Monday, 20 February 2017

Exotic flavours: part 3

Title: The mission
Year: 1986
Composer: Ennio Morricone

The next Oscar nomination Maestro Morricone got in 1987 for his score to Roland JoffĂ©’s film The mission about a Jesuit missionary in South America. After his spaghetti western scores it may be his most well-known score internationally with many of the film’s cues receiving praise even outside the film music community. Sadly once again the Academy didn't acknowledge the brilliance and instead gave the Oscar to Herbie Hancock’s Round midnight. Morricone loved the film and has been public about this in interviews feeling that his score should have been the winner. Well in any case he was thankfully rewarded with Oscars for his lifetime work and for an original film score as well.

The score begins with its highpoint On Earth as it is in heaven. This piece of music is usually the ending of Maestro’s live performances. This masterclass composition could be labeled under ‘beauty’ in a dictionary and it’s impossible not to be moved by its immense emotional rush. It also serves as an introduction to all the elements the score consists of. The slow intro introduces a heavenly choir singing in Latin before South American percussion rhythms enter into the scene and explode the track into a dance of the chanting natives. On top of everything plays the melody of Gabriel’s oboe, a miraculous theme that I’ll talk more in a moment, and the film’s main theme is also hidden in the accompanying chords. The cue builds and builds towards a finish that is brilliantly joyous and marvellous. Film music just doesn’t get any better than this!

The film’s main theme is The mission which is the only time we get to hear the moving developmental bridge section for strings in the middle of the cue. The identity the melody gets throughout the film is introduced in Falls which builds up to a wondrous statement of the theme which by itself is an extremely simple falling and rising melody that repeats mostly 4 notes. It’s performed here by pan flutes that are appropriately played by a group called Incantation whose member Tony Hinnigan later had a successful career with another film score composer, James Horner. He has said in an interview that Morricone improvised the melodies, rhythms etc on the spot and asked the players to create something similar with their flutes and percussion instruments, and everything was recorded on one take. That’s hard to believe because the ethnic instruments are implemented so effectively to the orchestral and choral material. The theme gets many versions throughout the album’s duration. It reaches another short crescendo in Climb, and gets even a disturbingly skewed string version in one of the suspense tracks Remorse which fortunately transforms after a fleeting moment of darkness into a heavenly reprise of the main melody. However by far the greatest use of the theme is in the film’s finale Miserere where it’s sung by a solo treble vocalist who ends the album with a true human element after the preceding devastating horrors.

The second idea called Gabriel’s oboe truly is the heart of the score. In the film it’s what Jeremy Irons’ character plays in the rainforest to convince the native people that he is friendly. Supposedly Morricone wrote the music by looking at Irons’ finger movements to actually try to fit the music into the scene. I’m not really convinced that that’s the case while rewatching the scene, but in any case it still is a spectacular composition. The choice of oboe as the primary instrument is just heart-wrenchingly emotional and especially the B section of the melody just melts your soul when the instrument reaches those glorious high notes. Vita nostra is another incredible cue with the oboe melody being played this time with a high ethnic flute while the choir chants the natives’ theme in a very bright and optimistic fashion. The last reprise of the theme is heard briefly in The sword for a warm low flute that is surrounded by sinister stabs of military trumpets and brass.

Morricone wrote also two sacred choral pieces that are performed impressively by London voices. Both Ave Maria Guarani and Te Deum Guarani however offer mental images of South America because the choral sound is very nasal and the latter cue also includes a native flute to back up the melody. Brothers on the other hand is a romantic theme for a flute and accompanying solo guitar which doesn’t reappear elsewhere on the album. The guitar gives a more dramatic solo performance in Carlotta with a more menacing string backing. The natives’ chanting theme is featured in The river which rises up to glorious heights with the vocal parts getting higher and higher after each repeat and ending with a fanfare version of Gabriel's oboe's opening phrase.

As with many other Morricone scores, there also are a few suspenseful moments that especially in this score feel extremely harsh since the core material is just so melodic in comparison. Penance is the first of these and is mostly built around wandering bassoon motif that now reminds me of Maestro’s main theme for The hateful eight. There also is a short quote of the Latin doomsday hymn of Dies irae and a short reprise of the main theme in a schizophrenic arrangement. The whole cue creates a disturbing feeling of uneasiness because the tension doesn’t fully resolve at the end. Refusal begins with excellent pan flute motifs that just make the hairs all over your body stand up and the situation is then made worse by a steady crushing rhythm and screeching high strings and military trumpets. Once again this writing is highly disturbing but simultaneously so effective. The natives’ theme is played over chase-like percussion and pizzicato writing in Asuncion which is an oddly fun cue though being suspenseful. Alone is mostly an exercise for the atonal strings which once again provide material that is rather hard to enjoy but certainly serves its purpose within the film. The players of Incantation bring out all the stops in Guarani which includes all kinds of imaginable noises that can be produced by the ethnic flutes. The atmosphere cools down towards the end but the waiting uneasiness and sudden stabs from the flutes prevent the listener from getting a sigh of relief.

There really isn’t much that hasn’t already been said about this score so I’ll keep it short. Even though The mission receives a lot of praise, it’s all deserved. It’s one of the most accessible Morricone albums ever because even the suspenseful cues are there to complement the overall narrative. It’s a spectacular score with a great amount of heart and soul. Any film score fan should listen to it at least once and preferably many times more.

Rating: *****

1. On Earth as it is in heaven (03:48) *****
2. Falls (01:53) *****
3. Gabriel's oboe (02:12) *****
4. Ave Maria Guarani (02:48) *****
5. Brothers (01:30) *****
6. Carlotta (01:19) ****
7. Vita nostra (01:52) *****
8. Climb (01:35) *****
9. Remorse (02:46) *****
10. Penance (04:00) *****
11. The mission (02:47) *****
12. River (01:57) *****
13. Gabriel's oboe (02:38) *****
14. Te Deum Guarani (00:46) *****
15. Refusal (03:28) *****
16. Asuncion (01:25) *****
17. Alone (04:18) ****
18. Guarani (03:54) ****
19. The sword (01:58) ****
20. Miserere (00:59) *****

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