Ennio Morricone, an Italian composer whose wildly inventive soundtracks – from the electric guitar, whistle, whip crack and coyote howl of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” to the dramatic choral and orchestral score of “The Mission” – made him a revered figure in international cinema, died July 6 at hospital in Rome. He was 91.
The cause was complications after a fall in which he broke his leg, his longtime lawyer, Giorgio Assumma, told the Associated Press.
One of the most prodigious and successful composers of his generation – with well over 400 movie and TV credits – Morricone won an honorary Academy Award in 2007 that cited his “magnificent and multifaceted contributions to the art of film music.” He was nominated six times for competitive Oscars, triumphing with one of his last original scores, for the Quentin Tarantino western “The Hateful Eight” (2015).
Morricone was a boldly adventurous composer who saw himself as a full partner in telling stories on-screen. He thrived with directors known for their visual excess, including Tarantino, Sergio Leone and Brian De Palma.
But Morricone, whose scores could be gritty, unsettling or exquisitely gentle, was impossible to categorize. His portfolio seemed to span every conceivable mainstream genre, including comedy, drama, romance, horror, political satire and historical epic.
In addition, his movie scores have been recorded and performed in concert by entertainers as disparate as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, soprano Renée Fleming, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock and the rock band Metallica.
Morricone’s output encompassed the sinister march he wrote for “The Battle of Algiers” (1966), director Gillo Pontecorvo’s gripping story about the Algerian war for independence, and the nostalgia-laden theme to “Cinema Paradiso” (1988), director Giuseppe Tornatore’s wistful ode to movie worship.
Jon Burlingame, a historian of film composition, called Morricone’s Oscar-nominated score for “The Mission” (1986), a drama about 18th-century Jesuit missionaries in South America and the ensuing conflict, “an unmitigated masterpiece” for its seamless blend of indigenous and European liturgical music.
Morricone said his job was to evoke the “soul” of a film by interweaving the director’s sweeping vision and the driving forces of the central characters.
In De Palma’s “Casualties of War” (1989), Morricone said the horrific killing of a Vietnamese girl by U.S. Marines felt to him like “a tiny bird shot in flight, fluttering and finally crashing to the ground.” He used pan pipes to express the girl’s innocence and her sorrowful fate.
Morricone forged his most important working relationship with director Leone, the visionary behind the most influential “spaghetti westerns” ever made: “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964), “For a Few Dollars More” (1965), “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966) and “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968).
The first three films, which made a star of the little-known TV actor Clint Eastwood as the mysterious unnamed antihero, brought Morricone to wide attention. His unorthodox soundtracks, menacing and mischievous, perfectly matched the operatic violence of Leone’s pacing.
“You could be over the top with Leone because his films were over the top,” Morricone told the Australian newspaper in 2011.
The “ah-ee-ah-ee-ah” theme of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” which became one of the most recognizable sounds in movie history, captured the film’s sting and the fierce solitude of Eastwood’s Man With No Name. The ghostly and intense harmonica wail that infused “Once Upon a Time in the West,” starring Charles Bronson as an enigmatic gunman, is powerfully linked to the character’s past.
The scores were a startling break from traditional Hollywood westerns, which had offered grand and heroic evocations of the frontier or robust-voiced pop singers such as Frankie Laine rendering the title tune.
Leone dispensed with most of the genre’s trappings to emphasize the brutality of the American West, whose characters who are quick to love, quick to hate, quick to laugh and quick to die.
“The music wasn’t only eerie, it was grotesque and ironic,” Morricone told Guitar Player magazine in 1997. “There are elements of irony, taunting and meanness in those movie characters – a bit harsh, but also comical, even picaresque. Therefore I didn’t take into account the kind of westerns that were being made in America at the time. I wanted to make my personal kind of music and a music that belonged to Leone’s movies.”
The Leone-Morricone westerns were initially dismissed as drive-in fare. They grew in artistic stature because of a devoted following that included such influential directors as Martin Scorsese and Tarantino.
Tarantino repurposed some of Morricone’s older tracks for the “Kill Bill” franchise of the early 2000s and “Inglourious Basterds” (2009). For Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” (2012), Morricone provided an original song, “Ancora Qui.”
Westerns comprised a small portion of Morricone’s output – about 8%, he said – and he was dismayed that most English-speaking audiences identified him so closely with the genre.
Besides “The Mission,” Morricone received Oscar nominations for director Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” (1978), with a score that referenced the romantic style of French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, and “The Untouchables” (1987), with its pulsing rhythm meant to conjurewhat he called De Palma’s “dramatically comic” take on criminal Al Capone.
Morricone also was nominated for director Barry Levinson’s gangster film “Bugsy” (1991) and and for Tornatore’s “Malèna” (2000), a coming-of-age story.
The Web site Alt Film Guide once noted that Morricone “has been frequently the lone savior of poor films made bearable – at times even memorable – merely because of his compositions.”
They included such projects as “Exorcist II” (1977), De Palma’s “Mission to Mars” (2000) and director Adrian Lyne’s 1997 remake of “Lolita,” based on the Vladimir Nabokov mordantly witty novel about an older man’s obsessive pursuit of a 12-year-old girl. The film earned mixed reviews, but Morricone’s score for the latter film – plaintive, haunting and subtle – was lauded by movie and music critics alike.
Morricone often used the example of his work with Lyne to illustrate the creative chemistry and tension involved in crafting a score.
“He came to Rome to listen to the themes that I had written,” Morricone told the composer and author Andrew Ford. “He told me, ‘They are beautiful, these themes. But they are not immortal.’ I replied, ‘For them to be immortal, you have to wait a few years. It takes a bit of time. You can’t say today if something is immortal.’ But I wrote the theme again. It became immortal and we put it in the film.”
Ennio Morricone was born in Rome on Nov. 10, 1928. His father was a nightclub trumpeter, but his fragile health led the younger Morricone, who showed early promise on the instrument, to substitute for him frequently.
He studied musical composition at the National Academy of Saint Cecilia, a venerable conservatory, but classical music did not pay the bills. And his expanding family, after his 1956 marriage to Maria Travia, led him to focus more on arranging for Italian TV, radio, record companies and film. He gained a reputation for completing meticulous work – from pop to light opera – at a rapid clip.
Not everyone was impressed. When he began to work with Leone in the early 1960s, the director dismissed Morricone’s earlier movie scores as derivative – watered-down Hollywood fare. He was far more impressed with a 1962 pop arrangement of “Pastures of Plenty,” a Woody Guthrie song to which Morricone had added bells, whip sounds and a compelling electric guitar line.
It was this sound – filled with mysterious ambient noise – that dazzled the filmmaker. After their run of westerns, Morricone and Leone reunited on the gangster saga “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984).
A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
Over the decades, Morricone created music for filmmakers of radically different styles. One of his most unnerving scores was for director Elio Petri’s Oscar-winning “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion” (1970), about an Italian police inspector who murders his mistress and then investigates the crime. Morricone used a Jew’s harp and a synthesizer to create “a kind of music of the grotesque.”
His other credits included Dario Argento’s “The Bird With the Crystal Plumage” (1970), Bernardo Bertolucci (“1900,” 1976), Pedro Almodóvar’s “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” 1989), Oliver Stone’s “U Turn” (1997) and Warren Beatty’s “Bulworth” (1998).
Starting in the 1980s, Morricone returned more regularly to classical and choral works for the concert hall while also maintaining his prolific movie career.
Once asked how he maintained such a hectic pace, he quipped that “compared with the output of Bach, who composed a cantata a week, I am practically unemployed.”