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With ‘The Mission’ and ‘Cinema Paradiso,’ composer Ennio Morricone made my life richer

In Ennio Morricone’s “Gabriel’s Oboe,” I always wait for it:

The note.

Pure and piercing, the note is long and languorous, and it gives me a chill every time. The note is held for a couple of measures that seem to last forever, and it glides like a hawk on the wind.

Pictured above: Jeremy Irons playing the famed oboe theme in ‘The Mission.’

Wait. Is “glides” the best word? No, that seems too glib, too smooth. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the note soars. No, not that, either. Using “soars” suggests building in intensity, and that’s not quite what I’m trying to describe; yes, the note feels like it’s going somewhere, but there’s also a diminishment to it, a melancholy, a bittersweet sense of an impending ending.

It’s hard to put into words.

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All I know is that there’s a moment in Morricone’s score for Robert Bolt and Roland Joffé’s 1986 film “The Mission” that penetrates me to the core every time I hear it. If you love Morricone, who died Monday in Rome at 91, or if you love the oboe, you know what I’m talking about. “Gabriel’s Oboe,” a major theme from the score, is one of the composer’s most gorgeous musical motifs. It’s also one of his best known.

I’d love to be able to turn you on to some obscure Morricone score, with my expertise vaulting you above the legions of lovers of “The Mission,” but I follow the crowd on this one.

Years ago, hearing the score to “The Mission” turned me into an instant Morricone fan. I started tracking down more of his work. I had a lot to explore. He wrote — and get ready for this, please — the scores to more than five hundred films. According to his (beautifully written) New York Times obituary by Robert McFadden, he sometimes wrote 20 or more film scores a year. “Directors marveled at his range — tarantellas, psychedelic screeches, swelling love themes, tense passages of high drama, stately evocations of the 18th century or eerie dissonances of the 20th — and at the ingenuity of his silences: He was wary of too much music, of overloading an audience with emotions.”

He’s probably best known for his spaghetti western trilogy, consisting of “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964), “For a Few Dollars More” (1965) and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966). I could play you just eight notes and you’d probably recognize the tune. (You might not know the name or the composer, but the melody is part of our cultural collective consciousness.) I once bought an entire album of Morricone spaghetti western highlights and quickly decided it wasn’t my favorite of his work. But I marvel at the music’s atmospheric tang.

I love the way the Times’ McFadden describes it: “The work that made him world famous, and that was best known to moviegoers, was his blend of music and sound effects for Sergio Leone’s so-called spaghetti westerns of the 1960s: a ticking pocket watch, a sign creaking in the wind, buzzing flies, a twanging Jew’s harp, haunting whistles, cracking whips, gunshots and a bizarre, wailing “ah-ee-ah-ee-ah,” played on a sweet potato-shaped wind instrument called an ocarina.”

My second most favorite Morricone piece is his pensive, ravishing score for Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso.” I saw the film, which won the 1990 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, for the first time on a Christmas night at the indie Nickelodeon Theatre in downtown Santa Cruz. The context of being with my family on a holiday in the comfy ambiance of the art-film theater helped reinforce the warm memories I have toward it. It is a lush, nostalgic tale of an Italian movie director who flashes back to his childhood, a few years after the end of World War II, working at his village’s movie theater. (An amusing central plot point has the local priest censoring any love scenes he considers too inflammatory for his small-town flock; the bits are chopped out right there in the projection booth.)

Morricone’s score is a significant character in the experience. Like the heavy scent of honey, his music enchants at first taste and then envelopes you, and there’s a point in those first few minutes that you might feel as if you could drown in the sweetness. But he achieves a sort of golden equilibrium. While the score never retreats, it also never overwhelms. It becomes the oxygen for this world on screen, and without it, I don’t think the film itself could breathe.

“Cinema Paradiso” got me through some melancholy times in my life — it’s excellent music to listen to while feeling sorry for oneself — and also served as reading accompaniment for dozens of books over the years. I’d cue up my CD player, hit repeat and listen and read for hours. I wonder if Morricone ever truly knew the countless hours of joy he brought to his listeners.

Third on my Morricone’s list:

Which brings me to “Gabriel’s Oboe” in “The Mission.” Set in 18th century Paraguay, it tells the story of a Jesuit missionary (Jeremy Irons) and his efforts to convert a tribe named the Guarani to Christianity. (They aren’t too keen on the idea; one of the famous sequences from the film depicts the first priest sent on the task tied to a cross and then thrown from a towering waterfall.) When Irons’ character arrives, he intrigues the tribe by playing an oboe.

This is when we get the note.

In a unit she teaches titled “The Mission: The Film and Its Music,” Foothill College professor Elizabeth F. Barkley writes about the moment:

This musical theme is introduced when Father Gabriel first attempts to meet with the Guarani. We see the Guarani hidden behind trees, watching Father Gabriel warily but mesmerized by the music. This theme is interesting on several levels. First, the nasal, focused timbre of the European oboe is used to contrast with the diffused, airier timbre of the “Indian flute.”

Also, the melody begins with a Baroque ornament called a circulo mezzo. This gives the theme a musical sense of time and place and also symbolizes the struggles of the Jesuits who are “caught in the middle” between the Guarani, the Church authorities, and the Spanish and Portuguese governments.

Furthermore, the melodic contour is terraced upward, contrasting with indigenous characteristics in which melodies are predominantly terraced downward. The Chief becomes increasingly anxious as the melody ascends, as though in violation of the world order. He steps out of the forest, grabs the oboe, and breaks it as the melody reaches its highest point. When the Chief’s musically sensitive son takes the oboe to fix it, Father Gabriel is “accepted” by the Guarani.

I love Barkley’s insight about the melodic contour being terraced upward, the opposite of the native’s musical language. This “climbing,” I think, is what gives the note I’ve been rhapsodizing about in this article such emotional resonance for me. (I suspect the same can be said for “Dancing Queen,” which I wrote about in the context of the 2018 Good Company Players production; I love the way the chorus ascends to high notes over the melody line.) I swear it does something to me physically. My synapses dance.

Will you react the same way? Perhaps not. Different notes for different folks. Here’s a dream for a website: Collect people’s most moving musical moments and curate them into a sort of museum of the human psyche. The reasons why music moves people would be as interesting as the notes themselves.

Ennio Morricone would deserve a place of honor in the museum catalog.



Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (4)

  • Steph

    Oh my. Your idea for a website is brilliant.

    And based on this line: “ It becomes the oxygen for this world on screen, and without it, I don’t think the film itself could breathe“ I don’t think you have the problem with words you think you have.

    reply
  • Donald, this is a gorgeous delicacy of a review. It is so enjoyable to read, remember, and learn. Thank you for writing and sharing this.

    I have a modest recommendation. If you get some moments, give a listen to one of Central California’s own film score composers, John Wineglass. For starters, listen to the Monterey Symphony Orchestra premiering his “Big Sur: The Night Sun.”

    reply
  • Wayne Steffen

    At about 1:20-1:33, it looked like even the string player may have been impressed.

    reply

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