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World Music Matters

Ennio Morricone: a tribute to the late maestro

Audio 10:12
 Ennio Morricone, Rome, July 2017
Ennio Morricone, Rome, July 2017 © AFP/Archives

Italian composer Ennio Morricone was famed for his film scores but his work straddled jazz, pop, psychedelia as well as the avant-garde, influencing bands as diverse as Air and Metallica.

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Ennio Morricone left behind some 500 scores for both film and television.

The theme tune to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is undoubtedly one of the most renowned.

“Just 10 seconds into one of Morricone’s soundtracks, you know it’s him, you know which film it’s from, you can see the pictures,” said French composer Jean-Michel Jarre in the wake of the Italian composer’s death on 6 July.

To recreate this feeling of the American far west, Morricone added on drums, some flute, and of course the "cry" of a coyote.

The trademark whistling came courtesy of Spanish guitarist and whistler Curro Savoye, who now lives in the south of France.

The two men never met, but Savoye was "the" whistler on the vast majority of Morricone’s work.

The film soundtrack also includes “Ecstasy of Gold” – a stirring three-minute orchestral bonanza with drums to set you galloping into the sunset and wordless vocals by Edda Dell’orso with whom Morricone regularly collaborated.

The music is so stirring it became a fetish piece for U.S. band Metallica. Since 1983 they’ve played it to open all their concerts.

They recorded their own version of “The Ecstasy of Gold” for their tribute album to Morricone in 2007, and performed the song themselves for the first time at a 2009 concert in Copenhagen.

Metallica frontman James Hetfield said something special happened when they begun using the piece as their intro music in 1983.  “It set us up for the night and the fans got excited.”

In a tribute to Morricone on Instagram, he said the music had become “part of our blood flow, deep breathing, fist bumping, prayers and band huddle pre-show ritual ever since”.

'Elevated every film he scored'

Morricone wrote scores for six of Sergio Leone’s westerns. Their last collaboration was in 1984 for Once upon a time in America.

It was customary at the time to write the soundtrack before shooting the film, but still, Morricone’s music was so evocative that the director played it on set to conjure up the right atmosphere.

Sergio Leone’s westerns helped make Morricone a household name but the composer’s artistic reach knew no bounds.

Here in France, his biggest hit is the violin-heavy “Chi Mai” which famously featured in the 1981 film “The Professional” starring Jean-Paul Belmondo. Morricone was nominated for a César, the French equivalent of an Oscar.

“His work elevated every film he scored,” wrote composer John Zorn in the NY Times, adding that Morricone could “make an unforgettable melody with a fistful of notes."

He did that not just in films but during his foray into pop in the 60s.

Arguably his most celebrated song, at least in his home country, was Se Telefonando sung by Mina. Were in not in Italian it could have rivalled with Burt Bacharach.

The refrain was inspired by the three notes of a French police siren and builds into a stand-up finale thanks to eight key changes!

Among the many French musicians who say they owe a lot to Morricone is electronic music duo Air.

Nicolas Godin said Morricone was among the composers who had most influenced him for "the way he used timbres and sounds that were close to avant-garde music".

Morricone’s influence can be heard on Prologo per la puttana di closingtown from the album City Reading (Tre Story Western), recorded with Italian writer Alessandro Baricco in 2003.

“I realized my Roman fantasy around music from westerns,” Godin told Les Inrockuptibles. “Ennio Morricone will remain the absolute master of Continental music.”

It’s often said that Morricone was sore and saddened at not being fully recognised as a classical composer. But he was.

His score for the 1986 film The Mission, in which he incorporated religious chant and tribal rhythms, remains one of his most haunting pieces, not least for the melancholy of its main them Gabriel’s Oboe.

A fistful of notes that lifted, and continue to lift, anyone who cares to listen.

Ennio Morricone's official website.

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