Ennio Morricone: 10 (little) things you may not know about the legendary film composer
A composer inspired by the classical repertoire, a trained trumpeter, and a man with a famously strong character… Here are 10 (little) things you may not know about Ennio Morricone, composer of countless film scores including "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" and "Once Upon a Time in the West".
Even if you don't know the name Ennio Morricone, you have undoubtedly already heard one of his musical themes: the famous haunting melody played on the harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West, the violins in Chi Mai, or the coyote screams in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
And yet, the composer often regrets that his name and large body of work (over 500 film scores) is limited to simply his collaboration with the film director Sergio Leone. While it is true that the duo created six now-legendary films, these represent but a fraction of Morricone's musical output.
Let us respect the Maestro's wishes and look at 10 (little) things you may not know about the legendary composer that have (almost) nothing to do with his work with Sergio Leone!
When we think of an orchestral composer learning and mastering his musical craft, we often imagine them sitting at a piano or playing a violin, but rarely do we imagine a trumpet. Yet this is exactly the case for Ennio Morricone, a skilled trumpeter much like his father, himself a professional trumpeter.
At the age of 14, he was accepted to the prestigious The Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, in Rome. There he asked to join the composition class, to the great surprise of his professors since, in this reputable school of classical music, "it was almost scandalous for a trumpet student to express the desire to study composition", explains the musicologist Sergio Miceli in a 1995 BBC documentary.
Ennio, Dan or Leo
With the help of a friend working for the RAI (Italian television), Ennio Morricone began writing musical arrangements for the small screen, creating for himself a small but solid reputation over the years before eventually moving to the big screen.
Ennio Morricone wrote his first film scores using various pseudonyms such as Dan Savio and Leo Nichols. Was the composer who dreamed of composing great music ashamed of writing for the big screen? No, he answered to the journalist Sue Adler in an interview for the publication Cinema Papers in 1984: "The producers wanted to give the impression that their films were produced in America. And my name doesn't really sound American..."
An orchestra with electric guitar and whistles
Morricone's compositions proved to be unique, inspired by both the great works of the classical repertoire and the raw sounds of everyday life. His music thus combined distinctive sounds such as the electric guitar, the pan flute, whistles, bells, and even animal sounds, all accompanied by a symphonic orchestra.
Ennio Morricone drew inspiration when writing film music from the techniques of contemporary and experimental music. Even before writing for the big screen, the composer took great interest in these styles of composition and musical innovations. Thus, early in his career during the 1960s, Morricone joined the Nuova Consonanza, an association focused upon promoting contemporary music in Rome.
Without necessarily criticising the art of writing film music, Ennio Morricone "always retained a nostalgia for classical music" (L’Express, 18 March 1999). And the composer never missed an opportunity to cite his favourite musical inspirations: Monteverdi, Bach, Stravinsky, Berio, Boulez…
Despite his career as a successful and prolific film composer, Morricone never abandoned what he referred to absolute music (musica assoluta), composing several concert works including a Concerto no.1 for orchestra in 1957, a Concerto no.3 for guitar and marimba in 1991, and a Mass for Pope Francis in 2015.
"Even if I am aware that there is an enormous gap between the public that goes to concerts and that which goes to the cinema, these nods [to the classical repertoire] are a way of bringing the two worlds together..." (L’Express, 18 March 1999)
The influence of "serious" classical music is present throughout Ennio Morricone's musical output, and the composer often amused himself with these serious references, often citing and arranging works from the classical repertoire in his film scores: for example Wagner's famous Ride of the Valkyries for the theme of the "Wilde Horde" from My Name is Nobody (1973), and Bach's Prelude BWV 543 for the main theme of The Sicilian Clan (1969).
An exclusive conductor
Ennio Morricone is also an orchestral conductor: in recording studios and on stage, the famed composer conducts choirs and orchestras on numerous, and often grand, occasions (such as his concert in September 2017 at the AccorHotels Arena in Paris, where he conducted an orchestra of over 170 musicians).
However, there is one small catch: "I am not a real conductor, I do not conduct the music of other composers (AFP, July 2017). Indeed, Morricone only walks on stage to conduct his own works, as opposed to other film music legends such as John Williams who conducts not only the music from Star Wars but also the symphonies of Haydn or Mendelssohn.
First Oscar at the age of 87
Ennio Morricone began his career in the 1960s, and though his film scores were quickly praised by both the public and the press, it was not until 2016, over fifty years later, that the legendary composer finally received his first Oscar for "Best Original Film Score".
Morricone had already been nominated four times for the same award, and despite an honorary "lifetime achievement" Oscar awarded in 2006 in honour of the composer's career, Ennio Morricone had never seen his music officially consecrated by the demanding Hollywood community. Such a recognition finally came with the film score to Hateful Eight by the Quentin Tarantino, a director to whom Morricone paid homage in his speech, reminding us that "there is no great film soundtrack without a great film that inspires it."
A bit of pop
"I don’t know the names of any pop musicians", revealed Morricone in May 2016 in an interview with Katie Forster for The Guardian. "Pop music is standardised; it’s made to please the largest audience possible."
Though he expressed little appreciation of pop music, the Maestro nonetheless tried his hand at composing for the genre. In 1966, for example, he composed the song Se Telefonando for the Italian singer Mina. In a different genre, in 1974, Morricone conducted and produced an album in collaboration with the French singer Mireille Mathieu.
At school with Sergio Leone
We promised we would avoid the subject, but it is almost impossible to talk about Ennio Morricone without mentioning the Italian film director Sergio Leone. Despite the fact that the composer wishes audiences would look beyond his film scores for Leone's famous Westerns, one cannot deny that "it was the Westerns that gave him the freedom to score all his other films, because they made him so prominent." (Ennio Morricone, Christopher Frayling, BBC2, 1995).
Leone and Morricone. Together, the two have created some of the most iconic films and film scores in this history of cinema (namely The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, 1968, Once Upon a Time in the West, 1969, and Once Upon a Time in America, 1984). Two friends, two children both from the Roman neighbourhood of Trastevere, where they first met whilst in primary school in 1937, years before reuniting to forge the legendary duo.
A tough character?
Any journalist lucky enough to have met Ennio Morricone will confirm: the man is not the easiest to approach, let alone interview. The list of conditions and requirements sent in advance by his agent is long. Call him Maestro (and not Signore Morricone, too formal, and certainly not Ennio, too familiar). Avoid talking about his music for Leone's films (too reductive) and if you must really broach the subject, whatever you do, do not refer to them as spaghettiwesterns (too derogatory). And please, do not ask Maestro to play the piano, he is a composer, not a performer!