There is a scene in the 1986 period drama, The Mission where Jeremy Irons’ Jesuit priest, deep in hostile territory and near surrounded by enemies, sits on a rock and plays his oboe. The soothing music echoes around the luscious clearing, arousing his would-be assailants’ curiosities and preventing violence in a beautiful declaration of the transcultural power of music. The track, ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’, is one of the most revered in the late Ennio Morricone’s legendary career, one that scored over 400 films in a span of over six decades and saw 70 million records sold worldwide.
Before I watched The Mission, the first time I heard that track was four years ago at my school’s commemoration service in Canterbury Cathedral. Usually the kind of service that lasts a lifetime and is a struggle to get through, this one was different. Rather than another hymn, a fellow pupil sat alone before a thousand people with naught but an oboe and the song book from which he played that signature Morricone piece. Among the gargantuan pillars and distant ceiling of the cathedral, the oboe’s tune was magnified and the feeling was simply euphoric; a similar experience to what the natives of South America felt in The Mission. One can’t fathom what his performances for the Pope in Vatican City must feel like. After the service there was an unanimous verdict among my friends: it was the best commemoration service we had been to. Why? Because of Ennio Morricone’s soul-touching music. It’s one thing to be a fantastic film score composer, but it is something else to create a single, two-minute track that can be removed from the context of its film and still touch and transport a cathedral full of teenage boys.
That being said, The Mission is but one of Morricone’s masterworks. The most prolific person in Hollywood to not speak English, the Italian Morricone (or the ‘Maestro’) scored for such distinguished classics as The Untouchables, The Thing, Casualties of War, Cinema Paradiso and The Hateful Eight for which he won his only Oscar for. Whilst overdue, the simple fact is that Morricone transcended the need for trophies and awards; his genius was already well known.
Although he worked with various directors throughout his illustrious career, it would be his unrivalled partnership with Italian director Sergio Leone that rightfully garners the most attention in his filmography. In Leone’s creation of the Spaghetti-Western sub-genre, Morricone’s input was pivotal. The smaller budgets of these Italian films denied the classical orchestral instruments that Hollywood was employing, and so Morricone looked for new musical sources.
The most titanic of these films is The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and its instantly recognisable theme song contains unorthodox whistling, yodelling and an iconic coyote wail. It is synonymous with the Western genre and when an Italian reinvents the entire sound of the American Old West, it must be impressive. And it is. The final 25 minutes of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly contains arguably some of the best film composing of all time. But here is where Morricone really shines: the music for the film was largely composed before filming had even begun. Connotations of the word ‘filmmaker’ are generally ‘director’ and sometimes ‘producer’, but rarely is the term used to describe a composer. Sergio Leone allowed the music to tell as much of the story as the script; writing scenes around the music was frequent, as was refusing to cut scenes because he did not want to cut the music. Such is the influence of Ennio Morricone, perhaps he is the only musician who deserves to be labelled as a filmmaker.
His influence has inevitably permeated the mainstream: Quentin Tarantino often recycles existing Morricone compositions for his films, while world-renowned heavy metal band Metallica and multi-million brands like KFC and Nike have all used the iconic ‘Ecstasy of Gold’ track from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Even when listening to Hans Zimmer’s ‘Parlay’ from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, it’s almost unavoidable to hear it without thinking of the Maestro’s work on Once Upon a Time in the West. Indeed, Zimmer is renowned for utilising electric instruments in film composing, but it was Morricone who first brought the electric guitar to the Western genre, subsequently influencing Zimmer to become a composer himself.
But it ultimately comes back to Jeremy Irons and his oboe, communicating his peaceful intent to those of another language. With high sales in Italy, France, USA and South Korea, Morricone’s music achieves what could be considered the greatest desire for an artist: an instant accessibility, no matter the culture, race or religion. It is music made to touch and enthral, but ultimately to endure. Without him a lot of cinema’s highest highs would never have been reached, and a school commemoration service would never have been remembered so fondly.
Directors shoot, Morricone scores.