Ennio Morricone, composer and conductor

Born: November 10, 1928;

Died: July 6, 2020.

ENNIO Morricone, who has died aged 91, was a remarkably prolific composer, writing music for such films as Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, Roland Joffé ‘s The Mission, Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables, and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, for which he won an Oscar. In all, he composed for some 500 film and television projects, as well as many concert pieces. As film-maker Edgar Wright suggests, Morricone could make an “average movie into a must-see, a good movie into art, and a great movie into legend”.

Yet he was not one to rest on his laurels.“The notion that I am a composer who writes a lot of things is true on one hand and not true on the other hand”, he told the New York Times in 2007. “Maybe my time is better organised than many other people’s. But compared to classical composers like Bach, Frescobaldi, Palestrina or Mozart, I would define myself as unemployed”.

His interviewer found Morricone a “flinty, pragmatic character”, who while acknowledging what he described as the “strange miracle of music”, reacted to any generalisations about his music with a terse “That is up to the audience to decide”.

Yet audiences worldwide reacted positively to the emotional power of his music. Carter Little, a film music supervisor, has written that Morricone’s score for The Mission, especially the extraordinary cue, Gabriel’s Oboe, “changed my life by demonstrating the sweeping emotional power of instrumental score in film”.

To Leone, Morricone’s music was “indispensable, because my films could practically be silent movies, the dialogue counts for relatively little, and so the music underlines actions and feelings more than the dialogue”. Morricone’s distinctive score graced A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966), all of which starred Clint Eastwood. With dialogue stripped to the bare essentials, and with much tension to convey, Morricone’s score rose to the challenge magnificently. There were whipcracks, bells, Italian folk instruments and electric guitar rifts; these may have stemmed from Morricone’s research into the American composer, John Cage, “and the idea that all sounds can belong to the realm of music”.

As the film composer, Hans Zimmer, put it, Morricone brought the electric guitar to the western. The instrument was, of course, completely anachronistic, “but somehow Ennio did it so committedly that nobody ever questioned it ... He needed that sound to show the grit and the machismo of the characters”.

It was Morricone’s score for Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) that inspired Zimmer, than aged just 12, onto his own career path as a film composer.

Ennio Morricone was born in Rome on November 10, 1928. His first musical instrument was the trumpet and in 1946 he received his diploma at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia under the guidance of the composer Goffredo Petrassi. He wrote his first concert works in the late1950s then worked as an arranger for RAI, the Italian broadcasting company, and RCA-Italy.

In 1961 he produced his first film score, Il Federale, directed by Luciano Salce. For the next few years he contributed to other Italian projects, but it was his work for A Fistful of Dollars that brought him to international attention. He and the director had first met as children, at elementary school.

In 1965 Morricone joined an improvisational group, Nuova Consonanza, while continuing his prodigious work as a film composer. He worked with such noted directors as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Lina Wertmuller, Bernardo Bertolucci, Roman Polanski, Terrence Malick, Adrian Lyne, Oliver Stone and Pedro Almodovar, all in addition to the directors noted above. His film projects also included Gillo Pontecorvo’s award-winning The Battle of Algiers (1966) and Bugsy (1991, by Barry Levinson).

In 2007 Clint Eastwood presented him with an honorary Oscar; Morricone walked onto the stage to a sustained ovation from the audience. Looking emotional, he spoke in Italian, with Eastwood translating; he thanked the Academy and expressed his deep gratitude to all the directors who had shown faith in him, and without whom he would not be on that stage. He also said his thoughts went out to all the talented artists who had never received the honour.

Morricone wrote numerous classical works, including a cantata he wrote in response to the 9/11 terror attacks. Starting in 2001 he conducted his film and orchestral pieces in more than 100 concerts across Europe, Asia, the US, and Central and South America. He embarked on another lengthy concert tour a few years ago. His many awards included five BAFTAs, six Oscar nominations (he won for the last of these, for The Hateful Eight), a Grammy, three Golden Globes; in 2009 the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, appointed him to the rank of Knight in the Order of the Legion of Honour.

Morricone, who is survived by his wife, Maria Travia, and their four children, died in a Rome clinic, where he had been taken after fracturing his hip in a fall. Italy’s Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, tweeted a tribute to Morricone’s “artistic genius” which, he said, “made us dream, feel excited, reflect, writing memorable notes that will remain indelible in the history of music and cinema”.