Ennio Morricone, the The Italian composer, whose atmospheric scores for spaghetti westerns and around 500 films by a Who’s Who by international directors made him one of the most versatile and influential music creators in the world for modern cinema, died in Rome on Monday. He was 91 years old.
His death was confirmed by his lawyer Giorgio Assumma, who said that Mr. Morricone was hospitalized last week after he fell and broke his thigh.
For many filmmakers, Maestro Morricone (pronounced more-ah-CONE-ay) was a unique talent who created melodic accompaniments to comedies, thrillers and historical dramas by Bernardo Bertolucci, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Terrence Malick, Roland Joffé, Brian De Palma and Barry Levinson, Mike Nichols, John Carpenter, Quentin Tarantino and other filmmakers.
In 2016, Mr. Morricone won his first competitive Oscar for his score for “The Hateful Eight”, an American western mystery thriller, for which he also won a Golden Globe. In a career full of honors, he had previously won an Oscar for his life’s work (2007) and had been nominated for five other Academy Awards. He had won two Golden Globes, four Grammys and dozens of international awards.
But the work that made him world famous and best known to moviegoers was his mix of music and sound effects for Sergio Leone’s 1960s spaghetti western: a ticking pocket watch, a creaking sign, buzzing flies, a changing Jew harp, haunting pipes, cracking whips, shots and a bizarre, howling “ah-ee-ah-ee-ah” played on a wind instrument in the shape of a sweet potato called ocarina.
Imitated, despised, faked what became known as “The Dollars Trilogy” – “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964), “For a Few Dollars More” (1965) and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1965) 1966), all released in the United States in 1967 – with Clint Eastwood as “The Man Without a Name” and huge hits with a total budget of $ 2 million and global gross income of $ 280 million.
The Italian dialogue of the trilogy was synchronized, and the action was brooding and slow, with clichéd close-ups of shooters’ eyes. But Mr. Morricone, who violated the unwritten rule of never putting actors on stage with music, put everything with ironic tonal craziness and melodramatic strain, which many fans embraced with cultic dedication and critics who were considered viscerally true for Mr. Leones early vision of the old west.
“In the films that established his reputation in the 1960s, the spaghetti western series he made for Mr. Leone, Mr. Morricone’s music is anything but a backdrop,” wrote the New York Times critic, Jon Pareles, in 2007. “It is sometimes a conspirator, sometimes a lampoon, with melodies that are as vivid as any actor’s face.”
Mr. Morricone also achieved Mr. Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968) and his Jewish gangster drama “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984), both widely regarded as masterpieces. But it became the tightest identified with “The Dollars Trilogy” and over time got tired of responding for their insignificant sensitivities.
When asked by The Guardian in 2006 why “A Fistful of Dollars” had such an impact, he said, “I don’t know. It is the worst film Leone made and the worst score I made. “
“The Ecstasy of Gold”, the theme song for “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”, was one of Mr. Morricone’s greatest hits. It was recorded by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma on an album of Mr. Morricones compositions and used by two rock bands in concert: as closing music for the Ramones and as an introductory topic for Metallica.
Mr. Morricone looked like a professor in a bow tie and glasses with strands of white hair. Sometimes he hid in his palazzo in Rome and wrote music for weeks, composing not at the piano but at the desk. He heard the music in his head and wrote it in pencil on sheet music for all orchestral parts.
Sometimes he made 20 or more films a year and often only worked on a script before showing the rushes. The directors marveled at his reach – tarantulas, psychedelic screeches, swelling love themes, tense passages of high drama, stately memories of the 18th century or uncanny dissonances of the 20th century – and the ingenuity of his silence: he was careful with too much music to overload an audience with emotions.
He composed for television films and series like “The Sopranos”, wrote about 100 Concert pieces and orchestrated music for singers like Joan Baez, Paul Anka and Anna Maria Quaini, the Italian pop star Mina.
Mr. Morricone never learned English, never left Rome to compose, and refused to fly anywhere for years, although he eventually flew around the world to conduct orchestras and sometimes to perform his own compositions. While writing extensively for Hollywood, he did not visit the United States until 2007, when he was 78 years old on a one-month tour that was interrupted by film festivals.
He gave concerts in New York at Radio City Music Hall and at the United Nations and ended the tour in Los Angeles, where he received an honorary Oscar for his life’s work. The presenter, Clint Eastwood, roughly translated his acceptance speech from Italian when the composer “expressed great thanks to all the directors who believed in me”.
Ennio Morricone was born in Rome on November 10, 1928 as one of five children of Mario Morricone and the former Libera Ridolfi. His father, a trumpeter, taught him to read music and play various instruments. Ennio wrote his first compositions at six. In 1940 he entered the National Academy of Santa Cecilia, where he studied trumpet, composition and directing.
His experiences from World War II – hunger and the dangers of Rome as an “open city” among German and American armies – were reflected in some of his later works. After the war he wrote music for the radio; for Italy’s RAI broadcasting service; and for singers under contract with RCA.
In 1956 he married Maria Travia. They had four children: Marco, Alessandra, Andrea and Giovanni.
His first film was Luciano Salces “The Fascist” (1961). He soon began working with Mr. Leone, a former schoolmate. He also made political films: Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers” (1966), Pasolini’s “The Falcons and the Sparrows” (1966), Giuliano Montaldo’s “Sacco and Vanzetti” (1971) and Bertolucci’s “1900” (1976).
Five Morricone scores nominated for Oscars showed his virtuosity. In Mr. Malick’s “Days of Heaven” (1978) he conquered a love triangle in the Texas Panhandle around 1916. For “The Mission” (1986) about an 18th century Jesuit priest (Jeremy Irons) in Brazilian rain in the forest, he interweaved the panpipe music of the indigenous people with that of the European instruments of a mission party and played out the cultural conflicts.
In “The Untouchables” his music fought the battle between Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and Al Capone (Robert De Niro) in Chicago during the prohibition period. In Mr. Levinson’s “Bugsy” (1991) about the gangster Bugsy Siegel (Warren Beatty), it was a medley for a star-struck sociopath in Hollywood. And in Mr. Tornatores “Malèna” (2000) he orchestrated the trials of a Sicilian war city from the perspective of a boy who was obsessed with a beautiful woman.
In conversation with Mr. Pareles, Mr. Morricone put his celebrated work in a humble perspective. “The idea that I am a composer who writes a lot of things is true on the one hand and not true on the other,” he said. “Maybe my time is better organized than that of many other people. But compared to classical composers like Bach, Frescobaldi, Palestrina or Mozart, I would define myself as unemployed. “
Elisabetta Povoledo contributed to the reporting.