It is often said that the music for the Spaghetti western made a profound impact upon composers, film makers and film music collectors all over the world, and this is a statement that I for one would not argue with. Its really amazing just how much influence that the music for these ultra-violent, quirky and sometimes complex and comedic films has had upon film music over the years, so much so that even today in certain movies and TV shows and also adverts that a sound or a collection of sounds combined with a certain camera angle or a close up of eyes etc evokes straight away the Italian Western as perceived by the likes of Sergio Leone, Sergio Sollima, and Sergio Corbucci to name but three.
This trio of filmmakers were responsible for creating the blueprint if you like that would be referred to by so many other directors and producers when making westerns and indeed when shooting any genre of film. What we saw in the Italian produced western was a harsher and more realistic take on the west, it was more cutting edge and certainly more violent than what had gone before in the guise of both the Hollywood western and the German produced western.
But there is truly little doubt that it was Leone, who was the main instigator for the way in which the Italian western was made, and his composer Ennio Morricone must also be given credit for his part in the creation of what is now an iconic genre of films. I do not think that music was ever given as much room or a composer given as much freedom to flex his musical muscles than in the Dollars trilogy, the music as we know becoming an integral part of the unfolding storylines and at times also being an important and vital component to the storylines of all three movies. I say this because of the use of the chimes in For a Few Dollars More, more than anything else and Morricone’s offbeat and unusual orchestration on The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, where the lush and expansive themes of Hollywood productions were replaced by the shouts, screams and sheer originality of the now familiar Good, Bad, Ugly theme.
But it was not just Morricone that fashioned highly inventive scores for Italian made westerns, although it is, I suppose accepted that if Morricone had not been so innovative in his scoring of the Dollars trilogy, maybe the hundreds of scores and films that followed might have taken a different course both stylistically on screen and musically.
After all another composer was penciled in by Leone to score A Fistful of Dollars, because the director thought that Morricone’s work on films such as Gunfight at Red Sands was too Americanized and ordinary. We must be thankful that Leone re-considered. The sound of the Italian or Spaghetti western is a unique one, and it has a longevity that has been passed down from generation to generation of film buffs and film music lovers, and also composers so much so that the style pops up here there and everywhere, but no matter where it manifests itself, we all know that the composer whom ever they may be is doing a spaghetti simply because of the style and the sound we are hearing on the soundtrack. A recent example of this type of scoring is Daniel Pemberton’s brilliant score for The Man From Uncle which contains so many Spaghetti western references, take a listen to the cue, His Name is Napoleon Solo from the score, and you will see what I mean. Chimes, electric guitar, harpsichord, percussion all combine to create a Morricone-esque or Italian Western slanted piece. I thought it might be interesting to get other composers thoughts on the music of the Italian western and maybe some memories of the genre. I was surprised by the amount of positive feedback I got from composers, many of them saying Italian westerns had made them more aware of music in film and others commenting that it was probably the music they heard on these films soundtracks that made them determined to become film music composers.
The influence as I have said of the Italian western score is far reaching and profound, I for one although am no composer, but I adore the quirkiness, the darkness, the freshness and the inventive originality of the genre and its musical heritage. As well as composers working in film music today I have also included sections of interviews with Italian Maestros, who were scoring westerns at the same time as Morricone and were often asked to compose in a style close to that of Morricone. Composer Remo Anzovino is in my opinion one of todays most innovative composers of music for Film and TV, plus he is a remarkably talented and gifted pianist. His scores for films such as Frida Viva la Vida, and Van Gogh- of Wheat Fields and Clouded Skies, being two remarkable soundtracks that are haunting and filled with an emotive excellence. He commented upon the music and the films from the Italian western genre.
“Duck you, Sucker!”(Giu la Testa) a movie directed by Sergio Leone with the music by Ennio Morricone made a great impression upon me, I was born in 1976. I remember as a child some western comedies with Bud Spencer and Terence Hill. When I started composing music during my adolescence and I discovered cinema, I certainly fell in love with the sounds that Morricone used in Sergio Leone’s films and over time I began to analyse their films from a musical point of view to better understand their magic”.
I asked the composer his thoughts on How Morricone is often credited with the creation of the Italian western sound but as well as Ennio Morricone what other composers would he say made innovative contributions to the genre, and did he think that the musical scores and the way in which the music was utilized in the movies shaped the way in which film music has evolved?
Luis Bacalov, in particular the music composer for “Quien Sabe?”(A Bullet for the General) directed by Damiano Damiani. I answer the second part of the question with reference to the relationship of Morricone’s music in Leone’s films. Surely the fortune of Morricone’s western music is due to the absolute genius of the Maestro, but it is also due to the huge space given to music in a movie. At that time (and in some ways still today) it was something unthinkable giving that kind of lead role to the soundtrack, like the role of the actors.
A pivotable part of the Italian western is the gunfight, or THE gunfight that takes place at the end of a movie, because there are as we all know many shootouts within these sagebrush sagas with a difference. But it is the end duel or the dance of death as it was often referred to that is the apex of many Italian western’s storylines. The settling of grievances, the final word in a difference of opinion or a long-standing feud, and also a chance for certain protagonists to have their revenge. In the American made western these gunfights were of course important but rarely were given the Centre stage and certainly not scored in the same way as Italian westerns were, with the composer at times writing the music first and the directors then shaping the footage and the scene around the score.
A prime example is the end duel in Once Upon A Time in the West, music by Ennio Morricone, who once again integrates into his score an instrument that is linked to one of the movies central characters, this time a Harmonica, the final faceoff between Harmonica (Charles Bronson) and Frank (Henry Fonda) is now a classic piece of cinema, with camera shots of both protagonists eyes, hands hovering over pistols, and a camera doing a 360 between both characters, Leone was a master at building the tension via this way of filming, but it is again the music of Morricone that brings the tense and nervous mood to the scene.
With the wailing harmonica, fuzzy sounding electric guitar strings, percussion, and choir. The harmonica an instrument associated with the cowboy and the old west in a homely and comfortable way is suddenly transformed into the harbinger of death the sinister sounding instrumentation being perfectly unsettling and wonderfully building the tension and uncertainty of the outcome of the gunfight. Morricone and Leone together also created a similar tension in both For a Few Dollars More and The Good the Bad and The Ugly in the end gunfights for both movies, the harmonica being replaced by chimes in For a few Dollars More and by a soaring trumpet, dark sounding bass guitar and racing percussion in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
Composer, Marco Werba, relayed his thoughts and memories on the Italian western soundtrack to me.
The soundtracks of western movies were decisive for the success of the films themselves and to build the raw and violent atmosphere of the wild west: but, unlike the American cinema, in which the commentary music was very “pastoral”, with th typically “American sound” of Aaron Copland, in Italy, in the Sixties, a new genre of music was created, mainly inspired by Mexican folklore. The most important author who “invented” the genre was surely Ennio Morricone, who introduced original solutions at the request of director Sergio Leone. The first collaboration between Morricone and Leone started with the film “For a Fistful of Dollars”. The film was a success, followed by “For a few dollars more”, “The Good, the bad and the ugly”, “Once upon a time the West”, “Giu la testa” and Once upon a time in America, the latter being a “gangster movie”. The style created by Ennio Morricone for the westerns was so incisive as to become a model to follow, a school of thought. In this regard it is curious to note that American composer Dominic Frontiere imitated the music of Morricone written for the film For a few dollars more for the western Hang’em high, which also starred actor Clint Eastwood in the principal role.
The western phenomenon as created by Italian Film makers also involved other composers who have felt, more or less, the influence of the Morriconian style in their soundtracks. I refer to Bruno Nicolai, Francesco De Masi, Luis Bacalov, Franco Micalizzi and Stelvio Cipriani. We see the stylistic differences between the music of “For a Fistful of Dollars” and “For a Few Dollars More”.
In the first score Morricone uses the model of the deguello (a dance of death) for trumpet and strings that Dimitri Tiomkin had already used in the film “The Alamo”, an Indian tribal dance, of “ride” music with trumpets, male choirs and strings, nostalgic themes, variations of the deguello theme with the oboe or the English horn, tense pieces in which he uses bass and electric guitar, harmonica, flute, piano etc. and last but, not least, the theme performed with the whistle of Alessandro Alessandroni, the guitar, the whip, the tubular bells, and strange male choirs.
In “For a few dollars more” instead he uses a Carillon, Spanish castanets, the guitar with metal strings, again the choirs, a church pipe organ, (which gives a more solemn and majestic character, alternating with the theme with the trumpet, the strings and the choirs). He writes, among other things, a Saloon music for piano; a sort of Scott Joplin style ragtime. There are clear differences between the two soundtracks. With “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly“, Morricone turns page. The film tells of three men searching for gold against the backdrop of the American Civil War.
The soundtrack combines perfectly with the scenario of the American Civil War, with the sad ballad “The Story of a Soldier”, played by Southern prisoners when Tuco is tortured by “Sentenza”. The famous climax of the film, during the scene of the cemetery, is introduced by the memorable Ecstasy of gold and the final stand-off is accompanied masterfully by Il Triello: a music that comes straight to the heart, and makes the protagonists speak with the eyes, despite seven minutes without any dialogue.
Then there was the slightly less big budget movie Sabata, which starred Lee Van Cleef and was scored by Marcello Giombini, directed by Gianfranco Parolini under the alias of Frank Kramer who also directed the two sequels. Now in this example from the genre there are several instances where the score becomes integral to the action because of the instrument used by one of the main characters, Banjo played by William Berger, walks around town plucking out a lovely little tune on his ukulele and even plays his adversaries a tune before gunning them down in the street or wherever they might be.
The instrument has a sawn-off rifle concealed inside it and when Banjo has finished entertaining his opponent, he uses the instrument to dispatch them. Giombini, even incorporated the use of sleigh bells within his score because the character Banjo wore bells on his trouser legs and jangled as he walked. Also, Banjo played music to another of his victims in Sabata this time on a church organ, the composer also made good use of this within his score and not just for that scene but utilising it for dramatic effect elsewhere.
Another successful series of movies was the Trinity films, the first two in the series They Call me Trinity and They Still Call me Trinity being the most well-known, with Bud Spencer and Terence Hill in the leading roles. The first movie had a score by composer Franco Micalizzi, which was the second soundtrack that he had worked on, I spoke to him in Rome at his house and studio.
The Gunmen of The Ave Marie was my initiation into film music, I composed the score with the help of my good friend Roberto Pregadio, we scored the film in late 1969, and it got released in 1970, later I worked with him again on I Due Volti Della Padra and Lo Chiamavano Trinita. I must admit that we did write the score in a style that was very similar to that of Morricone, but there again many Italian western soundtracks contained scores that were basically Morricone sound alike soundtracks. It was done with the greatest respect for the maestro; after all he was along with Sergio Leone the creator of the Italian Western sound. It was the hope of every producer and director in Italy to get Morricone to score their productions, but the great composer could only work on so many films, so the filmmakers tried to imitate Leone, and asked other composers to attempt to mimic Ennio Morricone, and this is what happened on The Gunmen of the Ave Marie. We even employed musicians and other performers that had worked with Morricone, to get the sound that we did. For example, Alessandro Alessandroni whistled on the score, and the trumpet solo was performed by Michele Lancerenza, both of whom had played on Morricone western scores, we also had the Il Cantori Moderni, providing the vocals. For Trinita the director wanted a more upbeat style and sound, because it was a comedy, I think the first Italian western comedy, but he also wanted it to contain that Italian western sound too, so again we used Alessandroni and his choir, to try and emulate the style of Morricone. Because this was a new direction for the Italian western and it was not certain how audiences would react.
The big composers at the time were not really interested in the film, the idea of comedy and the style of the Italian western being combined did not enthuse anyone, apart from the film’s producers and myself, I think that many of the composers Morricone included were a little concerned that the film was going to turn out to be an embarrassment to the genre. So, the producers decided to take a chance on me, and offered me the score”.
I think we all must agree that the film and its score worked well. So, composers such as Franco Micalizzi were influenced by the likes of Morricone and the films that he scored for Sergio Leone and were often asked to imitate that sound. I spoke to American composer Reber Clark about his memories of the spaghetti western and its scores.
I came to Italian westerns sort of haphazardly and did not hear Mr. Morricone’s work in chronological order. I suppose my first experience with it was “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” which made a huge impression on me music-wise – it was SO different from Bernstein & company, and only years later did I view “A Fistful of Dollars” and “For A Few Dollars More”. With a little research I found out that Mr. Morricone had a limited music budget and came up with creative ways of making his score such as adding whistling, the guitar, chanting, etc. I loved that. I have always believed that there is a way to do what you want to do – just use your imagination which, wonderfully, Mr. Morricone did!
I began writing music in the sixth grade. I had no idea what I was doing, and I was nowhere near a prodigy, far from it, but I knew I wanted to do that. But I do not think that I saw any particular movie from the Italian western genre that I can say made me think about the score’s orchestration etc. Of course, many of these movies played on television while I was growing up and I do recall that they sounded different but that is as far as it went.
As well as Ennio Morricone what other composers would you say made innovative contributions to the genre.
As far as other Italian composers than Morricone making contributions – I really have no idea. For money I was a projectionist at our local movie theatre when I was in college. John Williams’ “The Missouri Breaks” score always impressed me with its use of bass harmonica and harpsichord among other things. Of course, I love “The Magnificent Seven” music of Elmer Bernstein and Jerome Moross’ “The Big Country“. Alfred Newman’s “How the West Was Won” is exciting to me too. There are so many!
I listen to a wide variety of scores in a wide variety of genres – especially if they work well in a movie that I like. Other composers, I am sure, do the same. Now, with the internet, all this wonderful stuff is available worldwide and it cannot fail to influence the future of movie music. The Italian western Ennio Morricone “sound” is so unique and characteristic that I think its influence will remain far into the future. Let us not forget, however, that he produced some wonderful full orchestral scores such as “The Mission”, which is a favourite of mine, in addition to his work in the westerns.
It’s a surprising thing that many composers that became active in Italy at around the same time as Morricone scored the Dollars trilogy, began their career by scoring a western, or was it? Stelvio Cipriani scored numerous westerns, but before breaking into film scoring, he worked as a pianist and an accompanist to many famous vocalists.
“My first movie was The Bounty Killer. Which was a western, it was the 10 July 1966: my film music career started with that movie. I could exploit that opportunity thanks to my previous experience, differently from the present composers… Experience is particularly important: after my training and experience in piano, before starting with soundtracks. I lived many different situations. I played for 6 months, with a small music band, on cruise ships. At that time there were many ballrooms (or “balere” in Italian) – it was an immensely popular fad! – and we played in the manner of many other bands… like Peppino Di Capri and Fred Bongusto, to tell only two names.
The ships sailed from New York to Porto-rico, Haiti, and Caribbean Sea…When I came back to Italy, I was enlisted as pianist and accompanist by Rita Pavone the famous singer, who at the time started her career. Again, I’m never stopping to repeat how these experiences were fundamental for my skill and proficiency. An essential platform who, after 5 years, would have given me a useful knowledge, necessary to work in cinema”.
The Italian western score or at least themes from the scores also became popular and had a life away from the films that were intended to enhance, and many were covered by other recording artists, as Stelvio Cipriani, recalled in interview during the late 1990’s in Rome.
When I was young, I was a great fan of Henry Mancini… He represented an aim for me, like a searchlight in the sea. While I was working on my second movie, Un Uomo, Un Cavallo, Una Pistola, aka– A Man Horse and a Gun or The Stranger Returns. I was very honoured because his attention to my music theme from the film. It’s a very big satisfaction: it’s a sign of your artistic value! When a few years later I met him, he was amazed to know me in person and said: – I thought you were older, with white hair! I studied on his books about film music also. I never attempted to imitate him, but I considered him as an example by a professional point of view”.
For any fan of the music of the Italian western or indeed Italian film music as a whole, the name Alessandro Alessandroni will be a familiar one. He is undoubtedly the one artist, composer/musician that is involved in almost 99% of all Italian soundtracks, his choir IL CANTORI MODERNI, has vocalised on scores for the Italian cinema that have been penned by the likes of Ennio Morricone, Bruno Nicolai, Carlo Rustichelli, Nico Fidenco, Francesco De Masi, Franco Micalizzi, Stelvio Cipriani, Piero Umiliani and Gianni Ferrio to name but a few, he is also responsible for a handful of scores for Italian productions and has been a featured soloist on many soundtracks. His whistle is distinctive and flawless, and his performances on electric guitar are second to none as is his polished performances on the sitar. It is Ennio Morricone that is the composer Alessandroni worked with most extensively during the mid to late 1960s and throughout the 1970s and 1980s and it is true to say that is was the collaborations with Morricone that brought Alessandroni to the attention of many.
When I spoke to Sandro in London back in the 1990’s I could not believe how modest the composer was. He is virtually the ‘Sound’ of the Italian film score especially the Italian western score and it is he who is the heart of the music for the Italian cinema, but he made no big thing of this achievement.
“I am a performer not a star, the stars are the composers such as Morricone, Nicolai, Bacalov and others”.
Working so closely with Ennio Morricone for such a long period of time must have influenced Alessandroni in his composing style or on how he placed music into a movie when he began to score his own projects.
“I think that all composers in Italy were influenced by Morricone. His output during the 1960s and 1970s was immense. It was also very good. I think that he also influenced composers outside of Italy and he created a sound for the western that is still being employed today by some composers. His musical presence is impossible to ignore”.
The sound of the Italian western is at times referred to as the school of Italian Film Music, which in essence means that composers at times would play in others orchestras and also conduct for each other and invariably would utilize either the choirs of Alessandro Alessandroni or Nora Orlandi, which is why the sound achieved although innovative was also quite uniform in its overall conveyance, composers who worked within the genre would use the same soloists for trumpet, electric guitar, soprano voices etc, so this is how the sound of the Italian produced western became so familiar. As composer Nico Fidenco, explained (in interview in 1990’s).
I never actually worked with Alessandroni in the sense of writing anything together, but I did have him, and his excellent choir Il Cantori Moderni, perform on some of my scores. If I correctly remember John Il Bastardo, Dynamite Jim, and maybe The Texican, probably more as it was so long ago now and it was hectic doing so many movies back-to-back at times. Alessandroni is a wonderful person. He is a talented performer, with his guitar and whistle, and a gifted and very underrated composer. Nora Orlandi would also conduct her choir on some of my scores – things like El Che Guevara. I think she also is exceptionally talented. Alessandroni was an incredibly good friend of Giacamo Dell Orso who conducted most of my soundtracks.
His wife Edda has an exquisite voice and is responsible for a lot of work on Morricone soundtracks, as I am sure you know. Giacamo would take my musical sketches and turn them into something special. He is a skilled orchestrator and an excellent conductor.
I spoke to the composer of Hell on the Border and more recently Insight, the incredibly gifted Sid De La Cruz about his take on the music from Italian westerns.
Beginning with did he recall any one score from an Italian western that made an impression upon him.
Yes, the music to, “The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly”. I thought the music was excellent in capturing the western sound. I do not, think I have ever heard a whistle as part of the film score, until I had seen this film. Another big score that made an impression on me, although it is not an Italian Western, was the music to, “The Magnificent 7”.
Before you became a composer Did you ever see an Italian western and become inspired by the score or about how the music was constructed.
To be honest, it was a little later in my musical studies when I actually paid any real attention to music in movies; however, during the earlier part of my musical studies, I did listen to Aaron Copland. I think it was Copeland, who exposed me to the western sound, with his music from the ballet, “Rodeo”, specifically, “Hoe Down” and later the soundtrack to “Red Pony” specifically “Walk To The Bunkhouse”. I then explored more of the western sound and that is when I came across, “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly”. That is when I really paid attention to the music in a western film.
Morricone is often credited with the creation of the Italian western sound. But there are so many other composers that were involved in scoring examples of the genre. As well as Ennio Morricone what other composers would you say made innovative contributions to the genre.
I think Luis Enríquez Bacalov, in the Django score. But, I think Ennio Morricone had definitely set the standard.
The Italian western as a genre and musically has had far reaching and long-lasting influences. Do you think that the musical scores and the way in which the music was utilized shaped the way in which film music developed?
For sure, a score like “The Good the Bad and the Ugly” was unique, in that, it used whistles, chanting, electric guitar. That allowed future composers to experiment with different instruments and textures.
Holly Amber Church is a composer who in my opinion has a great deal of talent, her scores for horror movies such as Worry Dolls and the recent Open 24 Hours are already considered iconic works for the genre. She spoke of the Italian western score.
“You know I am sure that everyone will probably say that it was The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, that first made an impression upon them. It certainly did me. The interesting thing about it was that it was such a different sound for that time, and yet now it is “The Sound” mostly associated with those movies. It really displays what some innovation can do. I cannot recall whether I saw a spaghetti western before I became a composer, but I was however familiar with the music from the films. As for the music influencing film scores even of today, I think the fact that they did something unique and different especially with budget restraints, showed how film music can be used in different ways, but still be highly effective to the story-telling aspect of the film.
Franco De Gemini was another artist that eventually turned to composing music for films as well as running the famous soundtrack specialist label BEAT in Rome. He is probably best known for the distinct Harmonica performance on Once Upon a Time in the West, but also contributed many performances to literally hundreds of soundtracks by various composers, Francesco De Masi amongst them. I interviewed the Franco De Gemini at the BEAT records offices in Rome in 2006. I enquired if at the time of performing on the Once Upon a Time in the West soundtrack, he ever thought that it would still be such a popular and considered classic work so many years later?
“I realised that it was different and that it was also very powerful, but difficult to say really, as when performing it there in the session at that moment who knew? I surely did my best in my performance to obtain a sound that was perfect for the movie”.
Like many composers in Italy during the ‘60s Francesco De Masi was busy scoring so many westerns, the composer placed his musical fingerprint upon so many Italian made westerns, and one in particular has always stood out, Arizona Colt, which contained the theme song The Man From Nowhere, the Maestro recalled the score in interview in 2003, and also how the schedule was so tight on scoring movies in that busy period.
“I composed the theme and some of the score for Arizona Colt with Alessandro Alessandroni. This was the first time that I had collaborated with him and thankfully this collaboration continued in other film scores and developed into a great friendship. Working with a musician such as Alessandro is always interesting and most certainly always stimulating. Like in other countries we were always rushed in the scoring of a picture, and like you say there were so many westerns being produced at this time. Arizona Colt was no different, but it is like everywhere and on all genres of film, the director wants the music yesterday”.
Composer Frank Ilfman (Big Bad Wolves, Ghost Stories, Abulele and Lebanon-Borders of Blood amongst others) also recollected the Italian western and its score.
“I would say it was La Resa Dei Conti (The Big Gundown) with this crazy soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, that first attracted me to the Italian western soundtrack. The opening titles sung by Maria Cristina Brancucci (Christy) and the crazy choir sounds from Cantori Moderni Di Alessandroni, just blew my mind.
I have seen many western films, growing up as I always liked the wild west, most of the movies I watched were American made and had a very lavish classical orchestral score, then the Italian Western started to take over and these were vastly different, they included all these strange looking characters, extreme close up style filming and the music was always loud and very dominant. For me as a kid, I found the music for the Italian westerns to have a very rock & roll approach with all those guitars, bass, and drums added vocals and screams and some orchestra and to be more pop in approach as per melodies and how it was contracted. I later found out it was more because the lack of budget for the music that they needed to be more inventive and that created a more original way of scoring and the use of some instruments and sounds that we still copy to this day”.
What other composers would you say made important contributions to the genre?
“It’s true to say Morricone invented the “sound” that we know as the Italian western or at least associate with it. As the trilogy of scores, he wrote for Leones Dollar films became world famous and have remained thus years after, however he as a composer always disliked his western scores compared to other music that he wrote. There were a few other composers who were big in those days and wrote many scores great and were very inventive with the use of a small group of musicians for Italian cinema such as, Luis Bacalov, Alessandro Alessandroni, Stelvio Cipriani, Bruno Nicolai, Francesco De Masi and Franco Micalizzi. I think even now we do in one way or another often use those Italian films and their scores as references and not the old American productions. If its the use on instruments to symbolize the Good and the Bad characters in a very stand out way both comedic and dramatic. Or as a more pop orientated track like with writing some music prior to filming to inspire the actors as Leone did many times with his movies”.
Sergio Leones Once Upon A Time in the West is a movie that I find is either loved or loathed by fans of the genre, it was for me as a 15 year old in 1970 somewhat difficult to piece together and understand, it was different from the Dollar trilogy, but also when I first saw the movie at the Curzon cinema on a wet Sunday afternoon, it had been cut to pieces so in later years it made more sense when I was able to see a more complete version of the movie. However, the music stayed with me and even though it was in places a different Morricone I was hearing compared with the Dollar films it is a score that I still refer to as Morricone’s Masterpiece, and look on the film as being another milestone of movie making for the director Leone.
Like so many Italian westerns I got the soundtrack album before seeing the movies, which was something that was normal in the seventies, as many of the spaghetti westerns were not released at the time of their initial release in Italy, the Big Gundown for example was released in the early part of 1967 in Italy, but never made it to cinema screens in the UK until 1969, and again was ruthlessly edited by the British Censor at times jumping from scene to scene without actually having any continuity or sympathy for the actual storyline. But again, it was at this time it was the music that I personally was more interested in, it was different, fresh and integral to the action opening up on screen, not just a collection of lush and expansive sounding themes interspersed with ho down and square dance interludes.
But saying that, have you noticed how the Italian composers at times poked fun just a little at the American cowboy soundtrack, with over-the-top saloon piano performances, folksy and country music slanted cues and Morricone even giving a rendition of a square dance theme in A Fistful of Dollars. Which was heard as US cavalry ride into the town, the composer setting the scene with the slow- paced square dance cue to depict American characters or was it the composer adding his own little touch saying that the American western score had really no place in the movie? The saloon piano in an American made western would invariably be in the background, but in an Italian western the composer used it to his advantage, often playing a honky-tonk type of arrangement of the films main theme or a theme for one of the characters in the movie.
Composer Maximilien Mathevon (Rollon-Sur le Traces du Premier Normand, Peplum: Muscles, Glaives, et Fantasmes and The Good Mr Bonaparte) told me what film or films he remembered mostly from the genre. And also spoke of Morricone and other key composers involved with it.
“For me it is Definitively the “Dollar trilogy” by Sergio Leone, especially The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, film wise as well as score wise. That I recall above anything else”.
“I was always fond of Morricone scores for those movies and became particularly interested by the use of unusual instruments for the genre (the whistling, the electric guitar, the percussions, the vocals and other shouts), apart from Morricone, I have no real knowledge of other composers for this genre. One who I remember is American (for an American western, if I recall correctly) and it’s because the main theme of the score is mainly written in the Morricone stylings – Dominic Frontiere for “Hang’ em High”… (and I love that score!) As to the music of the Italian western influencing the way in which film music was written in its aftermath and its subsequent influence on the way in which movie scores have evolved? Yes, absolutely. In westerns and also other genres of movies. The use of unusual instruments is now a given – look no further than known composer’s works like Marco Beltrami’s (his western scores, for example, are full of the kind of orchestrations derived from the Italian western genre, I think) or Hans Zimmer’s (and many others). Recalling the styles and the sounds of the Italian western score reminds us to look outside the box and find inspiration with unusual ideas or sounds”.
Spanish born composer Manel Gil-Inglada, also added his thoughts on the genre and the musical scores that enhanced it.
“I think I remember that the first score I noticed, and one that caught my attention, was “For a Few Dollars More”. Those notes, the rhythm, and the colour of the jew’s harp sound at the start of the song were a revelation: this was something new and powerful. Whistles, voices, recorders, guitars, solo trumpet, harmonicas, etc, etc. A new way of conceiving the musical storytelling of a movie, based on sound experimentation and an unusual orchestration, which at that moment captured the viewer’s attention by giving an overwhelming personality to visually somewhat crude and dirty productions. Back in the 70’s I got to see some of the great spaghetti westerns which were shot in the 60’s. I especially remember: as I have said ” For a Few Dollars More” but also “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “Once Upon a Time in the West“. Of course, at that time in Spain films such as “They Call Me Trinity” starring Bud Spencer and Terence Hill were triumphing. The comic version of the genre that contrasted with Sergio Leone’s raw films but did not offer any special appeal musically. At that time, I was very young, but I believe that the sound universe that I discovered with the Maestro Ennio Morricone was etched in my memory. And everything and that I have not had the opportunity to write the score of any western, whenever I have been able, I have tried to experiment with other sounds radically different from those of the orchestra instruments that in some way can contribute something different and provocative and interesting to the score like the “Theremin” or the “Music Box” in the soundtrack of “Daddy, I’m a Zombie” and “Dixie and the Zombie rebellion” or the different instruments: Erhu, Santoor, Auto-Harp, Guitars, African percussions, Catalan drums, woods, metals, boxes, etc, that I am playing in the score of the video game that I am composing now. There are also two other Italian composers that I most admire who both made good contributions to the genre: Luis Bacalov with the soundtrack of “Django” among others, and Armando Trovajoli with “Long Days of Vengeance”. I especially think that Ennio Morricone is largely responsible for the recognition and importance of a good score in a film. The soundtracks of his in the spaghetti western represented a radical change for the original and the radical, which did not leave anyone indifferent.
Musical Storytelling acquired a higher importance, not only because of its fantastic use of melody and its application in themes and leitmotifs, but also because of its constant concern to experiment and incorporate those sounds that could contribute much more than expected to a score. Ennio Morricone revolutionized the Spaghetti Western and was and continues to be a big source of inspiration for all of us who dedicate ourselves to and love film music.”
As you can see there is a reoccurring pattern with composers, most naming one of the Dollar Trilogy of films as the one that first caught their attention regarding the Italian western genre. It is probably the third in the trilogy The Good the Bad and the Ugly, that is mentioned more often than any other Italian western as the film itself and the score by Morricone were both ground-breaking, as in the sound, style, orchestration etc of the music and with the movie the style, cinematography, storyline and formula that was executed, firmly establishing the Italian western with cinema audiences around the world. Not only did Leone take something that was full blooded American as in the Western or Cowboy movie and turn it on its head, inside out and run it backwards, but he also acted as a historian with this film including scenes that could have been taken directly from a newsreel if there had been such a thing at the time of the American Civil war.
His attention to detail and eye for preciseness was meticulous and it certainly paid off as the battle for the bridge is stunningly effective and, in my opinion, authentic. However, Leone’s epic Once Upon a Time in the West is also mentioned a few times and is sited by composer Vincent Gillioz (They, Love’s me Loves me Not, The Fox Hunter, Gods Waiting Room, Pray for Morning).
“Once Upon a Time in the West, is the music I remember, I was very young and playing the score on vinyl without having any clue about the concept behind it. I had no idea what a score was, I was too young. I experienced a movie, a movie is emotions, and a score is indivisible of the whole experience. I believe we experience the music when taken apart from a movie and it brings back the whole emotional experience of the movie. Both are indissociable, like 2 atoms of hydrogen with 1 atom of oxygen is water, and oxygen by itself is a gas. Both are beautiful, but a different experience”.
The differences between the Hollywood western and the Italian western, were vast, and the same can also be said for the musical scores, although a handful of Italian composers have said that they attempted to emulate the likes of Dimitri Tiomkin and Alfred Newman within their scores. As Finnish composer and pianist Pessi Levanto (Oma Maa) mentioned.
“For me there is a clear difference between the American and the Italian western soundtrack. This is in the innovation of the instrumentation of the Italian western. Hollywood westerns such as The Magnificent Seven relied upon the style and the expansive sound of Aaron Copland, whereas the Italian western score had this fresh approach, this was also probably due to financial restrictions, but the colourful and inventive instrument choices are what sets them apart. Morricone had a daring and fearless approach in choosing sound colours and was not afraid to experiment heavily. Luckily, his explorations were not curtailed but mostly embraced by the directors and producers of the movies he scored. By the end of the sixties, his status was so big that on many of the posters for Italian westerns only the names of the directors and composers appeared, even leading actors being omitted.”
Composer, recording artist and producer Pierre-Daven Keller (Juis suis un No Man,s Land, and the recent brilliant album Kino Music), recollects his memories of the Italian western films and scores.
“The first Italian western I saw was The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. I think i was 6 or 7 at this time but I have never forgotten the music and the impression it had upon me. I still love this movie and Morricone’s soundtrack is one of my favourites. It was the first time I heard the name of Morricone and I never forgot his name after this movie. The story and the characters are interesting but without Morricone’s music we can be sure that this movie had been very different. I don’t know many Italian westerns apart from the Sergio Leone movies. It is true that all these movies and especially all Morricone’s western music had a big influence on me. Once upon a Time in the West, A Fistful of Dollars, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly etc, are all interesting.
There were a lot of amazing movies composers in the 60’s or 70’s not all for the western movies but also for the thrillers or romantic movies too. I’m thinking about Bernard Herrmann, Michel Colombier, Jean Claude Vannier, François de Roubaix… All of them are interesting in their own way of composing… but it is right that Morricone is for me the one who explored most the link between music and movies.
I think that Morricone changed forever the way of thinking and the way in which music was composed and placed in a film. He understood that paradoxically, movie music had to be independent from the movie itself. For him, there is the movie on one side and the music on the other side but they “meet” each other at one moment by his genius in musical composition and experimentations with sounds”.
My own personal experience of the Italian western was Ithinkin the firstinstant The Big Gundown, followed by Death Rides a Horse, then A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More which were late on release at some cinemas and being shown as a double bill, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, I got the soundtrack first then went to see the movie. But I also experienced the Italian western via the Zapata western which was a successful sub-genre of the spaghetti western collective, I think it was A Professional Gun that was the movie that made me fully appreciate the combination of images and music in a movie. This is without a doubt, at least in my mind one of the best Italian westerns produced and it is one that I can watch repeatedly without ever becoming bored.
The musical score by Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai is also one of the top ten Spaghetti western soundtracks, is just everything that the Italian western score is expected to be and some more. From the energetic and vibrant strings and choir of Bamba Vivace or Paco’s theme to the dark and ominous sounding guitar rift for the villain of the piece Curly entitled Ricciolo, which also contained organ, underlying strings, woodwinds, percussive elements and castanets punctuating proceedings. The character of Curly was portrayed wonderfully in a camp filled performance by Jack Palance. Then there is also the haunting whistling theme performed flawlessly by Alessandro Alessandroni, that acts as an accompaniment for Franco Nero’s character The Pollack and is heard at various stages of the films development either when he is on screen or about to appear. Released in 1968, and produced by Alberto Grimaldi, it is a great movie.
Set in Mexico in 1915, the films storyline takes place during the Mexican revolution which was happening whilst the so-called superior nations such as Germany, England and France fought each other in Europe. It has a similar foundation in its storyline to that of Bullet for The General or Quien Sabe? With foreign Mercenaries planting the seed of revolution into the mind of an ordinary peon or a bandit to achieve their own goal.
These Zapata westerns were just as popular as the actual quirky but violent Italian western movies, and elements of the political western manifested in films such as the aforementioned, Quien Sabe? and A Professional Gun, and also came to fruitionin Duck You Sucker, The Five Man Army, Companeros, Tepepa, Once Upon a time a Revolution, and to a degree in examples suchas Quintana:Dead or Alive.
Composer Gautte Storaas (Halvden Viking, A Man called Ove, Birkebeinerne) who is a self-confessed fan of Ennio Morricone, also contributed his thoughts on the influences of the Italian western to both cinema and film music.
“I remember going to the theatres screening older films in my hometown back in the seventies. Loved the coolness of Clint Eastwood, but at that time, I did not fully appreciate Morricone´s iconic work for those films. Or the whole genre, for that matter. I thought the whole concept was too much comedy and was way more attracted to Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy sonic universe of the Dirty Harry-movies. I have always noticed music in films since my early childhood. After seeing the Jungle Book when I was around nine years old. I became aware that composers were not only dead old men in my father’s record collection. Maybe I even then started dreaming of becoming one? But I am afraid that I do not have any strong memories of Italian westerns from that time. However, the work of Leone/Morricone is just on another level. Both in the westerns and “Once upon a time in America”. I have not much knowledge of the rest of the Spaghetti Western production. Morricone’s western music most definitely changed film music. His unexcused boldness and fresh ideas, use of non-traditional elements, breaking ideas down to small elements and nurturing them, like the now iconic coyote call has been used for inspiration, or downright been ripped off, ever since. But to really have impact, a film composer is dependent on a director who really lets the music shine.
In his recent book, “In his own words”, Morricone spoke very warmly about the collaboration with Leone, and the room he made for the music. He stated that “Once upon a time in the West” is probably the best mixed film in the history of cinema. After reading, I saw the film again, and I have to agree. He is letting both the music and sound effects shine, just not at the same time. And of course, the very sparse dialogue helps. That film is a stroke of genius.
Lionel Woodman was a record producer and responsible for releasing so many Italian westerns on his Hillside label, he still operates a mail order soundtrack business, which also goes under the name of Hillside in the U.K. where he caters for the discerning tastes of many Italian film music fans. He has for many years been more than a fan of the music from Italian cinema, but also has met and become friends with so many of the composers who were responsible for creating the sound of the Italian western. “For me it was A Fistful of Dollars that first alerted me to the genre and the music. I went to see it because my Brother said that it had strange music. After this I discovered so many other composers, such as Bruno Nicolai, Gianni Marchetti, Stelvio Cipriani, and Alessandro Alessandroni”.
Film music critic Randall D. Larson also recalled his encounter with the Italian western.
“For me it was Once Upon a Time in the West in 1972 (restored version broadcast on TV). That was my watershed moment for a lot of things having to do with cinema and film music. I’d missed the opportunity to see other Italian Westerns in theatres during the ’60s, and by the time I “woke” to the style of the Italian Westerns these films were no longer playing in theaters in the suburbs where I lived. So, it was not until later that I caught up with Leone’s previous Westerns, and later still, with the advent of home video, that the opportunity came to immerse myself in many, many more. The impact these films had, from the first to continued experiences, was the immersion into the drama and the striking dynamic of the storyline, the iconic nature of the characters, and the role played by the music in being a partner to the storytelling and the vivid emotional drama of all of it. These films were immediately uniquely dynamic—again I can only describe it was iconic—more than anything else I had seen up to that point.
In rough order of personal discovery, I’d say: Bruno Nicolai, Luis Enriquez Bacalov, Francesco De Masi, Nico Fidenco, Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, Nora Orlandi, Marcello Giombini. Each of them continued to develop the unique style that had become the sound of the Italian Westerns, while each often brought their own unique style and voice to the genre. There are others, certainly, that followed along, furthering the musical trend, but these composers were the ones whose music spoke to me most significantly in developing the tradition of Italian Western music from the early days”.
From its beginnings to it’s falling out of favour and ultimate demise and also the aftermath of its hey-day the genre of the Italian western was for the most part musically consistent. Although there were certain examples of scores quirky even by the standards of the spaghetti western soundtrack. These examples occurred during the height of the genre’s popularity and towards its end.
A reliance of songs in some movies seemed to overtake the originality of certain scores as in Alive but Preferably Dead, Which, had a score by Gianni Ferrio, but the instrumental parts were overwhelmed by the songs or at least it seemed that way when watching the movie and also listening to the original CAM LP record and subsequent CAM compact disc release, however, there was an expanded version of the score issued onto compact disc a few years ago on the Digit Movies label which did contain more score tracks, the songs which were a parody of the old western sounds that we might have heard in the Roy Rogers or Hop-a-long Cassidy films from Hollywood, with crooning cowboys etc, were performed by John Ireson and Wayne Parham, and although they told a story as the film progressed, they could be somewhat annoying.
Ferrio’s score too contained a certain cliched sound, and it was a combination of the Hollywood sound and the Spaghetti western sound, which was mixed with dixie land band styles, that were themselves fused with music that was more like it was an American TV western such as F Troop. For me the combination of the songs, the score and the trad jazz sounds were a nightmare, and I still think of it as one of the worst spaghetti western scores written, even with the extra score tracks, Ferrio even enlisting kazoo within it.
Keoma- The Violent Breed, too contained songs that told stories as the films plot unfolded, but these were songs that were performed in an incredibly unique way, so unique in fact that many Italian western fans cannot listen to them. The uniqueness of the songs was mainly attributed to the performance of the vocal artist was unique. Music was by De Angelis Brothers, with the vocals being the work of Sybil and Guy the pair sounding like a combination Buffy Saint Marie on acid and a warbling Leonard Cohen.
But many fans love the songs, and when you look at other scores by Guido and Maurizio De Angelis, most of them contain at least one song, and in many cases more. They Still Call Me Trinity for example, has its brilliant title song Trinity Stand Tall and another good song entitled Remember both of which stand out within the movie.
So, songs can work in a positive way for the genre, and composers would also utilise the melody of the song within their scores, Francesco De Masi for example also utilized the title song for a number of his western scores, Quella Sporca Storia Nel West and Arizona Colt being two of the more prominent works, the track Find a Man from Quella Sporca Storia Nel West having a powerful vocal and a haunting guitar rift by Alessandroni and The Man From Nowhere from Arizona Colt containing a vocal by Raoul another popular singer on western soundtracks from Italy who was accompanied by Alessandroni on guitar and whistle, with Il Cantori Moderni providing the backing vocalizing.
At the time of the Italian western and as it became more popular it was not unusual for many of the title songs to get a release on a 45rpm single, with the vocal artist on the cover often in cowboy outfit, or a scene from the movie, which not only promoted the vocalist but the movie that the song was from.
So, was the title song something that the composers decided upon or were they asked to provide a vocal title song or song within the fabric of the score? They Still Call Me Trinity for example by Guido and Maurizio De Angelis as they recalled.
“The director on They Still Call me Trinity wanted a vocal theme for the opening credits, so we figured a song with a country atmosphere. We were incredibly happy we could use the acoustic style we liked so much”.
And on They Call me Trinity which composer Franco Micalizzi spoke of.
” In the case of Trinity, it was a joint decision between the director, E.B.Clutcher (Enzo Barboni), the producer and myself. We discussed the possibility of a song on the titles, and it was decided that a vocal would possibly attract more attention to the movie. There was at that time in Italy an opinion that if American or English actors were in leading roles in Italian made westerns that the film would stand a better chance of success when and if it was released outside of Europe, and this opinion also applied to the music in films, so a song that was sung in English was thought to be much more advantageous to the film’s success.
I suppose that to a degree this was true, and the single 45rpm release of the Trinity song sold very well in Italy, and many copies were exported to America and England. An incredibly good friend of mine in England Lally Stott wrote the lyrics, he understood perfectly what I wanted, and what I wanted to achieve. Sadly, Lally died a few years later in a boating accident in Liverpool, the song is a send up of all other western songs, as the film itself was a parody of other westerns, both American and Italian”.
Composer Nico Fidenco, said, “It was not always something that the director or even I would think was required, but if I was asked to have a title song it was not something out of my way to do.
A western I did work on was a Spanish-Italian co-production entitled In the Shadow of the Colt. It was an extremely low budget film, nothing like the films of Leone, but nevertheless it was popular in Italy and Spain of course. I do not think it got released anywhere else, so I’m glad it was popular in these two countries, the theme was recorded on a 45rpm single record and to my surprise, sold over ten thousand copies in Italy, which at that time in the early 1960’s was exceptionally good indeed”.
Composer, Bartosz Chajdeki (Time of Honour, Bikini Blue, The Disappearance) added his thoughts on the Italian western film and score.
“I don’t remember watching any Italian western movies, but when I was a kid many of Morricone’s soundtracks were my favourites. This was because my parents were always listening to his music. I had a classical music education, which meant no songs, just instrumental music which included classical music and film soundtracks. As for other composers who wrote for the Italian western, I do not recall any, but I was at the time listening to many things by Nino Rota, but as far as I know he never scored any westerns.
What Morricone was doing in this genre had a huge impact on film music in general. I believe that there were two main figures at that time which shaped the entire landscape – one was Williams with his very classical an orchestral approach, and the second was Morricone with Italian westerns, which went into direction of experimenting with different kinds of non-classical sounds and arrangements. The latter led to using folk, ethnic voices and instruments and mixing vastly different genres on the field of film music. Which became a major area of progress for the entire industry”.
It is evident that the Italian western film and its score or scores have had a profound effect upon both composers, collectors, and composers. Love it or hate it the music for the spaghetti western genre will forever be with us and still today manifests itself in some form or another in films, television projects and even adverts. It’s a genre of film and also of music that is instantly recognisable, and when elements of the styles and sounds of this genre do pop up in contemporary movie’s we spot them straight away. To the haters I say watch and listen again, to the faithful followers I say watch and listen again and again. This is a genre of film we will never see again in the way it was originally presented, savour it, appreciate it and celebrate it.
My thanks to everyone who were eager to add their comments to this article.