Composer Ennio Morricone, who passed away last week, never liked the term “horse opera” as a synonym for western movies. However, in his case the phrase could have been oddly appropriate. For The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West, Morricone composed the main themes ahead of filming, so that recordings could be played on the set and the actors move to the music’s rhythms. This was not common practice outside of musicals, and it enhanced the stylization of the films directed by Sergio Leone.

Born in Rome in 1928, Morricone studied trumpet (his father’s instrument) and composition, and he scored his first film in 1961. Over the years he composed scores for some 500 films, a number that doesn’t include a host of compositions in the area of “absolute music.” 

While music dominates Once Upon a Time in the West, the film’s long opening scene at a deserted train station uses only naturalistic sounds, such as slamming doors, an annoying fly, a squeaky weathervane, a telegraph, as a form of musique concrète. Apparently that was Morricone’s idea as well.

Once Upon a Time in the West opening sequence

Enjoy this Ennio Morricone playlist on Spotify, expertly curated by Maureen Galliani.

While his work with Leone came to embody the term “spaghetti western” in the popular imagination, Morricone did score some westerns for other filmmakers and graced a multitude of genres with an innovative and eclectic style, combining rich melodies with surprising soundscapes. Among his most popular scores are The Mission and Cinema Paradiso, along with Leone’s non-western Once Upon a Time in America. There were also fruitful collaborations with countless filmmakers, including Bernardo Bertolucci, Gillo Pontecorvo, Giuseppe Tornatore, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Lina Wertmüller, Dario Argento, Pedro Almodóvar, Terrence Malick, John Carpenter, Brian De Palma, Barry Levinson, John Boorman, Samuel Fuller…the list goes on and on and on.

Quentin Tarantino had used music from various Morricone films in most of his own movies and in 2015 finally commissioned an original score (Tarantino’s first) from Morricone. The Hateful Eight would earn Morricone his only competitive Academy Award®, aside from the honorary award he received in 2007. Frequent collaborator Giuseppe Tornatore once said, “He is not only a great film composer; he is a great composer.” Most of Morricone’s collaborators would likely say the same.    

This performance of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and The Ecstasy of Gold by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra demonstrates Morricone’s affection for unusual combinations of instrumentation and voice. Morricone’s impact on popular culture is reflected in The Ecstasy of Gold being used as introductory music at every Metallica concert.

Suggested reading and viewing from our friend Gary Meyer at

– Richard Peterson, Smith Rafael Film Center Director of Programming