In yet another terrible development in a terrible year, Ennio Morricone has died at the age of ninety-one. Morricone was, simply put, one of the great composers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Longtime readers will know that I have long been a fan of Signor Morricone. Morricone had a knack for surprising even longtime listeners... I went on a deep dive last year tracking down the origins of his Fistful of Dollars overture in an arrangement of Woodie Guthrie's Pastures of Plenty. Morricone was a genius at conveying mood, and his body of work, as argued in this Vulture piece, really formed a musical genre of its own, typified by pretty melodies punctuated with weird whistles and warbles, and discordant guitar riffs or percussive slaps. With this preamble out of the way, there's no better way to commemorate il maestro than to feature a bunch of my favorite compositions by him.
I figure I'll start with the holy trilogy of Sergio Leone films, the 'Dollars' movies which formed most Americans' introductions to his work. The overture to A Fistful of Dollars has its roots in an arrangement of Pastures of Plenty mutated into something unrecognizable but for the rhythm guitar that forms the bedrock of this otherworldly composition:
While I adore the overture for For a Few Dollars More, I figured that I'd highlight the pretty-yet-creepy Musical Pocket Watch motif that runs throughout the movie, the devastating import of which is revealed at the film's finale:
Then there's the celebrated overture to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, this orchestral rendition captures the beauty of the piece while stripping it of the original's weirdness:
With the 'trilogy' out of the way, another of my favorites pieces by Morricone is Da Uomo a Uomo from Death Rides a Horse. I love the way the tension builds as the song goes on, that driving rhythm, punctuated by shrill flute trills, the sense of impending menace as the chorus sings, "He'll be coming around the mountain" to "test his gun". Goosebumps!
For a taste of Morricone in a more whimsical mode, I can think of no better track than Farewell to Cheyenne from Once Upon a Time in the West:
Besides scoring Westerns, Morricone scored several giallo films, with the theme to Dario Argento's The Bird with Crystal Plumage being another of his pretty-creepy masterpieces:
In the 1980s, Morricone scored longtime collaborator Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, this more 'mature' work having a noticeable lack of bells, whistles, and staccato percussion effects:
I could go on, but that would cut into my listening time. I think I will finish off with one of Ennio Morricone's most hauntingly beautiful compositions, The Ecstasy of Gold from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Could there be a better musical sendoff for the man?
Addio, Ennio, grazie per tutta la musica.