The Maestro of Multiple Voices: The ‘Absolute Music’ of Ennio Morricone

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Double Lives: Film Composers in the Concert Hall, 2019
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Ennio Morricone’s 2016 Oscar for Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight came after a decades-long succession of nominations for his scores to Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1979), The Mission (Roland Joffe, 1986), The Untouchables (Brian de Palma, 1987), Bugsy (Barry Levinson, 1991), and Malena (Giuseppe Tornatore, 2000). These are just the tip of the iceberg for Morricone, who has composed music for some four hundred and fifty film and television productions since the early 1960s when he rose to international prominence after the success of A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone, 1964). Dwarfed by this gargantuan record of accomplishment in music for cinema, Morricone’s output as a composer of ‘absolute music’ nonetheless represents a substantial body of work spanning some one hundred and twenty compositions for orchestra, choir, piano, percussion, various soloists, organ, guitar, harp, brass, strings, woodwinds, harmonica, harpsichord, synthesizers and tape. Additionally, the experimental music that issued from his involvement as trumpeter and flautist with improvisation group Nuova Consonanza between 1965 and 1980 reflects the influence of avant-garde composers John Cage and Giacinto Scelsi, funk and free jazz. This essay considers several of Morricone’s prominent concert works, including Cantata for Europe (1988), UT (1991), Voci dal silenzio (2002), Vuoto d’Anima Pien (2008), and Mass for Pope Francis (2015), within the context of his broader output. It examines how the influences of sacred music, opera, serialism, musique concrete, and populism are present in the language he applies in his film and concert music, offering intersections that connect both aspects of his work. For example, the striking polymodality of his main theme for The Mission is evident in his Mass for Pope Francis (2015), where a split choir recreates the antiphonal singing that characterized Renaissance Venetian Church music, and into the Mass’s Kyrie, Gloria, and Agnus Dei, Morricone introduces dissonance, extended vocal techniques, and phrases from The Mission theme. In Voci dal Silenzio (2002), a somber programmatic work for orchestra, choir, spoken word and tape, Morricone incorporates field recordings of vocal performances from different cultures, played over a sustained orchestral layer; a compositional choice more reflective of film soundtrack convention than that of music for the concert hall.
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