Ennio Morricone’s Elegiac and Powerful Soundtracks of 1968
Ennio Morricone is one of the most influential and renowned film composers. There is an alchemy, a magic, inside Ennio Morricone’s best compositions. It is a blurring of the boundaries and definitions existing between genres. His film scores do not abide by conventions and break the rules. The metamorphoses and transformations are what make Morricone’s soundtracks so special. He followed his father Mario’s guidance in learning how to play the trumpet. His early employment during the 1950s was in a jazz band. Yet he also had knowledge of classical music from his years of studies at the prestigious Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia under the tutelage of Goffredo Petrassi. He combined in his own compositions the attention to details from his conservatory education with the improvisation and risk taking of his jazz playing. This led him to become a studio arranger at RCA Victor and in 1961 and 1962 he composed his first film scores for comedies and costume dramas.
Necessity is the mother of invention. An orchestra was deemed too expensive for the production costs of Sergio Leone’s 1964 directorial debut Fistful of Dollars. This lack of funding meant Morricone had to improvise. He used the trumpet (his signature instrument), the electric guitar, sound effects, and the vocalists of fellow composer Alessandro Alessandroni’s Cantori Moderni to create the score. He implemented a similar template for the subsequent stories in Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy (For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) and for other Spaghetti Western directors. His bold and powerful style, with an emphasis on eccentric electric guitar, captured lightning in a bottle: it captivated audiences worldwide and seemed to distill the energies in the rebellious youth of the new generation.
1968 was a chaotic year of conflicts. The Tet Offensive in January, the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by Eddie Adams of Nguyen Van Lem’s execution in February, and the My Lai Massacre in March blasted the horrors of the Vietnam War directly into American citizens’ consciousness. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and Robert Kennedy in June traumatized African Americans, Civil Rights protesters, and progressive voters. The student shut-down of Columbia University for one week (April 23-30) and, in August, the bloody riots by police in the Chicago streets outside the Democratic National Convention displayed a divide between the older and younger generations. The convulsive crisis was not only in the United States. It was changing Europe. The riots by students at universities and strikes by workers at factories in Paris during May 1968 almost caused the French economy to collapse. The progressive Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia was crushed by an invasion of Soviet tanks at the end of August.
Ennio Morricone was about to turn forty years old in November 1968. His career was at its zenith as he had concluded composing the soundtracks for Sergio Leone’s most epic film and Sergio Corbucci’s most melancholic film. Once Upon a Time in the West and The Great Silence were both released in theaters during December 1968. The films shared some common elements. They were both Westerns that featured introverted male protagonists: Charles Bronson as Harmonica only speaks sparingly and Jean-Louis Trintignant as Silence is literally a mute. They also both featured strong female characters portraying heroic (and maligned) women: the fiery Claudia Cardinale as New Orleans prostitute Jill McBain left alone with plans for a railroad town after the killing of her husband and children and the earthy Vonetta McGee as African American widow Pauline Middleton mourning her husband’s murder and seeking vengeance. The films were also both critiques of capitalism. Henry Fonda’s villain Frank serves the crippled railroad baron (Gabriele Ferzetti) and Klaus Kinski’s villain Loco serves Luigi Pistilli’s corrupt banker. The films were also quite different. Sergio Leone’s film features iconic American locales (Monument Valley) and is set in the familiar Western landscape of bright dust and summertime sunlight. There is also a sly sense of humor in the character of the bandit Cheyenne that lightens the mood. In contrast, Sergio Corbucci’s film is much bleaker—set in the depths of frozen winter with the most depressing ending in Western cinema history.
Morricone’s soundtracks for Once Upon a Time in the West and The Great Silence contain brilliant depth. Each character in Once Upon a Time in the West has a different theme highlighted by different instrumentation. Charles Bronson’s stranger is represented by Franco de Gemini’s haggard and hair-raising harmonica. Cheyenne (Jason Robards) is represented by a hangdog and sneaky banjo rhythm and percussion imitating the slow steps of a horse’s hooves with wistful whistling. The brutality of Frank (Henry Fonda) is represented by an abrupt and aggressive electric guitar. Jill (Claudia Cardinale) is represented by dramatic strings and an anguished and yearning wordless vocal from the soprano singer Edda Dell’Orso. Jill’s theme is also appropriately the main title and finale of Once Upon a Time in the West. Bronson speaks of himself and the other cowboys, gunslingers, and vagabonds as an “ancient race” that must move out of the way for the railroad. Frederick Jackson Turner believed (in his 1893 essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”) that citizens’ freedom and independence rose from the openness of the wilderness. The railroad made some places less significant and other places more significant. The “equality” of the frontier was erased by the railroad. Morricone’s soundtrack for Once Upon a Time in the West is a musical parallel to Turner’s thesis. Edda Dell’Orso’s plaintive and poignant wail is for the death of the frontier.
Morricone’s soundtrack for The Great Silence is complex and subtler. His soundtrack for Once Upon a Time in the West stirs together American country and folk with Italian opera into a spicy Southwestern stew. His soundtrack for The Great Silence is a late harvest Alpine wine with the grapes hanging icy on the vines. It is much more European and experimental with elements of religious and spiritual music found in Gothic cathedrals. The celeste and choir of Silence’s theme (“Restless”) and the trilling flutes of his painful childhood scar show his status as an eternal outsider and wanderer as he drifts through the snowy forest and mountain scenery. The diabolical cackle of the trumpets shows the sinister sneer of bounty hunter Loco (Klaus Kinski) as he guns down his hapless victims. The soaring strings in this score are only present during the love making (“Invito all’Amore”) of Pauline (Vonetta McGee) and Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant)—a striking scene for its time in its presentation of interracial romance. The strings are otherwise dirgelike and funereal—summoning an existential emptiness of facing the infinite void in the climax (“L’Ultimo Gesto”) where the dark dissonance is reminiscent of the Dies Irae mass and Giacinto Scelsi’s hypnotic Hymnos from 1963. Scelsi was an inspiration for Morricone’s avant-garde collective Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza. The madness of Morricone’s music in the ending of the film mirrors the madness of the murders of the citizens of Snow Hill, Utah and the madness of the Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico. “Voci Nel Deserto” is a haunting and sorrowful prayer for the dead: a requiem for the lost lives of 1968.
Morricone’s music in Once Upon a Time in the West and The Great Silence is magnificent in its melodic splendor and its revolutionary textures.