As the world is robbed of one of the finest movie composers of all time, John Meagher remembers a wet summer’s night seven years ago, when the Oscar-winning Italian composer charmed Dublin for the first time.
It was a rainy Saturday evening in late July but the thousands who had paid good money to attend the outdoor concert at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham in Dublin were not complaining. The year was 2013 and Ennio Morricone was conducting a cast of 200 — evenly split between the Orchestra Roma Sinfonietta and the Dublin Gospel Choir — and for 90 minutes he held the sodden masses rapt.
The Italian maestro was 84 then but he carried himself like someone far younger. He cut an animated figure during the more stirring moments of the music he had fashioned so many years before. And what a show it was: a spectacular journey through many of his greatest creations and, by extension, some of the finest musical moments in the history of cinema.
His death, at 91, robs the world of one of the greatest ever movie composers — a man whose work is just as indelible as the films he scored.
That summer seven years ago, he conducted his music in Ireland for the first time. It was a show promoted by the late John Reynolds — who also brought Leonard Cohen to Ireland for equally memorable concerts towards the end of his life. And for those who witnessed Morricone that July weekend, the assumption was that it would be the last time he would be on Irish soil.
Happily, there were to be other concerts here — including last year’s rapturously reviewed date at Dublin’s 3Arena. He had played the same venue a couple of years before that — and that date was supposedly his last — but he seemed to derive great joy from being on the road and taking his extraordinary music around the world. Retirement just didn’t seem to interest him.
That first night in Kilmainham offered a tantalising taste of his unique gifts. The set was heavily weighted in favour of the extraordinary music he had made for cinematic luminaries such as Sergio Leone, the kingpin of the spaghetti western. And it was the heart-swelling theme music for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly that really stood out — especially The Ecstasy of Gold, with an epic vocal performance from his compatriot Susanna Rigacci, and aided by the full force of the orchestra and choir. Apparently, it could be heard for miles around.
There’s enormous variation to his oeuvre — and while many of his most celebrated compositions are huge orchestral numbers, some of his most beloved work is wonderfully nuanced. The sublime Gabriel’s Oboe remains one of his greatest achievements and for generations of Irish people it will be forever associated with the long-running Aer Lingus advert from the 1980s.
It was written for The Mission, a 1986 film about a Jesuit missionary in 18th century South America. It was produced by honorary Irishman David Putnam and featured some of the finest homegrown acting talent of the era, including Liam Neeson, Ray McAnally and Aidan Quinn.
Morricone was born in Rome in 1928 and was his love of music was apparent from an early age. He cut his teeth in jazz bands in the 1940s before becoming studio manager for the old RCA Victor record label.
He migrated to soundtrack work in 1955 and, from the start, displayed the sort of prodigious work-rate that would become one of his trademarks. The sheer volume of his output is eye-opening: he is estimated to have scored more than 400 film and TV projects and he enjoyed his most fruitful work between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s.
His music for Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West remains one of the best-selling film soundtracks of all time, with more than 10 million copies sold, and his classic work has been endlessly recycled, finding its way into countless contemporary films including Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds.
He collaborated with some of Hollywood’s most celebrated directors, including Oliver Stone, Mike Nicholls and Brian De Palma, and worked with performers as diverse as Paul Anka and Andrea Bocelli.
Ever busy, he also took on stand-alone commissions, including the signature song for the 1978 World Cup.
He received an honorary Oscar for “his magnificent and multifaceted contributions to the art of film music” in 2007 and, in 2016, he collected his first competitive Academy Award for his score to the Tarantino film, The Hateful Eight — the oldest person at the time to win the famed gold statuette. It seems faintly ludicrous that the man who helped demonstrate the scope of the movie composer — and influenced so many of the giants who came after — would have to wait until the twilight of his career to receive such an accolade.
His contribution to movies and music will continue for as long as both are cherished — and for anyone present on that wet summer’s night in Dublin seven years ago, those memories will last a lifetime.