Inside Ennio Morricone's Lauded, Enduring Score for The Mission

Music's unique power in Roland Joffé's film

When Ennio Morricone died in July, I hesitated to dedicate this next Music in Film piece to him. Aside from wondering what I could add to the flood of tributes and memorials to one of film music's most prolific and loved composers, three editions into the series, I was keen to move into more underrepresented territory. 

While reading the tributes, though, I was struck by the word "master," which appeared again and again, alternating with the Italian "maestro," a favorite nickname bestowed by Morricone's fans. "Maestro" has a separate meaning and context that stretches back to 18th century Italian—defined by Oxford University's online dictionary as "a distinguished musician, especially a conductor of classical music"—but the two words translate directly. What struck me about the appearance of these epithets was a distinct sense of obsolescence. As well as being a gendered term with patriarchal connotations ("master of the house"), its colonial overtones are hard to avoid. In the context of the arts, it implies a certain Romantic nostalgia for a mythologized time when artists were absolute artists, unfettered by mundane distractions and wage labor. 

Coinciding with the rapid expansion and consolidation of European imperialism, the Romantic period (late 18th to mid 19th century) gave rise to this individualistic idea of the artist as a singular, independent genius—an idea that was made possible by and erased the immense labor of a multitude, both domestic and colonial. Interestingly, at this time the word "genius," which had originally meant a guiding spirit or something that bestowed inspiration, took on its current meaning of an individual with exceptional ability. It's unsurprising, then, that these words ring strangely in a world that's not only, slowly but surely, opening up to diversity and the immense contributions to culture made by underrepresented people, but also one in which musicians and composers must be IT-skilled and savvy to digital marketing as well as exceeding in their art, and tend to work diffusely in collaboration with writers, producers and other artists. 

Above even this is a growing acceptance of the idea, which has worked its way from feminist and postcolonial theory into mainstream parlance, that the "masters" or "greats," in other words the artistic canons, have always been chosen by a powerful minority of gatekeepers, in their own image. It's this that feels uncomfortable seeing the word "master" pop up again and again in these memorials. It is universally acknowledged that Morricone is one of "the great" film composers, but at the expense of who (or what)? This was the source of my hesitation, but it's also what warrants yet another Morricone piece: Because he was made canonical almost in spite of himself, and while some of his scores regularly top "best-of" lists, many more were deliberately anti-establishment, anti-individualistic, and by some standards even anti-musical.

We'll start, though, with a score considered by many to be his "masterpiece." Roland Joffé's The Mission is a film about masters, set in the 18th century in Guarani lands around the Iguazu Falls, which lie between modern-day Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. Roger Ebert wrote upon the film's release in 1986: "Two great colonial forces are competing for the hearts and minds of the native Indians. On the one hand, there are the imperialist plunderers, who want to establish a trade in riches and slaves. On the other hand, there are the missionaries, who want to convert the Indians to Christ." All action and moral tension centers around the struggle between these two groups, a struggle which is personified in Robert De Niro's character, Rodrigo Mendoza, a slave-trader who becomes a missionary after killing his brother and suffering a crisis of conscience.

The antagonists in the movie are the Spanish and Portugese colonists, who are frustrated at losing potential slaves to the Jesuit missions, where the indigenous converts are protected from enslavement, and the story revolves around a visit from a papal emissary who arrives under the pretense of auditing the missions to decide whether to keep them open, but already carrying orders to close them, due to pressure on the Vatican in Europe from the Spanish and Portugese governments. When the Jesuits realize their case for keeping the missions is hopeless, the central question becomes the question of violent versus non-violent resistance, with the priests split between the pacifism of Jeremy Irons' Father Gabriel and Mendoza, who takes up arms once again, this time to fight for the Guarani. 

As a recent reviewer for the Australian Broadcasting Company writes: "The Mission is a film with a lot of sympathy for its colonizing missionaries, but little time for developing any of its indigenous characters. Not one is named anything more specific than 'Indian Chief,' 'Witch Doctor,' 'Indian Boy' and so on, and certainly none become active participants in the story. Colonization happens to them—that is the sum of the Guarani's existence in the film. Despite The Mission's obvious criticism of the violence of colonizers—the ideological violence of the Jesuits is largely uncommented on—De Niro's slaver Mendoza is forgiven for his murders and his contemptible trade in a short matter of minutes."

A popular consensus holds that where other aspects of the movie fail, its score succeeds; while its politics feel dated, its music has endured and taken on a life of its own. Indeed, the film's best known theme, the baroque "Gabriel's Oboe," was put to Italian lyrics by Chiara Ferraù and released on Sarah Brightman's 1998 album Eden, as "Nella Fantasia," becoming a classical crossover standard recorded and performed by the likes of Katherine Jenkins, Russell Watson and Il Divo. Along with another major theme, "Falls," Morricone's original and innumerable other arrangements of "Gabriel's Oboe" have found their way into orchestras' repertoires since the film's release. 

However, such a clear separation neglects the centrality of its music to the inner workings of the film, and particularly to the notion of mastery. The movie opens with Father Gabriel climbing the Iguazu Falls to treat with a community of Guarani, who had sent his predecessor over the waterfall tied to a cross, with an oboe strapped to his back like a musket. After walking tentatively through the jungle, he sits, sensing he has reached the Guarani's territory, and begins to play the "Gabriel's Oboe" theme.

The Mission | Gabriel's Oboe

Elizabeth F. Barklay, professor of music history at Foothill College, notes that "the nasal, focused timbre of the European oboe is used to contrast with the diffused, airier timbre of the 'Indian flute,' and 'the melodic contour is terraced upward, contrasting with indigenous characteristics in which melodies are predominantly terraced downward. The Chief becomes increasingly anxious as the melody ascends, as though in violation of the world order. He steps out of the forest, grabs the oboe, and breaks it as the melody reaches its highest point. When the Chief's musically sensitive son takes the oboe to fix it, Father Gabriel is "accepted" by the Guarani."

Music has been thought to hold some power in many religions and cultures throughout history, not least in Catholicism, but it holds specific powers in The Mission. The first is a power of binding: Although Gabriel's oboe is snapped, it is through the music that he is able to win the hearts of the Guarani and avoid the same end as his predecessor. In a grimly reflective moment, the papal emissary says, "With an orchestra, the Jesuits could have subdued the whole continent." 

With the Guarani converted and the mission built, Father Gabriel later attempts to turn the same trick against the Europeans. In a court hearing he has a young Guarani boy sing Morricone's arrangement of "Ave Maria" in an attempt to display the indigenous peoples' humanity. He repeats this attempt as the emissary visits each mission, having choirs perform and showing him around workshops where the Guarani build European classical instruments. Finally, he has a choir sing the hymn as the Spanish and Portuguese soldiers advance on the mission, continuing as the Guarani are gunned down and the mission around them burns. The unsusceptibility of the Europeans to the music shows their lack of humanity. A contradiction arises from the way music is used here. The Guarani's mastery of European music is supposed to symbolize their civilisation, their mastery over primitive nature, but as we have already seen, it is the music that has mastered them.

In the context of the film—certainly in the Jesuits' thinking—only European music is equated with humanity in this way, but here Morricone's score seems to point in a different direction. As Dr. Barklay has pointed out, the ascending tendency of "Gabriel's Oboe" is at odds with the descending tendencies of the indigenous music. In Western music, as in architecture, the tendency to ascend has often symbolized the attempt to reach up to God. "Falls," the theme previously played on the "Indian flute," is therefore profane, falling outside of Western standards. And yet it's no less grand or beautiful. Paying careful attention to the opening scene, its falling cadences reflect the endless roaring descent of the waterfall, and its airy timbre blends harmoniously with the natural sounds of the jungle, unlike the oboe in the next scene, which cuts through the ambient sound. Just as the Europeans do not acknowledge indigenous music, the Guarani chief is offended by the upward movement of Father Gabriel's playing; perhaps Dr. Barklay's claim that it seems as if the music is "in violation of the world order" could be more accurately amended to the "natural order." The way Morricone contrasts music in this film is not one of music versus non-music, but a contrast of two wholly different types of music which follow contradictory sets of rules. The question of godly and ungodly music could just as well be turned into a question of music that works with nature and music that works against it.

Despite his immensely successful, prolific career and the apparent ease with which he could create a memorable theme, Morricone never paid much regard to the musical rule-makers or arbiters of taste, and was famously dismissive of music journalists. This rebellious attitude never came out more strongly than in his music. Studying in the early 1950s with Goffredo Petrasi, his musical background was in the 20th century avant-garde, an influence which never left. Along with his film composition credits—which amount to over 500—he continued to write around 150 pieces of absolute music, much of it avant-garde and most never recorded, which he believed, according to Mark Swed, to be "far and away his most important work."

It's in his work with Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza that this experimental side is most easily accessed. The group's music was based on a rigorous improvisational practice according to a set of rules in which "every member had to be a composer and accomplished performer, but no individual player had priority. No sound produced could be bound to the tonal system. There could be no rhythmic periodicity or repetition, no easily remembered tunes (of which Morricone happened to be genius), no clichés (including avant-garde ones), no wasteful sound, no improviser ego-tripping." The group were influenced by the microtonal sounds of composers like György Ligeti (whose piece "Atmosphères" appears in 2001: A Space Odyssey) and Giacinto Scelsi, to whom they paid homage with the 1976 piece "Omaggio A Giacinto Scelsi." They also experimented with electro-acoustic music and field recordings, which had a profound influence on Morricone's film work.

In his memoir, Life Notes, Morricone wrote that during his studies he had taken to heart John Cage's claim that "all real-world sounds … belong to music." Even in his most famous scores, for Italian Westerns like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars, this influence can be felt in the incorporation of whistles, shouts, howling dogs and gunshots, which are commonplace today but were highly innovative at the time. The avant-garde has always been a response to and rebellion against the hidden ideological assumptions that lie behind notions of proper form and taste in the arts.

In The Mission, the Jesuits showcase the Guarani singing as if they have learned of music for the first time, but their fixation on the rules of Western classical music theory makes them deaf to the music that already surrounds them in the jungle, just as their chauvinistic fixation on "civilized" Western ways of living blinds them to the humanity and culture the Guarani already have within them. Joffé's movie in general shares that blindness, but through Morricone's score, we are able to hear what isn't shown.


Mike Smaczylo is a producer and music supervisor at Adelphoi Music.

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