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February 2014
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Ennio Morricone: The Good, the Bad, and the Film Legend

Composer Ennio Morricone

Composer Ennio Morricone

Ennio Morricone Makes Rare Visit to Chicago

American teenagers use his music for ring tones. He created some of the most memorable moments in all of film; Ennio Morricone is a classic–except he’s way more hip than that.

Born in 1928, Morricone’s film career took off in the 1960s scoring Spaghetti Westerns (Italians prefer ‘western all’italiana’); films shot largely in Spain with a multilingual cast of gringos and hombres to be overdubbed later. Fifty years on, Morricone’s collaborations with director Sergio Leone continue to outsell many of their American-made counterparts. The films are gritty; anti-heroes abound, and the music is unforgettable.

Clint Eastwood in "A Fistful of Dollars"

Clint Eastwood in “A Fistful of Dollars”

Through the decades, scoring over 500 films and TV shows, Morricone’s success has always sprung from his fierce individuality. When Hollywood was looking to Rachmaninoff and Burt Bacharach for a musical language, Morricone found his in the call of the coyote or a rusty hinge. Morricone’s acute sensitivity to sound infuses every moment of his scores with colors as diverse as the characters on-screen. Perhaps that is the secret to his career longevity: he has never succumbed to Hollywood formulas, which ultimately date composers. Morricone’s vivid tapestries prove irresistible to people like writer/director Quentin Tarantino, who’s used Morricone in four of his last five films (most recently Django Unchained).

For Morricone, being a composer is not limited to movies. This week’s visit to Chicago comes with a Chicago Symphony/Riccardo Muti series of performances of a Morricone concert piece. Maestro Muti selected a cantata composed in the wake of 9-11, which he himself premiered in 2003. The piece, titled Voices from the Silence, has all the color and individualism of the film composer, though one doesn’t get the impression Voices follows a story, rather it transports the audience into an emotional place.

Opening with fast, chromatic, agitated flourishes in the strings, the music falls abruptly into an abyss. Suddenly we remember how effectively this composer writes a long, pregnant pianissimo (i.e. which gunslinger will draw first?). A key component to Voices from the Silence is the use of prerecorded chants coming from people across the globe. Only the most discerning ethno-musicologists would be able to identify most of it, but that doesn’t seem to be the point. The singers in these recordings chant the essence of their beliefs, yet sound remarkably similar. It’s as if Morricone is saying, “Yes, each identity is unique, but everyone has one; therefore we’re all the same.”

The text for the cantata comes from a poem by a man, Richard Moore Rive, who was murdered during Apartheid in South Africa. We hear the poem recited first by a narrator, later sung by the Chicago Symphony Chorus. There’s a poignant moment in this piece when ugliness and despair explode, leaving behind a peaceful calm in G major. The vocal-writing takes on the character of a chant-based chorale, but sotto voce; as if the chorus sings behind a veil.

As usual, the colors and aural effects are striking. To follow Voices from the Silence, however, the movie must come from our own imaginations. Unlike Hollywood whose mantra for scenes is “in late, out early,” Italian director Sergio Leone utilized long sequences of little to no action—loaded with detail like, sun-scorched flesh; endless, baked landscapes; stillness, flies; bored, lawless men; hot wind, decayed buildings—that concept of a long, evocative, cinematic establishing shot is the essence of Voices from the Silence. The music is vivid and filled with imagery. The caption on Ennio Morricone’s score reads, “Against terrorism, against racism, and all forms of ethnic persecution. For equality among all people.”

The rest is up to you.



  • Janet Munro Jesse

    What got me through my teen years was Rachmaninoff’s Vicalaise sung by Anna Moffo. I think it has the right ratio of optimism and angst to suit the teenage experience. When my daughter was a teen, for Christmas she asked each family member to give her their favorite classical cd. It was a lovely way to build her own library.

  • RustyEggleston

    Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” did it for me.