July 15, 2020

Once Upon a Time On the Road with Ennio Morricone

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m on my way to Lambertville after half a year staying close to home, and nothing looks quite right. The road ahead is unwinding like a film that’s been subtly altered by forces beyond my control. The problem may be the music on the stereo. If this is a movie, I’ve picked the wrong soundtrack. The CD of Schubert lieder sounds too confined and wintry for a sunny early Sunday morning in July.

Maybe what I need is a nice rousing jolt from Ennio Morricone. Ever since he died last week, I’ve been revisiting the films he scored for Sergio Leone and reading about his relationship with his old fifth grade schoolmate in Christopher Frayling’s biography, Something To Do With Death. The title, taken from a line of dialogue in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, has something to do with my own state of mind after discovering that two old friends of mine have died, one last month in Indiana, the other two years ago in Zurich.

The view down the long stretch of empty track at the railroad crossing outside Hopewell reminds me of the opening sequence of Once Upon a Time in the West, but more than that, it flashes me back to the hours my friend Bob and I spent playing catch in a lot next to the Illinois Central tracks. When he moved to a town upstate, we signed our letters “your everlasting friend,” no doubt using the same leaky ballpoint pens with which we copied down stats in baseball scrapbooks on long winter afternoons. The last time I saw him in person was — 1960.

Sharing Music

While waiting for the light to change at the junction of 518 and NJ 31, I take the Schubert Lieder out of the CD player and replace it with the Beach Boys’ Sunflower. Why Schubert on a pandemic-haunted morning in July? Because the other old friend I’m mourning is Irwin Gage, the pianist accompanying Gundula Janowitz on this Deutsche Grammophon recording from 1977. I’ve had closer friends over the years, but the friendship with Irwin developed on a summer student tour of Europe, giving it an kind of shipboard romance unreality. Bob and I bonded over books and baseball in Bloomington, Indiana. Irwin and I shared great music in Vienna, Salzburg, Venice, and Rome. If he hadn’t urged me to go, I’d have missed a stirring outdoor concert of Respighi’s Pines of Rome in Venice, the trumpet-glorious March of the Roman legions on the Appian Way like a preview of Morricone’s great showdown fanfare in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It was thanks to Irwin that I saw a performance of Turandot at the Baths of Caracalla, five rows behind Orson Welles. We also shared a Mozart program in Salzburg and visits to Beethoven’s house and Schubert’s birthplace in Vienna.

I tried several times to get in touch with Irwin over the years. Not counting some letters from college the year after the tour, he never wrote back, most likely because having spent most of his adult life in Europe accompanying famous lieder singers, he’d come to regard the student tour as an interlude of silly, borderline embarrassing collegiate fun. Last week when I checked his Wikipedia entry, I found that he’d died in June 2018 “after a long illness.”

“The Ecstasy of Gold”

It’s just as well I didn’t have a Morricone/Leone soundtrack playing on the way to Lambertville. It would have been like the time I drove the same route with the Berlioz Requiem, scaling hills to the music of the Day of Wrath, four brass choirs playing the fatal fanfare, the Tuba Mirum that, as the conductor Colin Davis liked to say, “blows your brains out.” As I learned after watching portions of the various Sergio Leone westerns with the sound off, there’s no Leone without Morricone. Like the line in the Sinatra’s “Love and Marriage,” you “can’t have one without the other.”

When Leone died in 1989, the funeral was at the basilica of San Paolo Fuori Le Mura in Rome, with Morricone playing the main theme from Once Upon a Time in the West on the organ as the coffin arrived. Both men were 60 at the time, and given the symbiotic magic they made, they’ve been together in cinema the 30 years since and will be as long as people watch movies. According to Frayling’s biography, Leone compared the relationship to “a marriage” like Catholics used to have “before the divorce laws: tempestuous, but devoted.”

Still, it’s fun to imagine driving west once upon a time in New Jersey with Morricone on the stereo. Well, maybe not “The Ecstasy of Gold” from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. How can you drive to ecstasy without going off the road? It’s hard enough to sit still watching Leone’s Sancho Panza from hell (Eli Wallach) sprint through a vast cemetery as if catapulted by the power of Morricone’s music. When soprano Edda Dell’Orso’s wordless aria soars over a delirium of trumpets, bells, and gongs, you become one with Tuco spinning, whirling, romping among the immense landscape of crosses and headstones, everything blurring as if the cameras had been unmoored in the sonic forcefield. But what a fitting metaphor for the deathless spirit of art: to feel this ecstatic energy in a landscape of the dead encircling a man consumed by an ecstasy of greed. And look what’s in store: Morricone’s version of trumpet heaven for the fabulous showdown opera between the three title characters. And how right, how moving, that this composer’s instrument of choice, like his father’s before him, was the trumpet.

Art and Spaghetti

It was all too inevitable that the obituaries for Morricone referred to “the Italian composer of atmospheric scores for spaghetti westerns.” Back in the sixties when that crass but nauseatingly handy phrase was coined, my wife and I were part of group of film buffs who would have laughed at us for speaking of Leone in the same breath with Fellini or Bergman or Truffaut or any certified “serious” director of the period. Similarly, the Beach Boys’ Sunflower and Morricone’s scores for Leone most likely would have been scorned by Schubertians like Irwin. But I have to think that the person who shared the wonder of Respighi’s Pines of Rome that night in Venice and Turandot in Rome would be susceptible to the wonder of Morricone, even if he considered Edda Dell’Orso no match for Renata Tebaldi. I’m also naive enough to think he might grudgingly admit the harmonic genius of Brian Wilson/Beach Boy creations like “This Whole World” and “Forever.”

Noise and Music

The beauty of my friendship with Bob was the sense that we were always in synch, or, as the cliché has it, “on the same page.” No matter what, books or music or sports or dirty jokes or adolescent fantasies, we were attuned, and I have no doubt he’d have been as receptive to the Leone/Morricone experience as my wife and I were.

Remembering instances of Irwin’s goofy sense of humor, the spontaneous impersonations he did of our deranged tour leader and certain unintentionally funny characters in the group, he, too, would have enjoyed Eli Wallach’s performance as Tuco, not to mention Once Upon a Time in the West’s opening soundscape of dripping water, buzzing fly, creaking windmill, and chattering teletype as three doomed gunfighters wait for their “victim’s” train to arrive. Irwin, who gave master classes in song interpretation, and Bob, who became a research chemist, would have related to Morricone’s awareness that all noise belongs to the realm of music, and the fact that he’d been a member of a group of avant-garde composers attending seminars led by John Cage. According to Frayling’s biography, when Leone was dissatisfied with the music composed for that opening sequence, Morricone described a “concert” in Florence where a man came on the stage with a stepladder and did nothing but make it creak and squeak for several minutes, all the while in total silence, until the bewildered audience began to realize that the sound had taken on a significance that transcended its “everyday nature.” As  Morricone puts it, “I recounted this experience to Sergio, who already had these things in his blood, in his own ideas about silence,” and he made “those extraordinary first ten minutes of Once Upon a Time from that idea.”

Last Rites for Nora

When I got back from Lambertville, with the Beach Boys playing all the way, my wife, son, and I said some words of love over the backyard grave of another close friend, one of the feline variety, the dearest and nearest of all.