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Wah-wah-waah. Legendary composer Ennio Morriconne dies as orchestral movie scores outlive disco

‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ composer died more peacefully than the characters he scored.

When the legendary composer known as “Il Maestro” died earlier this week, he left behind a vast and versatile body of work that would eclipse many of even his most acclaimed peers through volume alone.

Composer Ennio Morricone, who was 91, wrote hundreds of film and television scores spanning 70 years and three continents; his work appeared in films across multiple languages, genres, countries, and time periods united by a singular and ineffable musical talent.

“Morricone was a truly great composer… He was able to transcend the inaccessibility of artistic composers while still being original and inventive,” said Bradley De Lucia, a composer. “I can’t think of a more esoteric concept for orchestration than what was done for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’s main theme, yet he remains not only fully accessible, but brazenly sublime and often transcendent. In that respect, he was irreplaceable.”

Originally a trumpeter, he composed his first music at the age of 6, and became a popular composer and arranger of both popular and contemporary classical music after graduating from the conservatory at the National Academy of St Cecilia, one of the oldest musical institutions in the world.

He scored his first film in 1959, as a conductor and uncredited co-composer for director Franco Rossi’s “Morte Di Un Amico (Death of a Friend).” It would be the first of many, many more to come. By the end of his career, he had composed some 500-plus score for film and television; not counting absolute music, opera or theatrical scores.  

His scores encompassed a wide variety of styles and genres, though he may be best remembered for the iconic and oft-imitated sound he gave to Spaghetti Western films (a term he infamously loathed), many of them directed by his longtime collaborator Sergio Leone. His themes for Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy continue to be sampled, covered, remixed, and copied in anything and everything.

“He was among the likes of Beethoven or John Williams, in that he could use the tiniest, most simple-sounding motives to a remarkable, uncannily fitting effect for the atmosphere he intends on screen,” said De Lucia.

But it wasn’t just his Western scores that made an impact. Morricone was never nailed down to just one film or score or genre. He worked in practically every genre imaginable; horror, drama, romance, comedy, science fiction, action, crime, period pieces and even erotica. Regardless of the project’s budget or nationality or perceived “prestige” he always brought the same level care and craft in his music that made him so famous.

His music for the stylish horror-thrillers known as “giallo” (Italian for “yellow”) are particularly beloved among horror fans the world over, and his cold, alien synth compositions for John Carpenter’s “The Thing” were perfectly suited to that film’s oppressive sense of paranoia and mounting tension in the harsh Antarctic wasteland. “The Thing’s score is perhaps the best we have in genuine horror—while still, paradoxically, being pleasing to the ear,” De Lucia said.

Outside of film scores, he co-founded the Forum Music Village recording studio, which was home at various times to artists like Quincy Jones, Vangelis, Andrea Bocelli, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Will.i.am, Danger Mouse and Cher.

Morricone’s work earned him a great deal of widespread acclaim. He was nominated for six Academy Awards, finally winning in 2016 for Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.” He also won an Honorary Academy Award in 2007, presented by Eastwood, for his “magnificent and multifaceted contributions to the art of film music.”

He also won six BAFTAs, four Grammy, three Golden Globes, and 11 of his country’s highest film honors – the Davids Di Donatello. His score for the 1986 film The Mission was honored by the American Film Institute as one of the Top 25 Best American Film Scores of All Time, and his scores will frequently top lists of “greatest film score” lists. He was knighted into the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, the highest civilian honor in the country.

A proud Roman his whole life, Morricone died in hospital after complications from a fall sustained in his hometown. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and President Sergio Martella both offered condolences to Morricone’s family. Martella said that Morricone “left a deep mark in the history of music in the second part of the 20th century… Through his soundtracks, he has greatly contributed in spreading and reinforcing Italy’s prestige around the world.”

Several notable filmmakers and composers, like Edgar Wright and Hans Zimmer, likewise took to Twitter to give their condolences. Famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma posted a video of himself performing Morricone’s “Love Theme” from Cinema Paradiso.

“A great composer never dies,” De Lucia said. “Every whistle and hum of the fan or the parodist, every lifting of one’s chest with the scores will be /Him/, they’ll be speaking his soul, and thus- elevating the souls of those who speak it. That, that is what a great artist is and ought to be.”

His agent of more than 30 years, Sam Schwartz, said “We grieve the loss of our friend and client, Maestro Ennio Morricone. We shared 32 memorable years of his gifted music and friendship giving the world a soundtrack to our lives. Rest in peace.”

Morricone is survived by his wife of 63 years, and four children. His lawyer Giorgio Assumma said he had previously requested a private funeral.

(Edited by Allison Elyse Gualtieri.)