he’s probably most known for, conjuring the grandeur of the open plains and the dangerous existence of the gunslinger, and helping to create the myth of the old west. Most well-known of these moments are those made in partnership with director Sergio Leone – a school friend, who joined him in going on to become an enduring figure in cinema. They collaborated on films such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars, and Once Upon a Time in the West, and even if you haven’t seen them, you’ll no doubt recognise the coyote-like howl of the main theme, or the haunting harmonica piece that feature in them. Quentin Tarantino, a big fan of his work, also featured his music in his westerns Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, which Morricone won an Oscar for.
But Morricone wasn’t pigeonholed into one genre – his film work spanned a range of cinema. He utilised unusual instrument choices, creating tracks that worked perfectly within their film by lifting the images on screen – and crafting melodies that you’d find whirling, whistling and humming through your mind and mouth. His genius can be found in horrors like The Thing and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage as well as moving dramas and period pieces including Cinema Paradiso and The Mission.
He also never let his age slow him down, continuing to be as prolific in his later years as he was at the start of his career. Continuing to entertain and move audiences across the world through a series of live concerts, his 60 Years of Music tour took him to Moscow, Berlin, Madrid, Stockholm and many places in between, including the O2 Arena in London in 2019 while he was 90, showing he was still full of life and music even in his last years.
But his influence isn’t just felt in film scores. Morricone’s musical brilliance has inspired and driven bands and artists in popular music of all genres. Ripples of his legacy can be found in Metallica, Arctic Monkeys and The Last Shadow Puppets, Muse, Adam and the Ants, Jay-Z and many more acts, in covers, samples, music they play before taking the stage, and as influence in their own music. Morricone’s passing has been met with an outpouring of tributes from the film and music worlds, from Hans Zimmer, John Carpenter, AR Rahman, and Orbital to video game designer Hideo Kojima. Film director Edgar Wright summed up his influence well by saying “he could make an average movie into a must see, a good movie into art, and a great movie into legend”.
Ennio Morricone leaves behind him not just an incredible body of work, but an influence and legacy that assures his name will not be forgotten.