Everyone has a corner in their brain reserved for cinematic memories formed by the music of Ennio Morricone, the eminent Italian composer who has died aged 91 — just a few months after his last performance.
Il Maestro was one of the few composers whose scores can’t be prised from the celluloid images, and for purists he’s still a baton’s length above other conventional icons like John Williams and John Barry.
Morricone was one of the most prolific composers in film music history, with over 500 soundtracks, ranging from classical orchestral scores to jazz-funk exploitation flick soundtracks. His staggering body of work also means his 100 non-soundtrack albums have ended up getting filed as an aside, even though it’s a separate bulging canon of piano concertos and choral compositions to be filed under ‘classical’, as well as his outer limits free jazz and psychedelia.
Morricone received his first diploma in 1946 for trumpet, and his diploma in composition in 1954, before working as an arranger for the RAI (Italian broadcasting company). His first film score was for the 1961 war movie Il Federale, and by the mid-60s he had secured legendary status with his soundtracks for Serge Leone’s Fistful of Dollars trilogy. The Mission and Once Upon a Time in America are his other obvious blockbusters — but he only won his first soundtrack Oscar in 2015 for scoring Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.
For every obvious cinema cue that’s been whistled by millions for 50-odd years, he’s also a record crate-digger’s dream, with a trail of psychedelic jazz freakouts, deranged wah-wah funk and leftfield bossa nova, on soundtracks like Veruschka, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and Spasmo.
Even with a music career spanning eight decades, Morricone still went out on top — selling out arenas and grand concert halls up until his final performance in Rome this January at the Palazzo Madama in Rome. He probably didn’t sell that many tickets on the back of pieces sampled by Flying Lotus, Jay-Z, Venetian Snares or Wu-Tang Clan. Morricone’s last world tour was ‘60 Years of Music’, and all of the pieces and movements were stone tablet classics with the 86-piece Czech National Symphony Orchestra, and 75 choralists — from the simple whistled motif and deranged ‘Ah-ee-ah-ee-ah’ coyote wail on The Good the Bad and the Ugly, to the majestic Gabriel’s Oboe from The Mission and the Soundtrack to The Untouchables.
Morricone felt that his association with Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns was a “strait-jacket”, saying in a 2007 interview: “I just don’t understand how, after all the films I have done, people keep thinking about A Fistful of Dollars. People are stuck back in time, 30 years ago.” And if you’re on a Morricone rabbit-hole mission, you can take your pick from literally hundreds of avenues.