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Morricone: Top Ten Tracks

From his beloved masterpieces known the world over to those obscure gems only known by a lucky few, there are hundreds of Ennio Morricone albums out there. His music has been part of my life for decades and I wanted to share my personal favourite pieces. There are so many to choose from, going across virtually the whole conceivable range of musical styles.

(I cheated by including more than one track from some albums.)

  1. “Main Theme” and “The Ecstasy of Gold” from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
    Morricone had scored numerous westerns by the time he came to work on the concluding part of his great collaborator Sergio Leone’s “dollars trilogy”. Audiences were already familiar with the composer’s ability, in tandem with the director’s, to make these things opera – but he went to a whole new level here. The main title, with its orchestral coyote calls, the harmonica sound being doubled by a choir impersonating a harmonica, the extraordinary (unplayable-sounding) part for piccolo trumpet – so dazzlingly creative and it became an unlikely chart hit. I can’t think of another genre of film that is defined by a single piece of music as the Italian western is defined by this one. But better still is the marriage of image and music for the finale, “The Ecstasy of Gold” – the heavenly brilliance of Edda dell’Orso’s voice, the driving pop beat, the majestic orchestra – in many ways it is the signature piece of the composer’s career.
  1. “Jill’s Theme” and “Man with the Harmonica” from Once Upon a Time in the West
    If The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was a singular triumph of using music within a film rather than applying it on top of one, then the very apex of that arguably came a few years later in Leone’s masterpiece. When they like a score, film critics often refer to it as being “like another character” in a film; well, in Once Upon a Time in the West, it’s every character. The soaring beauty of Jill’s Theme – Edda’s remarkable voice, again – and somehow from chaos and cacophony emerges perhaps the single most influential piece the composer ever wrote in “Man with the Harmonica”, as epic forces emerge. My jaw dropped the first time I heard it; it was still dropping a thousand times later.
  1. “L’Arena” from Il Mercenario
    Ironically, when Quentin Tarantino started licencing Morricone tracks to use in his films, they were probably experienced by an order of magnitude more cinemagoers than a lot of them had been when they were in the films for which they were actually written. “L’Arena” (heard in the second Kill Bill) is everything that is great about the composer’s westerns – we start with tension, simulated machine-gun fire, before an epic trumpet solo emerges. It’s life, death and everything in between. It’s amazing.
  1. “On Earth as it is in Heaven” and “Gabriel’s Oboe” from The Mission
    Outside the westerns, this is surely Morricone’s most famous score, even though the film wasn’t particularly successful. It’s stunning. He was a deeply religious man and managed to find numerous ways to express that in his film music – his choral music for this film is simply transcendant. He always closed his concerts with “On Earth as it is in Heaven” and it always brought the house down. Yet somehow that is perhaps not even the most iconic piece of music from this score, because there is also “Gabriel’s Oboe” – Jeremy Irons was shot pretending to play the instrument before Morricone wrote his music and he somehow managed to write something that not only looked like Irons might legitimately be playing based on the movement of his fingers – but also perhaps the single most beautiful theme ever heard in a film. The man was a genius.
  1. “Chi Mai” from Maddalena
    A kind of Europop-influenced orchestral piece, this was written for a film that few remembered but took on a whole new lease of life years later when it was licenced and used as the theme for a BBC documentary series, becoming another unlikely chart hit for the Maestro. The strings manage to be both staccato and yet silky smooth; and there’s something a bit psychadelic about the driving pop beat. I’ve never heard anything else like it.
  1. “Irene-Dominique” from L’Eredita Ferramonti
    An historical drama from one of the composer’s most prolific collaborators Mauro Bolognini, this outrageously beautiful adagio is a romantic treat. It swoops and swoons, the strings envelop you – it is a prime example of the romantic style which saw the composer put out theme after theme that simply melt the heart. Stunning. (I chose this one to represent all those great love themes – but honestly, there are hundreds of amazing ones.)
  1. “Rabbia e Tarantela” from Allonsanfan
    At the other end of the spectrum is this grandstanding, militaristic piece of action music (another one later appropriated by Tarantino) – it packs such a punch, Morricone sweeps you off your feet and carries you along just as he carries along the revolutionaries in the film. Close your eyes while listening and such vivid images emerge – its dramatic potency not lost in the half-century that has passed since it was written.
  1. “I Promessi Sposi” and “Addio Monti” from I Promessi Sposi
    This most remarkable film composer wrote one of his very best scores for this Italian tv movie from 1989. Again the religious sound is front and centre for the extraordinary choral a capella main title piece; few people seem to know it. “Addio Monti” is another moving adagio, this time perhaps slightly more familiar given it was frequently included in his concerts – I’m quite sure that had it been written for a film with a higher international profile, this score would be as well known as The Mission.
  1. “The Silver of the Mine” from Nostromo
    This is possibly my single favourite piece of music by the Maestro. Conrad’s story inspired him to write a grand, romantic theme following the Once Upon a Time in the West template – this time the wordless soprano is not Edda, but the melody is perhaps even more soaring, the energetic string runs of the orchestral accompaniment adding a wonderful sense of adventure.
  1. “L’Ultima Diligenza di Red Rock” from The Hateful Eight
    Morricone didn’t actually compose much music for the film that finally saw him win an Oscar, and this lengthy piece for its opening is no doubt the one that won him the prize. Tarantino was expecting something grand and expansive – instead he got a brooding bassoon solo, a heartbeat from a drumkit, fierce choral outbursts, wah-wah trumpets – it’s so mean and moody and on paper it shouldn’t work – but of course it works.

It goes without saying that given Morricone was so prolific, everyone’s list of favourites will differ from mine. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.


  1. Elfenthalsmith (Reply) on Monday 6 July, 2020 at 17:57

    James, as someone whose coverage of Morricone is second to none, have you listened to La Piovra?

  2. Tom de Ruiter (Reply) on Monday 6 July, 2020 at 18:31

    I really love ‘La Califfa’ from the film of the same name. It’s one of the first pieces I’ve heard from the maestro. It’s beauty is subtle at the start and then punches you in the face, and the tears start rolling the first time I heard it.

    It’s just amazing what this man has accomplished in his life and career.

    • James Southall (Reply) on Monday 6 July, 2020 at 18:41

      Agree, that one’s amazing. It was on my list then off then on then off (eventually I just chose Irene-Dominique ahead of it but they’re both amazing).

  3. Rory (Reply) on Monday 6 July, 2020 at 18:43

    “Humanity, Part 1” from The Thing, the main theme of Cinema Paradiso and and the full film version of “La Resa de Conti” from For a Few Dollars More, that’s never been issued on CD, would have to be on my list.

    Honestly the main themes for the Entire Dollars trilogy could all count in one go, too. It’s pretty amazing how despite all being composed separately, they all feel like individual movements of some overarching symphony.

  4. James Southall (Reply) on Monday 6 July, 2020 at 18:44

    I should have put the theme from Marco Polo on here really but put Hateful Eight instead just because it brought such remarkable closure to his career, with the Oscar and the attention it got and everything.

    • James Southall (Reply) on Monday 6 July, 2020 at 19:03

      Oh man, and I completely forgot “Abollisson” – there are so many amazing pieces to choose from. “Journey” from Moses is another extraordinary one.

      • Rory (Reply) on Friday 17 July, 2020 at 00:11

        You could do another list or two of this and I doubt anyone’d bat an eye.

  5. dominique (Reply) on Monday 6 July, 2020 at 18:53

    the main theme from „marco polo“ is to me the most beautiful theme in film history. thank you for mentioning it. janes and i can’t stop crying…

    what a genius died today!
    mille grazie, maestro!

  6. Underfire35 (Reply) on Monday 6 July, 2020 at 20:34

    As far as love themes go, my favorite would have to be from “Questa Specie D’amore,” but we are lucky enough to have so many to choose from on such a sad day as this..

    • James Southall (Reply) on Monday 6 July, 2020 at 20:35

      Agreed, absolutely. That’s another wonderful one.

  7. Alexander S. (Reply) on Tuesday 7 July, 2020 at 07:50

    Let’s not forget the music for RED SONJA and FRANTIC, both of which belong to 80’s most famous movie themes.

  8. Ian Simpson (Reply) on Tuesday 7 July, 2020 at 19:11

    Other favourites of mine that I have listened to relatively frequently are U-Turn, Aida degli alberi (Aida of the Trees), Days of Heaven, and The Sicilian Clan. The main themes of the first two of those both have a similar background rhythm and harmony to the Nostromo one, but each theme takes it in different directions.

    The thing with Ennio Morricone passing away is that, like many other great film and classical composers before him, he has written so much good music over the years that he will be immortalised by his music.

    There’s also another Morricone soundtrack that I listen to quite often – spot the deliberate pun in the previous paragraph!

  9. Yves (Reply) on Wednesday 8 July, 2020 at 16:13

    My personal favourites. Just ten tracks (eventhough I could easily list 50)

    – On Earth as it is in Heaven (The Mission)
    – Gabriel’s Oboe (The Mission)
    – Deborah’s theme (Once upon a time in America)
    – Once upon a time in the West (Once upon a time in the West)
    – Il Forte (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly)
    – The Ecstacy of Gold (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly)
    – End titles (Malena)
    – Finale (Orca)
    – Where? (Mission to Mars)
    – Death theme (The Untouchables)

  10. Ian Simpson (Reply) on Thursday 9 July, 2020 at 18:09

    The ones that I mentioned earlier are the ones that I hadn’t seen mentioned in this thread yet. I’d say that my favourites are:
    1. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
    and then, in no particular order (my next-favourite changes quite a bit):
    A Fistful of Dollars
    For a Few Dollars More
    Once Upon a Time in the West
    Once Upon a Time in America
    Days of Heaven
    Cinema Paradiso
    The Thing
    The Sicilian Clan
    The Untouchables
    The Mission

    There are a fair number of others that I like (a couple of which I mentioned in my previous post) but it’s the above that tend to vie for the spot of second favourite. As an all-round soundtrack though I think The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was his magnum opus, and it ranks within my top five favourite film scores by any composer.