Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Ennio Morricone (1929–2020)

The great film composer Maestro Ennio Morricone has died. He was prolific, with 520 composing credits on IMDb. Here are obituaries from The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Associated Press, the Hollywood Reporter and The Guardian.

My favorite film score (after Alexander Nevsky) is Morricone's score for Sergio Leone's film, Once Upon a Time in the West. It's probably my favorite western and I've listened to the score countless times. Similar to Sergei Prokofiev and Sergei Eisenstein's great collaboration on Nevsky, Morricone's music matches Leone's images so well that hearing it instantly conjures scenes from the five westerns and six films total they collaborated on, and it's all but impossible to imagine Leone's movies without Morricone's music. Morricone had range, too. He wrote some stunningly lovely pieces, but could also deliver menace, express grief or create creeping unease. His iconic main theme for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly let us know we were in for a fun ride. I used to look through used and bargain film score CDs and I'd buy anything by Morricone, even if I didn't like the movie, or hadn't seen it, or hadn't even heard of it. (That's how I discovered State of Grace below, which I eventually saw.) Ennio Morricone's music elevated the material and was transformative.

Nothing speaks better for Morricone than his own music. Here's the main theme from Once Upon a Time in the West, which is mostly closely related to the character Jill (Claudia Cardinale), who gets a more subdued version in "Jill's America":

The other major theme is "The Man with a Harmonica," which appears in several versions. It's haunting, unsettling and used to great effect in the climactic scene:

"As a Judgment" is a subtly menacing piece. I had a friend who particularly liked the build from 1:26 to 1:47, which hangs unresolved in delicious tension until the horns come in, methodical and somber:

All the five main characters have a theme of sorts, with "The Man with a Harmonica" really a blend of riffs for Harmonica and Frank, which is appropriate if you've seen the movie. "Farewell To Cheyenne" is the more casual, slightly comical-but-not-really theme for Jason Robards' character. It's used to more ominous effect in a track called "First Tavern" for Cheyenne's entrance.

(I do have a "remastered" CD of the score where some idiotic mixer added a fade through the ending of this track starting before the false stop, which just stuns me. It's the equivalent of fading out before a key dialogue exchange, obscuring a critical moment. How could anyone be so comatose as to miss what the cue sounds like in the movie and why the music pauses? How could anyone think, "Morricone clearly made a mistake here – I know better and I'll fix it"?)

Sticking with westerns, here's the iconic and rollicking main theme from The Good, the Bad and Ugly:

Here's Morricone conducting the score's other signature piece, "The Ecstasy of Gold":

If you want to see Morricone's music in context, here's the film's finale, which of course you've seen before:

I think Morricone's score for The Mission is his second best. The music for "Gabriel's Oboe" may be the prettiest thing he ever wrote and is one of the loveliest pieces I've ever heard:

Here's Morricone conducting a suite of The Mission, which is quite moving:

Morricone also wrote the music for Leone's film, Once Upon a Time in America. The prettiest piece is "Deborah's Theme":

Here's the wistful theme theme from Malena:

The State of Grace main theme is moody and unsettling:

To close things out, here's music from Cinema Paradiso:

Finally, let's hear from Yo-Ya Ma, who recorded a CD of Morricone music:

Thanks for all the lovely and evocative music, Maestro.

Saturday, July 04, 2020

What to the Slave Is the Fourth Of July?

NPR asked descendants of Frederick Douglass to deliver excerpts from his speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” It's pretty fantastic:

You can read the full speech here. The descendants' names and ages are listed on the YouTube page here. NPR notes that "this video was inspired by Jennifer Crandall's documentary project" Whitman, Alabama.