Trying to sum up the maestro’s 66-year career into ten tracks is impossible. His work was simply too diverse to be comprehensively boiled down into a neat list. His film scores alone spanned jazz, lushly romantic orchestrations, supremely freaked-out psychedelic rock and all points in between; outside of cinema, he worked in everything from 60s Europop to avant-garde modern classical; in rock and pop, his influence is the thread that binds artists as disparate as Metallica, Gnarls Barkley, Alex Turner and Adam and the Ants. What follows is, by necessity, a personal trawl through his back catalogue.
The Ecstasy of Gold (1966)
The main theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly may be the best-known moment from Morricone’s spaghetti western scores – a 1968 cover by Hugo Montenegro was a transatlantic Top 10 hit – but the greatest moment is the same film’s The Ecstasy of Gold, three and a half impossibly stirring minutes of swelling orchestration, relentless galloping drums and extraordinary wordless vocals by regular collaborator Edda Dell’Orso. It was subsequently covered by Metallica, sampled by Jay-Z, and appeared in dozens of TV shows, film soundtracks and adverts, but its later ubiquity has done nothing to dent the emotional power of Morricone’s original.
Mina – Se Telefonando (1966)
The most celebrated of Morricone’s diversions into pop music, at least in Italy, Se Telefonando is a perfect example of what Anglophone pop audiences missed by snootily ignoring anything not sung in English: a fantastic, epic ballad fit to take on anything that came from Bacharach and David’s pens in the same era, complete with very Morricone-esque idiosyncrasies. Its chorus melody was apparently influenced by the sound of a French police siren, and its bass notes are augmented by the sound of trombones.
The Group – The Feed-back (1970)
Morricone’s musical roots were in the uncompromising 20th century classical compositions of Stockhausen, Berio and Boulez. You could hear their influence in the way his spaghetti western scores mixed “real” sounds – whip cracks, grunts, animals howling – with music, but it was with experimental composers collective Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza that he ventured furthest into the realms of challenging musical experimentation. Their 1966 debut album paralleled the work of London’s celebrated free improvisation ensemble AMM, but by 1970’s The Feed-back – released under the name The Group – funk rhythms were stirred into the equation to startling effect.
Joan Baez – Here’s to You (1971)
To say Morricone came at pop music from an unusual angle is an understatement: for all its legendary status in Italy, the composition of Se Telefonando was influenced by serialism, while Here’s to You, released as a single in between Baez’s covers of The Band’s The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and The Beatles’s Let It Be, concerned itself with the unfair trial and execution of two Italian-born anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, in America in 1927. Slowly building in intensity, its repeated four lines of lyrics were given a second burst of exposure on the soundtrack to Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic in 2004.
Some of Morricone’s giallo thriller scores looked to his avant-garde classical work in order to up the fear factor – the unsettling atonal free improv of Gli Occhi Freddi Della Paura was performed by Il Gruppo – and sometimes he went in entirely the opposite direction, crafting impossibly beautiful music at odds with the film’s tenor. Sometimes he did both, as on 1974’s Spasmo, where bursts of electronic noise crashed against the becalmed and beautiful Bambole.
Days of Heaven (1978)
Had it not been for Giorgio Moroder’s brilliant repurposing of his trademark sound for Midnight Express, Morricone’s score for Days of Heaven might have won an Oscar. Certainly, it was an integral part of the critical – if not commercial – success of Terrence Mallick’s enigmatic period drama: inspired in part by Saint-Saëns’ Le Carnaval des Animaux, he rose to the occasion by coming up with music as sumptuous and arresting as Néstor Almendros’s cinematography.
Cockeye’s Song (1984)
The music Morricone came up with for his final collaboration with Sergio Leone, Once Upon a Time in America, was so emotive – and indeed completed so far ahead of the film itself – that the director took to playing it on set in order to conjure up a suitable atmosphere. It’s hard to pick a single moment from the score, but the theme Morricone devised for the doomed gang member Phillip “Cockeye” Stein is astonishingly haunting, not least in its use of Gheorghe Zamfir’s pan flute.
Gabriel’s Oboe (1986)
Speaking to the Guardian in 2001, Morricone suggested that he should have won an Oscar for his score for The Mission, pointing out that Round Midnight, the film that beat him to the award, did not feature original music. Perhaps the fact that The Mission was later voted as the greatest film score of all time by a panel of composers ameliorated his disappointment. It’s certainly among Morricone’s most beautiful pieces of work, as evidenced by the luminous melancholy of its main theme, Gabriel’s Oboe.
Throughout his career, Morricone developed a habit of producing scores noticeably better than the films they soundtracked: rotten Italian comedies of the 60s were gifted fabulous, experimental scores; the deranged Satanic prog rock of Magic and Ecstasy is pretty much the only thing to commend the otherwise catastrophic Exorcist II: The Heretic. The Monica Bellucci vehicle Malèna certainly isn’t as bad as that, but it’s a relatively slight film, and Morricone’s score is anything but: sumptuous, romantic and moving, it’s among his greatest latterday work.
L’Ultima Diligenza per Red Rock (2016)
Morricone’s penultimate score, for The Hateful Eight, returned him to westerns – by way of Quentin Tarantino, with whom he enjoyed a turbulent relationship – and wound up re-using work from the 70s and 80s, plundering the soundtracks of horror movies The Thing and Exorcist II for suitably dark material. But Morricone’s original work for the film, which occasionally nodded to his old giallo scores, more than matched the ventures into his back catalogue for brooding darkness.