The Man With The Harmonica

The Man With The Harmonica

Written by Ennio Morricone, 1968


Ennio Morricone, born in Rome in 1928, is one of the most prolific composers in the world, despite his unconventionality and inability to speak English. He has composed hundreds of pieces and, although being most famous for his film scores – most notably westerns – he also has an impressive repertoire of Jazz, Classical Music and even Pop Music. His work has received great appraisal and in 2007 he won the ‘Academy Honorary Award’ for his contribution to music.

Morricone was first commissioned to write the music for ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ in 1964 by old school friend and Film Director, Sergio Leone. The film, Leone’s first Spaghetti Western, was on a relatively low production budget and as a result, Morricone had to make do with what he had. Regardless, he managed to write one of the most prominent Western Film Scores to date in which he used a very avant-garde style of composition to create leitmotivs for the major characters which, arguably, go far more in depth than any of the screenplay does. He has even been described, along with Sergio Leone, as “creating the Italian Western” [Bertolucci, B. Ennio Morricone. (1995) [TV Documentary] UK: BBC 2, 1995.]

An example of this would be in the sequel to the above mentioned film, ‘For A Few Dollars More’: the antagonist of the film, El Indio, carries a pocket watch which plays a piece of music, his motif, throughout the film. This piece of music gives the audience an insight into the detailed background of the character which wouldn’t be possible to portray in 2-3 hours of acting. Morricone says on the role of the pocket watch [Morricone, E. (2010) A Quietus Interview. Interviewed by John Doran [in person], Unknown, 8th April 2010.:]

” the music that the watch makes transfers your thought to a different place because it is just a watch and of course every time the bandit winds on this watch this character, who is thinking about his life and all the difficult situations he has been in and has lived through, the rage, the violence, the fear, come out through this watch. The character itself comes out through the watch but in a different situation every time it appears.”

The instrumentation, due to budgetary restraints and Morricone’s desire to not write a conventional Western soundtrack, only adds to the quirkiness or depth of all the character’s motifs. In A Fistful of Dollars he used a Fender Stratocaster guitar; which in 1964 was very new to the music scene and very unorthodox to be used by a ‘classical composer’ – more associated with the likes of Buddy Holly & Hank Marvin, and later, Jimi Hendrix & Eric Clapton.

In 1968, Leone asked again of Morricone to write the musical score for his next Spaghetti Western, Once Upon A Time in the West. Morricone decided to stick with his unique style, often making use of solo instruments and vocals, despite having an 84 piece orchestra for this production (The Hollywood Symphony Orchestra, one of Hollywood’s most notable in performing film scores, only has a 75 piece orchestra). The main character, ‘Harmonica’ – played by Charles Bronson, is first shown on a train station platform, opposite 3 gunmen, playing a dissonant theme on his harmonica.

From the first glimpse of this character, the audience is captivated by him. This continues the entire length of the film, until the end when his dark back-story is eventually revealed. Although the entirety of his background isn’t known, the harmonica – which, like the pocket watch in From A Few Dollars More, is used by the character throughout the whole film – develops the theme of nostalgia in the character and room for him to develop.

His motif is entitled ‘Man With The Harmonica’; a title, which like the film, gives no clues as to his past. Over the main theme played by the harmonica, a slow arpeggio can be heard building into a striking entrance from the electric guitar. This, when added to the cinematic, is, for me, Morricone’s finest moment – giving me goose-bumps.

Unlike most western films, where the protagonist kills the evil, black-hatted villain in a heroic duel then rides off, further west, with or without the girl he fell in love with – Once Upon A Time in the West doesn’t allow for heroes. In the end, nobody wins – all the main characters are more damaged than they were at the start of the film. This pain and struggle, I believe, could not possibly be achieved without the music of Ennio Morricone which grips the audience on a sensory journey throughout the whole film.


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