... Time claims the maestro of precious, everlasting music
He was known simply as the maestro, a musical composer and conductor with a phenomenal output spanning seven decades. It seems both ironic and apposite that his death was reported on a page next to a pair of reality TV stars who have contributed nothing to our understanding of the world or its arts; it seems we are still in thrall to the temporal, the banal and the tawdry, and becoming poorer every day because of it.
At the age of 91, he died peacefully in Rome, following a fracture of his femur. A composer of over 500 films and television scores, the prolific output appears to suggest a willingness to accept all offers. In reality, he accepted work he truly believed in and shared the imagination of the director, even if the project didn’t particularly stimulate him and the eventual outcome may not have been especially satisfying. But this was a symptom of the changing times we were living in, with younger, impatient directors failing to understand his method of working, his fondness for multiple instruments and their infinite possibilities for creating a mood to enhance the images on screen. In truth, he may have been disappointed by the way modern films were being made; too many had no soul, no empathy, very little feel for creating a world of magic and illusion to bring crowds to the local screens. The splendour of the cinema as he knew it was sadly gone, to be replaced by mere films, frantic video games with jump cuts, loud music, superficial atmosphere, absurd storylines and actors who were stars or celebrities, without substance or stature.
Morricone didn’t just write music. He composed soundtracks to films in so many myriad ways that the score wasn’t just background or incidental music, but it became a pulsating, often breathtaking entity which formed an important part of the action unfolding on screen; often the music was a precursor to the images, following and preceding them, remaining in the foreground, always creating and enhancing both mood and tempo; if raw emotion was called for, Morricone would keep the instrumentation to the minimal, accentuating the visual images so that the music became an important and integral part of the scene, and, in concert with the wordless vocals of Edda Dell’ Orso, embedded themselves into our collective conscious. You only have to listen to Deborah’s theme from Once Upon A Time in America, or Jill’s signature tune in Once Upon a Time in the West to realise what Morricone has created is a perfect fusion or synthesis of music and images, with dialogue often non-existent or relegated to the background, to arrive at a high summit of pure cinema and the unique grammar emanating from it. You viewed a film in a heightened, exalted state of awareness and understanding.
It was his collaboration with Sergio Leone which brought him to international acclaim in the mid-sixties. Their partnership, arising out of warm friendship- they were classmates- was a serendipitous accident rather in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann. The two loved films and Leone’s cinematic vision acted as a spur to Morricone who had the freedom to experiment and bring his full repertoire and own box of tricks to the projects. Thus we heard not just music, but sounds and noises, including classical borrowings being played at a higher tempo; there were trumpets and trombones, guitars, pianos and organs, whistles and whips, chimes and church bells, the humming of Edda Dell’ Orso over the instruments and the full orchestra, to create a rich tapestry of glorious soundtracks which turned the visual imagery into a sensuous, aural and quite spectacular assault on the senses. The intuitive understanding between the two men, a visionary director with a firm grasp of his medium, the musical master allowed a free rein, meant on screen you were a witness to music virtually superseding dialogue, existing within a cinematic framework and outside it too, to become a central motif, a vital, breathing, often whimsical organism, adding to the power and beauty of the visuals.
The partnership between the pair reached its zenith with two films, separated by sixteen years: Once Upon A Time in the West (1968) and Once Upon A Time In America (1984), often referred to by Leone as fairy tales for and by adults. Taken together, they are a reflection on time, compressing it and extending it, with grand vistas, powerful story lines, memorable and cryptic verbal exchanges, multiple themes encompassing the whole of life, visiting the past and the future. Into this heady configuration appeared a cavalcade of unique characters, each flawed and seemingly passing through a dream as if their destiny is pre-ordained. The music for these films is among the finest in the history of cinema and represents a watershed moment even for such a legendary composer as Morricone. It is grand, majestic and baroque when it wants to be; melancholy and plaintive one moment, jaunty and jovial the next, mischievous a few scenes later, before Deborah’s theme in the latter film, with its sense of longing and sorrow, brings the curtain down on a rich kaleidoscope of exhilarating ,often thrilling and sensuous awakening of our heightened perceptions.
There were other milestones in his distinguished career. The three early spaghetti westerns, culminating in the memorable finale of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly with the ecstasy of gold sequence, propelled and driven by music with the actors still and frozen, having entered the circle of reckoning (death); Cinema Paradiso, immortalising the magic of the cinema through the eyes of a child living in a cinema theatre with a projectionist; A Fistful of Dynamite, where the score is comical, happy, ironic and sad, amid the setting of the Mexican Revolution; the Mission and Malick’s Days of Heaven, both dream-like in their narrative demanding a surreal, haunting score; the Battle for Algiers where the score is replete with a cacophony of traditional urban sound and noise, befitting a film about guerrilla warfare seen through the eyes of the oppressed. The restrained score for the Thing shows how terror can be conveyed through the use of sparse and economical music while the music for the Hateful Eight, a colourful if excessively verbose film, won him his only Oscar, a rather belated afterthought, having previously been nominated on six occasions from 1979 to 2016. The fact that he still composed music on handwritten sheets over computer scoring said much for his distinctive method of working and loyalty to his own set of principles and credo which served him so well.
With his unique sensibility for bringing images and characters so vividly to life, in confined indoor settings or wide open spaces, he saw films as pure cinema, as supreme theatre, an exaggerated illusion in which characters were marionettes, emblematic figurines that could be shuffled around, to the accompaniment of glorious music, sometimes with their own signature tunes to introduce them or to say goodbye to them; frequently Morricone would add a little musical flourish in order to embellish the reason and context for the existence and presence of characters. Everything on the screen and soundtrack mattered; nothing was just throwaway, disposable or ready to be forgotten. Everything had meaning and resonance; even some of the minor characters had close-ups and noticeable screen-time, sometimes a short tune or a discordant note, to give actors in very small parts a memorable finale. There wasn’t any need for words as such; Morricone had an ongoing dialogue, via his music, with the characters on screen.
He was peerless and unmatched as a composer, a nonpareil conductor whose scores were often completed at pre-production stage, so that the actors acted, moved and spoke their lines, became their screen personas, displaying the whole gamut of emotions and dramatic intensity, while the soundtrack was being played on set. It was a perfect amalgam of choreography and acting, an inspired way to bring the director’s and composer’s vision to life.
As he ascends to an ethereal plane on the wings of Deborah’s theme, let us bid ciao to the maestro, musician and magician too. Music is gushing forth from more than 2000 fountains in the Eternal City.