Ennio Morricone Was His Own Musical Genre

The famed composer made soundtrack music that lived on its own. Each piece was an expressive universe unto itself. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images

My parents tell me that when I was a baby, one of the few things that could get me to stop crying was Ennio Morricone’s score for A Fistful of Dollars. It certainly makes sense. I don’t know when I first heard the name “Morricone”; it’s lost in that distant region of childhood that’s inaccessible to memories. I do remember that the soundtrack LP — which also included the score to For a Few Dollars More, and featured a snarling close-up of Clint Eastwood on its orange-brown cover — was a constant presence in our home, and I so wore it out that it eventually had to be fortified with tape and placed in a protective plastic covering. Not long after, it was joined by the soundtrack album for Days of Heaven, and several of the late maestro’s collections. When I was a kid, if you asked me who my favorite musician or band was, more often than not, I’d have said Ennio Morricone.

For years, I held that as a sign of what a grown-up and precocious child I was. But in recent years, as I tried to figure out just what it was about Morricone’s work that had such an effect on me (and, as I eventually discovered, on so many others who also discovered his music when they were young), I realized that the music’s appeal had almost nothing to do with me and everything to do with him.

The classic Morricone composition is built around what starts off as a very basic, sweet, almost childlike melody — gently whistled or softly crooned or played on a simple instrument, a lone flute or tinkling piano or even a desolate harpsichord; sometimes, it’s a musical pocket watch. Listen to the central motifs of A Fistful of Dollars, or For a Few Dollars More, or Duck! You Sucker, or 1900, or Come Maddalena, or The Mission, or The Desert of the Tartars, or The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. They could just as easily be lullabies. Of course a child would have responded to them.

That was Morricone’s genius. Or at least, part of it. For he took such tender melodies and built dark, complicated sonic worlds around them, mixing those lullabies with rock, jazz, and sometimes even the avant-garde. The sweet, lilting tune at the heart of A Fistful of Dollars soon enters a chaotic universe of electric guitars, whipcracks, tolling bells, castanets, and choral barks of “We can fight!” (And, in the movie’s actual opening credits, we also hear rhythmic gunshots over the music, which feel like they could just as easily have been part of the score.) It’s beautiful, and primal, possibly even a metaphor for life: One day you’re happily whistling along, and the next thing you know there are guitars, gunshots, bells, and men shouting at you. The music loses its innocence, but never its soul. The motif is besieged, yet it endures and gathers force, and all those disparate elements achieve a kind of glorious, galloping harmony.

Over and over in Morricone’s work we hear this structure repeated. An innocent, expressive melody ambushed by drums and distant trumpets and unlikely sound effects — animal shrieks, ominous thumps, hyena-like wails, mysterious nocturnal crowing — rolling toward a newfound, fearsome beauty. It fit the spaghetti Westerns perfectly because it told the story of that entire subgenre, wherein a bunch of Italian Marxists took this most American of forms and used it to their own ends, creating movies that were both subversive and indulgent. (Yes, they reinvented and breathed new life into the Western, but really, they also inaugurated the genre’s dissolution.)

A lot of people wrote and worked to Morricone’s music. I certainly did, and do. (I’m listening to Stanno Tutti Bene as I write this.) My friends did. I now know George Pelecanos does. John Singleton wrote Boyz n the Hood powered along by Morricone’s music. Without having to look it up, I’d bet several body parts that Quentin Tarantino does. All that, too, makes sense. The simplicity of his compositions — dramatic, evocative, never too busy — connects you to something elemental, and then allows you to build your own creation around the music. Much as the music develops from the disarmingly basic to the complex, you take a word, then another word, then a sentence, and you move from the simple to, hopefully, the complex and profound, without ever losing the through line of what you’re trying to do — though most of us don’t wind up with 1900 on the other end of it.

And then there are the occasional reversals of Morricone’s basic approach, which are themselves magnificent. Take “Frank’s Introduction” from Once Upon a Time in the West. Its opening is anything but gentle: An ear-piercing electric guitar crashes the opening notes, while an atonal harmonica swirls in the background as if blown on the wind. But look at how the piece works in the movie itself. A boy has just seen his whole family massacred. The music doesn’t have to build toward a loss of innocence; it’s already happened, and that first guitar screeches against a sudden close-up of the child. Then, as the music gathers a kind of expansive grandeur, figures emerge from the scrub — men in long overcoats, like something out of a dream of the West (which is what, after all, Once Upon a Time in the West is). And then, the camera dollies around their leader to reveal his face, and we see that it’s Henry Fonda, that eternal good guy of American cinema, finally portraying a heartless villain. But it might also be precisely at this point that we realize that the tune those aggressive electric guitars have been playing all along is still, at heart, something melodious and lullaby-like — and for one fleeting instant, the music quiets down and we hear the central motif played softly, as the film cuts between close-ups of Fonda and the child. It’s a brief feint, a momentary sense that, maybe, things will be okay. This is Henry Fonda, after all.

And then, the music dies out … and Fonda shoots the boy. A ghastly moment given mythic, existential power by Morricone’s music. The scene is more than 50 years old at this point. I’ve probably seen it just as many times, and I’ve certainly heard the song itself — one of Morricone’s best-known compositions — many, many more times. But none of it ever loses its power, because the music makes it about more than just what’s happening onscreen. Once Upon a Time in the West, the movie, is a masterpiece, but even so, its score could stand alone, and does. You don’t need the film at all. That’s what Morricone gave us, I think. Each piece was an expressive universe unto itself. It was soundtrack music, but it lived on its own. He was his own musical genre.

Ennio Morricone Was His Own Musical Genre