After his passing at the age of 91, we look back at some of the greatest ever scores from cinema's greatest ever maestro
Italian maestro Ennio Morricone, a contender for the greatest film composer of all time, died this morning in Rome, at the age of 91. As one of the most revered and influential film composers in history, it's almost impossible to consider the ways in which his monumental legacy has impacted the shape of movie-going for the past six decades.
Best known for his wailing scores for Sergio Leone's iconic spaghetti westerns, Morricone was insanely prolific, composing music for films in every genre and on every budget. In 2016, he finally won an Oscar, aged 87, for his score for Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight – though his failure to bag one before that seems like one of the great oversights in Academy Awards history.
Morricone has long been my favourite composer for a multitude of reasons. His music is endlessly fascinating, beautiful, layered, clever, surprising, diverse, and unique. You can listen to a Morricone track for the hundredth time and still pick up on new musical phrases, inspired touches, and hidden emotional cues. In so many ways, it was Morricone who taught me how to love movies and appreciate the art of connecting images and music on screen.
In particular, Morricone's talent was in his ability to elevate a film. The pulpiest material could take on the grandest or most epic scope when accompanied by his intricate and emotional scores. And once you saw a film with Morricone's music attached, it was integral to your memory of it. In fact, so many films were able to ascend to a perception of greatness or importance on the basis of Morricone's contributions alone.
His music transcended their use in movies, too. His scores – of which there are more than 500! – can be enjoyed as pieces of music in and of themselves, separate from their association and ties to film. It would not be inappropriate to peg him as a modern Mozart – a composer whose work can be appreciated and analysed on the level of a classical composer.
In celebration of his long and fruitful career, I've selected 25 of the greatest tracks from across the years: essential pieces that define the man and his sound, some well known, some deeper cuts – but all the work of a true cinematic legend who will live on through the heights of his achievements…
“Title” – A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
This is the theme that basically announced Morricone's arrival, defining his trademark sound and creating an instant classic in Sergio Leone's spaghetti western. Some of the noises featured here were just unprecedented at the time. That guitar! Those whistles!
“Main Theme” – For a Few Dollars More (1965)
Morricone's main theme to Sergio Leone's Dollars follow-up, For a Few Dollars More, feels like an natural extension of the theme from the first film, absolutely reaffirming this as the sound of the spaghetti western. Yet there's more drama here, and when the strings kick in at 1:36 it's undeniably euphoric.
“Watch Chimes – Carillion's Theme” – For a Few Dollars More (1965)
An unforgettable theme for Lee Van Cleef's Colonel Douglas Mortimer, which accompanies a flashback to the murder of his sister, and is reprised during the film's epic final duel. It's a track that encapsulates Morricone's ability to create such depth and backstory with music alone – explanations not necessary.
“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – Main Title” – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)
Morricone's most famous theme, and there's a good reason why. Everything about this track screams iconic, to the point that it has not only come to exemplify the pinnacle of Morricone's spaghetti western themes, but as a shorthand for the entire western genre.
“The Sundown” – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)
A deceiving simple and atmospheric piece that tells you everything you need to know about Lee Van Cleef's titular villain the moment her rides into frame; a perfect evocation of mood in just over a minute. Quentin Tarantino, a huge Morricone fan, repurposed it to great effect in Kill Bill, Vol. 2.
“The Ecstasy of Gold” – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)
Often cited as the greatest piece of music that Morricone ever composed, this slow-building journey into pure exhilaration – to accompany Tuco's sprawling run through an endless graveyard at the climax of the film – completely transcends its origins as “film music.” Not only an all-time great Morricone track, but one of the most exemplary pieces of music ever composed.
“Main Theme” – The Battle of Algiers (1966)
This strange and haunting track is one of the main reasons why The Battle of Algiers still stands as one of the best films of the '60s. It echoes with uncertainty and sadness, a perfect encapsulation of the movie's themes.
“The Surrender” – The Big Gundown (1966)
This epic theme, with great piano parts that lead to a truly rousing finale, is now inexplicability tied to Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (Eli Roth executes a Nazi with a baseball bat to these epic sounds). But the music first appeared as part of Morricone's amazing score for underrated spaghetti western The Big Sundown.
“L'Arena” – The Mercenary (1968)
An incredible piece that just builds and builds, this triumphant track from Morricone's excellent score for the 1968 spaghetti western The Mercenary was famously used in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Vol. 2 to accompany the Bride's escape after she's buried alive (“Okay, Pai Mei… here I come”). This is inspiring to listen to, no matter how many times you've heard it.
“Jill's Theme” – Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Sergio Leone's gorgeous homage to the American western deserved a gorgeous theme to match. Morricone arguably outdid himself with this achingly melancholic ode to life on the frontier, and to the film's resourceful heroine, Jill. The moment in the film where Leone's camera cranes up over a train station to reveal a bustling town and Morricone's music rushes alongside it is one of the greatest in all of cinema.
“Man with a Harmonica” – Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Morricone's ability to create complete portraits of character with his music was unparalleled. He'd tell you everything you needed to know with just a short theme. “Man with a Harmonica” is unforgettably tense, angry, scary, and appropriately jarring – a perfect manifestation of unstoppable revenge.
“Abolisson” – Burn! (1969)
This awe-inspiring musical interlude, from little known Marlon Brando film Burn!, begins with an organ, adds in a vocal, and just builds and builds into the most hypnotic chant – like a warm-up for Morricone's later work on The Mission.
“A Fistful of Dynamite Theme” – A Fistful of Dynamite (1971)
One of Sergio Leone's most underrated films makes for one of Morricone's most under-appreciated soundtracks. But his work here more than equals that of his other, better known Leone collaborations. This theme is so unique in its changing of moods and tone, from sad to funny, and everything inbetween.
“Marcia Degli Accattoni” – A Fistful of Dynamite (1971)
This track, which accompanies a bank robbery at the film's midpoint, begins slowly, and then factors in more and more instruments until it feels ready to burst. Then it does just that, exploding with the most triumphant “La la la” vocal refrain.
“Main Theme” – The Thing (1982)
Morricone at his most stripped back. At times it's hard to imagine that a composer whose tracks are usually so elaborate in their design could create something so minimalistic. But the effect is not unlike that of John Williams' Jaws, creating tension in just a few notes – an insidious evil creeping up on you.
“Main Theme” – My Name is Nobody (1973)
Morricone's score for the comic western My Name is Nobody feels like the composer riffing on his own trademark sensibilities and style – a playful, tongue in cheek reinvention of the spaghetti western sound. Can a musical score be funny? This is an argument for such claims.
“Days of Heaven” – Days of Heaven (1978)
Terrence Malick's wistful drama about doomed lovers in early 20th century Texas needed just the right composer to capture the sense of longing and loss. Morricone's haunting, almost child-like musical score works like a dream and even earned him his first Oscar nomination.
“Deborah's Theme” – Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
There are some similarities between this and the theme from Once Upon a Time in the West, but the power of this music cannot be underestimated. Verge of tears, every time – utterly captivating and haunting, an ode to a life wasted and love lost.
“Main Theme” – The Untouchables (1984)
Perhaps the most outright adventurous piece of music that Morricone ever composed, this rousing theme accompanied Brian De Palma's prohibition era thriller, which starred Kevin Costner and Robert De Niro, and basically stole the movie out from its stars.
“On Earth as It Is in Heaven” – The Mission (1986)
Another contender for “most famous piece of Morricone music,” this track from the 1986 film The Mission is beautiful and unforgettable (though any piece from this score is phenomenal). One of the most notable cases in which the Morricone's music allowed a pretty good movie to feel like a great one.
“Gabriel's Oboe” – The Mission (1986)
A more stripped back take on the main theme of The Mission, this is just a plainly beautiful and unforgettable piece of music.
“Cinema Paradiso” – Cinema Paradiso (1988)
Morricone had a peerless gift for creating music with a built-in sense of nostalgia, evoking the feel of looking back into the past and to simpler times. The theme for Cinema Paradiso captures that sense of youthful longing perfectly.
“Love Theme” – Cinema Paradiso (1988)
There is a completely heartbreaking scene at the end of Cinema Paradiso that is made almost unbearably emotional on account of Morricone's score; a montage of kisses, cut from various films. As the music swells, it is basically impossible not to be reduced to tears.
“Love in the Afternoon” – Lolita (1998)
The best thing about Adrian Lyne's much maligned take on Lolita, starring Jeremy Irons, is Ennio Morricone's luscious score, which – with its sad and swooning melody – captures something of his own Once Upon a Time in America.
“The Last Stage to Red Rock” – The Hateful Eight (2015)
After years of reusing Morricone's scores in his own films, Quentin Tarantino achieved his dream of having the great maestro compose an original score for his own spaghetti western The Hateful Eight. This sinister and unbearably tense theme, using discarded elements from Morricone's own score for The Thing, won him a well-deserved Oscar in 2016. Better late than never.