An Excerpt on Ennio Morricone

An extract from my MA thesis.

On the 6th of July this year, we lost one of the greatest film composers of all time; Ennio Morricone. In my MA thesis, The Leitmotif in Film Music: A Study of Familiarity and Response in Hollywood Film Scores, I wrote a very brief analysis of Morricone’s scores for A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966) (dir. Sergio Leone). Today, I thought I might share my words here.

Ennio Morricone (b.1928), graduated Rome’s Conservatorio di Musica Santa Cecilia in 1954 and became a composer and arranger for commercial music as well as the avant-garde. Film music allowed for Morricone to combine his skillsets into composing inspiring film music. (Sciannameo, 2013:37). In the Autumn of 2013, Franco Sciannameo conducted an interview with Ennio Morricone. In his article in The Musical Times, Sciannameo details Morricone’s style as a composer, claiming his scores “never cease to make people reflect upon the frailty of the human condition and on fostering hopes for a better future.” (Ibid).

In her text, Which Way Is America? Marcia Landy comments on the functionality of Morricone’s compositions. Over his long spanning career as a composer, Morricone has written scores to some 450 films. (Kalinak, 2010:84). Before composing for Sergio Leone’s films, Morricone had scored more than a dozen films. As a classically trained composer, Morricone’s themes and underscoring were a welcomed development in film music composition.

“The scores for Leone’s films serve a number of functions: as effective commentary on a character’s actions or state of mind, as mockery, cliché, leitmotiv, thematic continuity, and hence, as a comment on reiteration, variation, or ironic reversal.”

In The Invisible Art of Film Music, Laurence MacDonald notes Morricone’s use of “unusual instrumental sonorities.” (2013:241). For MacDonald, these sonorities include the simplicity of Morricone’s scoring. In A Fistful of Dollars, for example, the main theme is comprised of a small number of aspects – a solo guitar, and Alessando Alessandroni’s whistling. Bearing in mind that Leone’s trilogy was release a decade past Hollywood’s golden-age, Morricone’s scores were a stark difference from the typical ‘classical’ film score.

In A Fistful of Dollars, the main leitmotif that precedes throughout the film belongs to Clint Eastwood’s character Joe. When Joe appears in shot the audience hears a flute played in descending scale, a motif borrowed from the film’s main title theme. In the film, Joe is deceptive and calculated in order to rid a border town of rivalling gangs. (Jameson, 1973:8). It makes sense then that Joe’s leitmotif would be swift, demonstrating his competence as a gunman, and descending, demonstrating his sense of untrustworthiness.

Morricone’s theme for Leone’s film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) formed what Huckvale describes as the “archetypal, echo-style theme that consists of a question and answer.” (1990:30). The film’s score utilises techniques found in other styles of music, perhaps most notably that of rock and roll. Ronald Sadoff claims Morricone uses a “culturally coded harmonic paradigm” in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Where we would usually expect to hear a dominant seventh chord, Morricone uses a major flat seventh. (2004:68). In Fred Karlin and Rayburn Wright’s On the Track, the authors note Morricone’s use of “heavily reverbed ocarinas; whistling; wordless voices; and twangy electric guitar’ and comment how the instrumentation and arrangement contribute a “perfect match for the offbeat, stylised spaghetti Western for which it was designed.” (2004:63).

In terms of Morricone’s use of leitmotif in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes share the same motif but are individualised by the use of distinct instrumentation. Clint Eastwood’s Blondie (or the Man with No Name) represents the Good and is musically represented by a flute. Blondie is not a particularly morally good character and is instead more of what Hoberman describes as a “scuzzy” bounty hunter. (2012:38). Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes represents the Bad who is musically represented by an ocarina. For Angel Eyes, or the “reptilian hired killer” (ibid), the bass ocarina is deep and foreboding. In comparison to the flute, Angel Eyes’ motif is a lot quieter and matches the sneaky nature of an assassin.

Eli Wallach’s Tuco represents the Ugly which is musically represented with voice. Hoberman describes Tuco as a “sly, violent, opportunistic everyman”, and his aggressive nature is matched by Morricone’s score. The voices used for Tuco’s leitmotif resemble screams and fit Tuco’s atrociousness. All three characters are united by the famous “wah wah”s after the instrumentational leitmotif. Morricone’s use of leitmotif in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly soundtrack demonstrates how the technique is able to further transcend its meaning by variating its timbral quality.

References used in this excerpt:

Hoberman, J. (2012). In Praise of Da Pasta. Film Comment. [Online]. 48:3. pp. 36-43. Film Society of Lincoln Centre. Huckvale, D. (1990). Twins of Evil: An Investigation into the Aesthetics of Film Music. Popular Music. [Online]. 9:1. pp. 1-35. Cambridge University Press. Kalinak, K. (2010). Film Music: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press. Karlin, F. and Wright, R. (2004). On the Track: A Guide to Contemporary Film Scoring. 2nd Edn. Routledge: New York. MacDonald, L. E. (2013). The Invisible Art of Film Music: A Comprehensive History. 2nd Edn. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. Sadoff, R. H. (2004). Composition by Corporate Committee: Recipe for Cliché. American Music. [Online]. 22:1. pp. 64-75. University of Illinois Press. Sciannameo, F. (2013). Ennio Morricone at 85: a conversation about his ‘mission’. The Musical Times. [Online]. 154:1924. pp. 37-46. Musical Times Publications Ltd.

I hope you might enjoy reading this excerpt, and I also hope it goes someway in expressing my admiration for Morricone’s work in film.

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