Twang! Twang! You’re Dead - The Foundations of A Spaghetti Western Score Library
Last year, the owner of this site kindly asked me to contribute an article about European musical scores and I wrote something which ‘could’ be the start of a series called Deep Note: The Foundations Of A Giallo Score Library (read it here). Well, the article didn’t scare the owner off and he’s been nice enough to let me write another installment, this one on the many scores for what Sir Christopher Frayling is reputed to be the first to have coined the phrase “spaghetti westerns”.
Everyone knows the sound of a Western and, as far as I’m concerned, the Americans pretty much invented the genre. If you listen to the score of any Western up until around the mid 1960s, you can be pretty sure that you’ll get some kind of rural Americana, probably influenced at some point by the concert work of Aaron Copland and with steady rythms to act as a musical leitmotif for the plodding horses and country living. You’d get people like Alfred Newman or maybe Max Steiner creating music which went on to represent “Injun music” on-screen in many movies to come... which is, of course, in no way based on whatever the various Indian tribes used to use as music back in the 1800s. But the lietmotif seems to have stuck, at least for a while. Musical cliches were invented for the Western by early Hollywood musical pioneers (half of whom were probably German or Austrian, I would think) and this style of scoring prevailed for the genre, with the odd exception such as Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable but atypical score for Garden Of Evil. Then along came Ennio Morricone... and all galloping hell was let loose.
Part One: The Morricone Sound
Before Morricone put his unique stamp on the genre, Italian Westerns sounded pretty much like most American westerns, to be honest. They imitated the style, and if you put on a pre-Morricone Italian Western score today, most people are expecting something way different to the stylistic facsimiles of US scores which were being created for these movies... but that’s what they got. Most people assume it was Morricone’s 1964 collaboration with Sergio Leone, A Fistful Of Dollars (Per Un Pugno Di Dollari), that set the ball rolling and broke the back of that musical style, ripping it apart and creating a unique and fresh sounding stamp for the Italian Westerns from that moment on, and due to the popularity of that particular movie, I suppose in a way they’d be right. It wasn’t the first Western score, however, that Morricone had scored with his “soon to be less than unique” style of experimental and rhythmic compositions. The year before, under the name Dan Savio, he’d scored a picture called Gunfight At Red Sands (Duello Nel Texas) and, really, it’s all with that one that this style of scoring westerns first started, as far as I can make out (it wouldn’t make my ‘essential’ list of Spaghetti scores to start off from but it is a good one and, seriously, the song from this, 'A Gringo Like Me', is in itself an essential listen for the discerning fan. Also, you should check out 'Lonesome Billy' from Guns Don’t Argue (aka Le Pistole Non Discutono).
Morrcone’s style of scoring these hit big with audiences and the score to A Fistful Of Dollars was as potent an influence on both Italian and American films as the movie itself was. The US Westerns had a bit of a sea change as well in the wake of this movie, with cynical and ‘revisionist’ Westerns being the order of the day, with a less unifiying and no less diverse set of scoring styles to accompany these kinds of ‘new westerns’... which is kind of interesting when you consider the film was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s chanbara Yojimbo, which also had a very solid score (but that’s a discussion for another time).
First port of call then, would be Morricone’s five scores for Leone’s Westerns. They are A Fistful Of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More (Per Qualche Dollaro In Piu), The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo), A Fistful of Dynamite (Giù La Testa) and Once Upon A Time In The West (C’Era Una Volta Il West). The initial three certainly seem, at first, like a gradual progression and development of the Morricone western sound but, what you have to remember is that he was so quickly leapt upon by various directors that he was scoring other people’s westerns in between these movies, so it’s a bit of an illusion in regards to that. For The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, the Italian expanded version (not to be confused with the version released soon after, which is a minute or two light of the full score compared to the previous release) is the one to get and as for Giù La Testa (A Fistful Of Dynamite), you need to get the 2 disc expanded edition from Cinevox, the version in the Digipack. In fact, I’m going to stop recommending specific editions of these things now unless there’s something you especially need to watch out for because, a) the giallo article recommendations I did are already out of date in terms of the best edtitions on the marketplace (the new 2 disc of Lizard In A Woman’s Skin is sensational) and b) you really need to do your own research on stuff like this and get the best editions available. Giù La Testa, for me, is Morricone’s greatest western score for Leone and, in my humble opinion, it’s also a better film than the also excellent Once Upon A Time In The West. Gui La Testa has a main theme which I would love to dance to at my wedding (along with Michael Kamen’s 'Munchausen Waltz') so if any drop dead gorgeous young ladies reading this want to make me an offer (and teach me how to dance), there’s your in road in.
By the time Leone and Morricone got around to Once Upon A Time In The West, which is often referred to as an operatic score for some reason (maybe people think Edda Dell‘Orso singing stuff means it must be an opera or something?), Morricone was pre-composing the score and Leone was playing it back on set for the cast and crew to time the scenes to and then shooting the footage to fit Morricone’s music, not the other way around. There are very few composers who have been allowed to work in that style with a fresh composition before, as far as I can remember (the only other ones springing to mind right this second are famous concert/performance composers Philip Glass and Michael Nyman [and Michael Giacchino for the upcoming Jupiter Ascending - Ed]).
Now Morricone’s writing is very big, brash and transparent in style, but that doesn’t mean it’s neccessarily unsubtle. Okay, a lot of it isn’t to be fair, and he’s going to hit you with a twang and a waaaaaah and various other sounds right up in your face and ears to provoke the neccessary response from you, but some of the melodies can be very emotional and deft. One of these in particular is a small musical cue less than two minutes long which is found on only the much later released expanded editions of Once Upon A Time In The West, so look for this if you’re trying to work out which edition to get. The cue is just called ‘Morton’ and it’s a melancholic, wistful theme written for the Gabriel Ferzettti character of the same name and represents his dreams and memories of childhood. It’s little cues like this which make Morricone’s output worth listening to.
Okay... so that’s the five he did for Leone (if you don’t count his excellent, Wagner tinged score for My Name Is Nobody, which Leone only directed in an unofficial capacity) but we’re not quite done with the maestro yet. Here are some more essential purchases to start you off with. His scores for Sergio Corbucci’s movies La Resa Dei Conti (The Big Gundown) and The Great Silence (Il Grande Silenzio) are both worth having. The Big Gundown has about a gazillion releases, each one just a little bit more expanded than the last version. The one you do need to specifically track down for that is the 25 track version by GDM/Legend from 2012, because the little extra bit is well worth having and it sounds crystal clear. The Great Silence has only about ten tracks to it at present, sharing an album with another Morricone score, but it’s full of melancholic melody which perfectly matches the tone of this particular spaghetti western. A film which holds a very special place in a lot of viewers hearts, I won’t spoil the ending of that movie for you here though.
Death Rides A Horse (Da Uomo A Uomo), with tracks later sampled for Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume One and Inglourious Basterds (actually, the majority of the albums I’m mentioning in this article have been reused by Tarantino but I really don’t mind, it maintains interests in the original recordings), is another spectacular piece of scoring which is driven and pulse-pounding and with a song that is practically screamed out at you. It feels like it’s rubbing at your ears abrasively with some kind of sweetened sandpaper (don’t judge that last statement until you’ve actually heard it, okay). The scores to The Five Man Army (Un Esercito Di 5 Uomini) and Navajo Joe (again for Corbucci) would just about finish off my list of essential Morricone spaghetti western scores, but after that, you should definitely explore further, and there will be some suggestions for doing just that in the second part.
There is, however, one last Morricone I would like to include... but it’s only for a specific track and you can get it on a few compilations. It’s a track called 'Il Mercenario (L’Arena)' and it’s from... um... Il Mercenario (The Mercenary). It starts off very slowly with a whistle and some percussion which is so powerful it sounds like muffled explosions going off from deep within your ears. Then it starts building until, by the end of the nearly 5 minutes run time, it completey changes shape and is transformed into something completely different. It’s mesmerising and, ever since I first heard it decades ago, it’s been my all time favourite Ennio Morricone track. The rest of the album, as it stands in its current release, doesn’t do a heck of a lot for me, however.
Check out Part II here
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