Eternity is a Sound: Farewell, Maestro Ennio Morricone

Remembering one of the most influential and talented composers of our times

by Maurizio Caschetto

The world awakened today, Monday July 6, 2020, with the devastatingly sad news of the death of composer Ennio Morricone, the Italian Maestro who graced hundreds of films with his incredible music. It is a tremendous loss for everyone who loves music and cinema, but also for every passionate lover of arts in general. Ennio Morricone epitomized the essence of what a composer for movies does at its absolute best. It’s no exaggeration to affirm that he is, together with his American counterpart and beloved colleague John Williams, the absolute ‘gold standard’ of the art of film scoring. Besides being immensely beloved and cheered by legions of fans, admired by fellow composers and lauded by esteemed musicians across the globe, Morricone has certainly continued to be one of the true prime examples of what the marriage between music and moving images can achieve when the artist is at the full command of his craft; but he’s also the epitome of the craftsman who constantly kept being totally and utterly dedicated to his craft, which in his case meant keep studying, refining and understanding the true essence of music.

“The composer doesn’t invent music, but “picks it up” in the moment he becomes aware of it, with love and dedication.”

Ennio Morricone

It would be pointless just to enumerate the list of classics from the Italian and international cinema he contributed to elevate through his art. Of course it’s impossibile not to think of Morricone’s beautiful melodies like the ones from Once Upon a Time In America, Cinema Paradiso and Once Upon a Time in the West; or the idiosyncratic collection of textures and sounds in scores like A Fistful of Dollars, Investigation on a Citizen Above Suspicion and the iconic The Good, The Bad and the Ugly; or the beautiful pitch-perfect blend of choral, ethnic and symphonic music that accompanies The Mission as sort of timeless sacred cantata—these works, plus at least four or five dozen others in a career that spanned over 60 years and 500+ films and television series, will be forever part of the repertoire of the best film music ever written. But all of this has never been taken for granted by Maestro Morricone. Even his apparent ease at producing timeless melodies was actually the consequence of hard, intense labour, always executed in the silence of his own home, at the writing desk, with just pencil and paper, not even a piano.

“The composer has a starting idea, a core essence that slowly elaborates in his mind. He might write it down, then erases it, and starts over again. Music doesn’t originate in a romantic manner, looking at the sky and capturing the inspiration from the ether. Composing music is a hard work.”

Ennio Morricone
Ennio Morricone at his writing desk (Photo © Roberto Baldassarre)

The humility and sincerity that appear from Morricone’s words when trying to describe the composer’s process, combined with the attitude of absolute no-nonsense he always kept during his whole career is essential to understand why he will be forever remembered not simply as a great film composer, but as one of the true all-time greats in the annals of music history.

Ennio Morricone was firmly aware of the aesthetic distinctions and differences between certain types of music, but he always faced the work with the same amount of respect and dignity. It didn’t matter if he was working on dazzling arrangements for Italian pop singers in the 1960s, or if he was writing music for a genre picture such as Orca, or if he was collaborating with poet-turned-filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini or auteurs such as Bernardo Bertolucci and Terrence Malick—the amount of craft, discipline and seriousness he always put in his work was exactly the same. And despite he was the first at clarifying what he intended as his Absolutmusik for the concert hall versus the Gebrauchsmusik of his works for cinema (“There is a profound chasm between the two”, he said once, “but that doesn’t mean there is A-list music and B-list music.”), Morricone has been the composer who did the most, again together with John Williams, to bring film music outside of its original context and showing that it has the same diginity and substance of music written for the concert hall (and the worldwide success of his sold-out concerts across the globe in huge sports arenas and convention centers during the last two decades certainly adds another element to that). This fundamental asset of Morricone’s oeuvre is best exemplified by many of his scores that nowadays are even more remembered than the film themselves such as The Mission, which the composer himself saw as the spiritual summation of his own aesthetic.

Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone in a photo from the late 1960s

Morricone was also a fantastic filmmaker, in the broadest sense of the term. He had an uncanny ability to read the film, understanding its most profound meaning, finding its inner strengths and magnifying them in the most perfect musical translation. He never resorted to cheap tricks, nor chose the easy route of just underlining the events on screen. Quite the contrary, Morricone was able to enhance the unseen and let the unspoken be heard, almost to the point that the music is let to take center stage and defines the film itself.

His work with director Sergio Leone, whom he collaborated with in six films, is seen as one of the most successful and celebrated collaborations between a director and a composer in the annals of movie history. The majority of the international audience probably remembers more the flashy, exuberant so-called spaghetti western (a term both Leone and Morricone despised) of the “Dollar Trilogy” starring Clint Eastwood, accompanied by Morricone’s iconoclastic scores characterized by bizzare musique concréte-like sounds, but the collaboration between director and composer spunned some of the true pinnacles of the marriage between music and film ever produced, especially in their later collaborations: Once Upon a Time in the West, A Fistful of Dynamite and Once Upon a Time in America. The prime example that runs through my mind at the moment is the sequence from Once Upon a Time in the West when Jill (Claudia Cardinale) arrives at the station, a moment that becomes the major turning point for the character in the film. A lot has been written by finer minds than mine about this iconic sequence, in which the camera moves at the pace of the music and literally flows in perfect unison with Morricone’s heart-wrenching composition. It’s a perfect definition of expressive power and transcendent beauty.

This artistic achievement can be matched by very few other films and collaborations between director and composer working in such aesthetic synergy. Then it cannot be a mere coincidence that Ennio Morricone always showed an immense amount of respect and admiration for his fellow American colleague John Williams. The two composers are as different and diverse as they can be, but they always shared the very same working ethic and amount of endless devotion toward their art. When it was announced just last month that Morricone and Williams were being bestowed the prestigious Princess of Asturias Award for the Arts, both composers remarked their respective admiration for each other. Morricone’s words were particularly profound and touching:

“John Williams and I have travelled parallel paths in our careers, sharing the same love and commitment to music and to music in film. Writing music also means experiencing profound solitude and concentration. I feel that John and I share the same ethic and constant dedication that makes us not only colleagues, but also brothers.”

Ennio Morricone

It was another sign of sincere affection and admiration, similar to the beautiful moment when Ennio Morricone was announced as the winner of the Academy Award for Best Original Score in 2016 for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.

Ennio Morricone is announced as the winner at the 2016 Academy Awards in the Best Original Score category and is greeted by composer John Williams

Someone wise once said that life is a credit that is given daily, and it is good to remember it almost every day. Ennio Morricone walked this sometimes dreary world for more than 90 years, lived a long, fruitful life, full of successes, accolades and achievements. Through his music, he communicated beauty, love and gratitude, sharing his talent with the whole world. Being contemporaries of artists of this magnitude, it’s easy to take their physical presence for granted. Music, although invisible and impalpable, is the closest thing we can get to the unfathomable concept of Eternity. It’s no exaggeration to say that Morricone is already eternal, in the pantheon of the Greats—not only of film composers, but all-time greats like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Mahler, Stravinsky, C’ajkovskij. His work is part of the entire world’s cultural baggage and we’ll continue to celebrate it as time goes by.

It’s very hard today to listen to Ennio Morricone’s music and not being overwhelmed with deep emotion. Maybe, just for today only, it’s better to tribute his memory through silence, which is the place where music is born. Before music, there is only silence, just as silence is what follows the end of music. Composing music is probably the act most similar to Creation. And perhaps this is why today all those who love music and cinema feel that this humble craftsman, always devoted to his strict discipline until his last day, an artist the world loved as much as a friend or a close family member, has finally transformed into that sound that he has chased throughout his entire life.

Grazie, Maestro. Now you are eternal Music, which will live until the end of days.

“I wish we would all transform into sounds at the end. If we were sounds in the beginning, it’s beautiful to think that we will go back to that at the end of the journey.”

Ennio Morricone

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