Sergio Leone, Ennio Morricone, and Henri Verneuil in 1972

Ennio Morricone & Sergio Leone (Sound of Cinema)

Italian cinema has been characterised by many great artistic collaborations such as that between Nino Rota and Federico Fellini. Similarly, director Sergio Leone and music composer Ennio Morricone contributed significantly to the establishment of film music as a recognised genre. With the recent passing of Ennio Morricone earlier this week, many have reflected on the composer’s lasting legacy which includes revolutionising the sound of cinema.

Today, an established sub-genre of music, the origins of the film score as we know it derived from new influences of the post-war era. With the commercial development of the music industry, Jazz music and Pop music gained mainstream recognition. The potential recognition value of a song featured in a film, therefore, rose significantly, making them increasingly more attractive to utilise in the production of films.

For many, Italian composer Ennio Morricone was the master of the soundtrack, arguably the most famous Italian composer for this genre. In a life-long partnership with director Sergio Leone, the duo developed the blueprint of the sonic landscape for film, and moreover iconised the genre of the Italian American Western.

Ennio Morricone playing the trumpet

Sergio Leone on the set with Clint Eastwood

Morricone, born in November 1928 in Trastevere in Rome, grew up with a father who played the trumpet professionally. The origins of his first compositions can be traced back to a young age. Although they may be linked to an early revelation of his talents, they were furthermore a preparation to possibly continue his father’s profession. Taking after his father, Mario Morricone, he learned how to play the trumpet and even shadowed his father at gigs, whenever he could not attend. At this point, Ennio Morricone was around ten years old. Born into a working-class family, the Morricones were dependant on the income of these musical engagements. Eventually at the age of fourteen Morricone enrolled at the “Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia”, a conservatory for music, where he pursued serious studies for the trumpet. During his time at the school, young Morricone was continuously obsessed with composing his own music, which at the time was deemed unusual and controversial for a trumpet player.

Sergio Leone grew up in the same neighbourhood in Rome and even attended the same school as Morricone. Although they appeared on the same school photo together, they did not know each other at the time and would only meet at a later point once Morricone’s creative career was more established. Following his formal education at the conservatory, Morricone began working for the Italian RCA (Radio Corporation of America), where he worked with various successful names of the industry and was able to compose his own sheet music. Amongst his successes in the realm of radio and television is the song “Se telefonando” by Italian singer Mina, composed by Morricone in 1966. The hit revealed the composer’s ability to blend his fascination with traditional orchestra sound with the structures of modern pop music. The composer’s true talent, however, showed a wide range in style. Morricone connected with the avant-garde through the discovery of found sounds. Attending a lecture by John Cage in Darmstadt, Germany in 1958, Morricone as many other European composers, developed an interest in artistic provocation. Cage claimed it was necessary to expand the definition of sound and to recognise everyday sounds as musically equivalent to the instrument. This element of Morricone’s style distinguished him greatly from other composers at the time and would later be significant to the success of his musical scores written for Sergio Leone.

In 1964, Leone contacted Morricone to hire him as a composer for his upcoming “Trilogia del dollaro”, the Dollars Trilogy that encompassed the Italian Westerns “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964), “For a Few Dollars More” (1965) and finally the acclaimed “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966). At the time, the film industry was struggling due to the rise of television as a new popular medium. Established film studios were not able to depend on the masses to come to the cinema anymore and whilst the Western genre of the classic Hollywood industry was still being produced, the films were not as successful anymore. Alongside the wide-spanning political and cultural shifts of the 1960s, the film industry in Europe participated in a revolutionary discovery of a new and exciting format for the Western film genre that due to its Italian origin would later be referred to with the derogatory term “Spaghetti Western”. As a young assistant director, Sergio Leone had been working in the film industry since the age of 18. When Mario Bonnard, director of the 1959 Italian epic “The Last Days of Pompeii” fell ill, he asked Leone to step into his role to complete the production. Only two years later, he would direct his feature debut “The Colossus of Rhodes” (1961) which solidified Leone as bona fide filmmaker. Possibly inspired by the lively culture of cinema in Italy, Leone strived to produce an Italian Western that would be radically different from the American counterpart. One that would adapt the mood of a James Bond film, a Rock and Roll attitude that would be translated in casting, set design and moreover in the musical score.

Sergio Leone, Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood on set

Ennio Morricone playing the piano

When Morricone and Leone first met in 1963, the composer presented Leone with new arrangements of American folk sound, paired with Morricone’s signature style of the found sounds such as the noise of a church bell, or a whip. Legend says that Leone immediately realised they had just found the signature score for his Western genre. “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) marked the beginning of their artistic partnership that actually started under the false branding of the American-sounding stage names: Bob Robertson and Dan Savio. Paired with Leon’s trade-mark extreme close up sequences of faces, the score of the films immediately transported the viewer into its own microcosm that read the plot in various abstract ways. The sonic landscape of the films employed different innovative sound arrangements such as the repetition of a short pitching flute sound that appeared every time the main character, played by Eastwood, did something arguably heroic. Here the viewer of the film indirectly adopts the meaning of different sound bites and through their repetition can employ Morricone’s set of noises to appropriate meaning and symbolism. Furthermore, Morricone made use of unusual instruments such as the American Fender Stratocaster guitar, which before “The Dollars Trilogy” would have been an odd choice for a Western. The mix of melodramatic instrumentals, conceptual noises and human voices created a perfect harmony between Leone’s daring visual compositions and the at times conflicting character developments.

Set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, the film “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966) certainly represents the highlight of their collaboration. The highly popular film was the third and final film of the Dollars Trilogy and concluded a string of productions that launched Leone’s “Spaghetti Western” genre, the stardom of actor Clint Eastwood and Morricone’s career as a highly acclaimed composer.