When Tom McDonald, my father in law, discovered that his daughter was marrying a musician I suspect it was music to his ears. It was if he’d been waiting for me.
He had a shelf of his favourite films, all paused at what he thought were the best bits, the bits were the music was, as he’d say, ‘mighty,’ ‘Sit down, Tom,’ he said, ‘this will take some time.’ They were almost all featured Ennio Morricone. There were some Marx Brothers, okay actually a lot of Marx Brothers, but centre stage was Ennio, Sergio Leone and The Mission. There followed many a long afternoon. Scenes were paused with a quick ‘wait ‘til you hear this,’ and then often repeated. If he couldn’t find a scene it would be waiting at my next visit.
A routine developed. We’d arrive in Kilkenny, exchange greetings and I’d be led immediately to the TV room. You never knew which next bit of classic Morricone would arrive on screen. It was bliss. I loved it but Tom was childlike in his delight, as if he was being constantly amazed by a conjurer. ‘How does he do it!’ he’d exclaim, time and time again.
When Ennio passed last week I was heartened by how many of the scenes Tom has chosen were picked too by film critics as the Maestro at his absolute best. I was heartened too to hear that Leone would often have the music played live on set so that the actors could experience it! And that he would lengthen scenes to avoid having to edit the score.
Morricone was a true genius of the 20th century. The films were often classics: The Mission, Cinema Paradiso, Once Upon a Time in The West; and had amazing casts - Clint Eastwood, Claudia Cardinale, Robert De Niro. Yet when we think of them our minds goes first to the music, which is no mean feat.
I was struck by how easy it all seemed. Ennio was composing by his sixth birthday (as were Mozart and Beethoven), he completed a four year music course in six months. The man who contributed those amazing whistles on the early soundtracks was an old school friend, Alessandro Alessandroni, and the haunting ‘wordless vocals,’ the soprano from Alessandro’s band Edda Dell’Orsa.
The sound affects in the ‘Dollar’ movies – the whips, gun shots, coyotes- were used because the budget didn’t stretch to an orchestra. He seemed to just use whatever or whoever was to hand. It came easily. One director commented that he was surprised to see that Morricone didn’t compose at a piano but simply wrote out all the parts from his head.
The gift that most fascinated me was how his music gave scenes a timeless quality. You’d see the child Salvatore playing with Alfredo in Cinema Paradiso. It was charming. But then the music would play and bang! It hit you with visceral power. Something said that this scene, of childhood and old age and happiness – was beautiful but absolutely fleeting. It hit the spot every time, the conjurer at his best.
This was where my father in law came in too. Possibly inspired by Morricone, he was determined to add sound tracks to his family home movies. It can’t have been easy, he had very rudimentary equipment but he succeeded in adding Val Doonigan’s ‘The Special Years’ to home films of his children – with my wife aged four - visiting Santa. The effect was startling. You were unmanned.
He got me to do it with my own home movies too, an easier proposition these days but not one I’d recommend if you are of a weak disposition. The effect was the same. My children were three and five at the time. Yet watching the films with Val crooning all you felt was that that time -when they were two and and four - was now gone forever. ‘But this was only last year!’ you reasoned, wiping your eyes as you did.
When Ennio played Kilmainham in July 2013, I booked tickets for Tom and I. I was nervous about the outdoor aspect, Tom was 85 and had been, as he would often tell me, ‘in the departure lounge,’ for some time. But then he died suddenly on July 3rd. I was asked to pick the church music. It was Gabriel’s Oboe. It was, as they’d say, ‘what he’d have wanted.’
I didn’t go to the Ennio gig though. A heart can only take so much.