Background music

21st March 2003 at 00:00
Who does not thrill with anticipation as the titles roll for A Fistful of Dollars? We all know the jaunty, high-pitched tune whistled by the unseen cowboy as the black-on-red images give a taste of the drama to come.

As the music continues, it comes under fire from gunshots, but it canters on, just as the cut-out figures do on screen. An electric guitar takes up the theme, now punctuated by the tolling of a bell; a whole world is here, and the mood is menacing, but at the same time expectant, almost serene. As the titles give way to live action, the whistling fades down till it blends with the creaking of the wheel with which the lone cowboy, pausing on his ride through the rocky hills, hauls up a cooling drink from a well.

Deceptively simple this music may be, but it's high art: Ennio Morricone, whose score this is, is no less a presiding genius than is director Sergio Leone, in the Clint Eastwood trilogy which continues with For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. And these spaghetti Westerns were themselves only the tip of the iceberg: Morricone's 400 film scores include The Mission, Once Upon a Time in America, Cinema Paradiso, and The Untouchables', and at 75 he's still going strong.

Yet all this, with its pungent fusions of classical and popular idioms, is itself only a part of this remarkable composer's oeuvre. These days he's spending more time with the avant-garde compositional techniques he espoused as a young student: having secretly deputised for his trumpeter father in a light-music orchestra in his native Rome, he had became an early convert to serialism.

His work in this sphere may be too esoteric to figure in the record shops, but that stalwart film band, the City of Prague Philharmonic, have produced an excellent compilation of his greatest film music: listen to "The Mission: The Classic Film Music of Ennio Morricone" (FILMCD 171).

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