The name is iconic and so is the music, but you might be surprised to discover that it was a few months after his 87th birthday that Ennio Morricone was awarded his first Oscar. Well, sort of. Eight years earlier, the Academy felt it was time he was finally recognised – after such an illustrious career and five nominations – and bestowed upon him an honorary Oscar for ‘lifetime achievement’. That he would then come back and legitimately win for an original score in 2016 (for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight) was more than gratifying for the artist. And he was an artist, one who took his craft very seriously indeed.
Though often remembered for the ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ – a term he disliked – Morricone’s career embodied so much more than the colourful shoot ’em ups that dominated his early career. His evocative music, comprised of hugely original soundworlds, luscious melody and a deep understanding of story has graced hundreds of productions since he first scored 1961’s Il federale.
Having first put pencil to stave before the age of ten, the son of another fine trumpeter (Mario Morricone) attended the conservatory at Santa Cecilia in his beloved home city of Rome. Early professional years were spent as a session musician and side man in Rome’s jazz clubs and recording studios, and he found work as an arranger for RCA – he worked with some of the great artists of the day, such as Mario Lanza and Charles Aznavour.
It was while playing trumpet in session orchestras for films that Morricone was inspired to write the music for movies instead of playing it. He knew he could better and went about it with what was to be characteristic self-assurance.
His 1961 debut led to further work and the reacquaintance with school friend Sergio Leone, now a burgeoning film director. With 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars, the pair struck low-budget gold and it marked the beginning of one of the great director-composer partnerships (ending in 1984 with Once Upon a Time in America). The composer found a number of directorial muses in Italian cinema, including Giuseppe Tornatore, with whom he would work on 12 films – including the Oscar-winning Cinema Paradiso. His individual style attracted the attention of directors and producers outside of Italy, too, and although he scored Don Siegel’s American film Two Mules for Sister Sara in 1970 it was until the end of the decade that Ennio Morricone fully made his mark in Hollywood films. The likes of Exorcist II: The Heretic (1976), Orca (1977) and Days of Heaven (1978) made an impact, the latter earning the composer his first Oscar nomination.
An enduring figure in Italian music and, on the world’s stage, film music, Ennio Morricone had something of a cult following. A regular on the concert platform, he sold out venues wherever he went – though he was infamous for cancelling appearances, but always made up for it on his return. In film there was no bigger fan than director Tarantino, who had cherry-picked Morricone cues for a number of his own iconic film soundtracks over the years. So it was a dream come true when ‘The Maestro’ – as he was affectionately known – agreed to score The Hateful Eight. The director didn’t hear a note of what was being written for his film, until he attended the scoring sessions in Prague… he knew his story was in good hands.
Away from the screen, Morricone wrote a huge amount of music – an area of his work he referred to as ‘Absolute Music; that written for the screen being ‘Applied Music. Dominated by chamber, instrumental and choral works, Morricone’s non-film works totals over 140 items. Some were written for his own pleasure, learning and exercise, others for friends and occasions.
Suffice to say there remains much more to discover by Ennio Morricone, a consumate artist, whose mark on cinema is indelible.