Latest reviews of new albums:
I Promessi Sposi
  • Composed by Ennio Morricone
  • Fonit / 55m

Published in 1827, Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi (in English, The Betrothed) has gone onto become regarded as perhaps the most significant piece of Italian literature.  The epic novel is set in the 17th century against the backdrop of Italy being ruled by Spain and follows an engaged couple on an extraordinary life, covering virtuous and not-so-virtuous priests and other religious figures and taking in famine and later plague in Milan.

The great Ennio Morricone has a string of widely-acknowledged masterpieces throughout his illustrious career but – no doubt because of the sheer quantity of work he was produced – there are still some extraordinary pieces of work that deserve to be put on any list of his finest output but – because of their relative obscurity – are not.  At the very top of that list is this score, which he wrote for a 1989 tv miniseries adaptation of Manzoni’s novel.  An album was released at the time but – unlike a large number of his scores – has never even been reissued, let alone extended – which means it is sadly very hard to find these days.  But really – if you’re a Morricone one – this is one that you have to have.

Ennio Morricone

The title track which opens the album is really something special: unmistakably religious voices open before a recorder (or similar) plays an exquisite solo and then the strings come in, led by a solo viola (has any composer in history written as much music with viola solos as Morricone?) playing a stunning melody, before it’s stripped back to the recorder and voices to close the piece.  Bold, striking and incredibly beautiful, it could only be the product of this composer.

Sometimes one comes across a Morricone score with a stunning theme like that and then the rest is essentially a set of variations… well, not this one.  We go from that extraordinary opening into the lilting, ravishing “La Monaca di Monza” – there are two distinct melodic sections, the first (with a lovely guitar solo) serving as an appetiser to the main melody – wistful, melancholic, gently moving before really soaring heavenwards when the viola takes centre stage again to close.

In the third track, the third glorious theme – “Fra’ Cristoforo e il Pane del Perdono” sees a wash of strings circling around with that great fluidity that is such a hallmark of this composer’s music – this piece has such a nobility to it which combines with a rich warmth to produce the magic.  In “Gertrude”, we return to something overtly liturgical: it is a solemn piece, a rhythm from a harpsichord accompanying more heavenly voices and another prominent viola solo.  Again, it is difficult to overstate its beauty.  “L’Azzeccagarbugli” is quite a sprightly piece, definitely with a period feel (thanks to the harpsichord again but also the very distinctive woodwind colours) – it dances around, proving quite hypnotic.

Then the mood changes considerably in “I Lanzichenecchi”, a pretty heavy militaristic march (similar to those famous ones the composer wrote for political thrillers two decades earlier) – the story takes in some very dark moments so it’s no surprise the music does too.  In “La Riovolta del Pane” it’s all about colour: it’s an obviously-dark piece but there are these little, somewhat tortured fragments of light from the strings and horns that feel like they’re trying to burst through but never quite make it; the highlights is a particularly strident passage for the brass which is thrustingly portentous.  The darkness continues into “Violenza e Saccheggio” – that brass passage from the previous cue is reprised here but initially for strings (before a horn plays a motif that is – I’m sure coincidentally – extremely similar to John Williams’s raptor theme from Jurassic Park a few years later).

After that succession of stunning melodies through the first few cues and then the musical violence of the next few, you might think Morricone’s offered up the most noteworthy pieces already – but you’d be wrong.  The ninth cue, “Addio Monti”, is the best.  It’s one of those amazing adagios that the composer has served up so consistently (based on the “Deborah’s Theme” formula, though without the voice this time) – the strings swirl around a gorgeous melody before soaring triumphantly towards its resolution – then repeat.  It’s a heavenly piece of music and no surprise that it’s become a staple of the composer’s concerts.  Heartbreakingly beautiful, making the hairs on your neck stand up – I could throw out all the clichés in the world, none could quite do it justice.

The proves to be a little island of light amongst the darkest passage of the album – it is followed by the violent “Fuga di Renzo”, which sounds at times like a piece of psychological horror music whose highlight is a remarkable variation on the main melody from the first cue.  We then have a reprise of “La Monaca di Monza” – at first it seems like it will be much darker as it has an unmistakably tragic sound but it goes on to be every bit as beautiful as the first version.  The brief “Lovati” offers yet another lovely melody – flute this time, against those trademark Morricone strings.

Twisted siren-like circular string patterns open “La Notte dell’Innominato” accompanied by dissonant, close-miked pizzicato blasts before rattling percussion joins in.  This is deeply uncomfortable music, the starkest in the score – frenzied male voices join in and the piece reaches fever pitch.  A slightly off-kilter fanfare heralds “Arrivo dei Lanzi” and it must have been quite an arrival because it’s very grand music; then we have a reprise of that gorgeous opening choral music in “A Lucia”, a capella this time – it’s stunning.  “Don Abbondio” is a simple piece in many ways but dramatically quite complex – on the surface it’s like a scherzo but lying underneath there’s something really quite sinister about it.  “La Peste” is more direct – the horrors of the plague, in musical form.  Percussion and harrowed voices open the piece, which remains tortured throughout, before the album is brought to a close with the brief “Finale” which offers a soaring choral conclusion to what is a remarkable score.

Morricone goes on quite a musical journey through this score, which mixes the most extraordinary beauty with genuine darkness and terror.  A little unusually for a Morricone album (particularly a longer one), there is little thematic repetition – instead, the majority of the 18 cues are quite distinct little pieces in their own right.  When they’re put together, there is real magic: this genius of a composer operating at the peak of his powers, crafting an epic score which deserves to be far better-known.

Rating: ***** | |

Tags: ,

  1. Addie Smith (Reply) on Saturday 10 November, 2018 at 16:16

    OUTSTANDING article, James!!!! THANKS!!!!

  2. Mathias (Reply) on Saturday 10 November, 2018 at 17:08

    Thank you very much James! I have missed your Morricone reviews. I have this score only on CDR so a reissue would be very welcome. It is very beautiful music.

  3. Stephen Ottley (Reply) on Sunday 11 November, 2018 at 18:52

    Based on your resounding endorsement of this score and album, James, I’ve just ordered a copy. Thanks very much for the recommendation.

  4. dominique (Reply) on Sunday 18 November, 2018 at 11:55

    my first cd, which I had bought that time … until today one of my most heard and loved ones…a pure masterpiece.