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Love Affair: The Ecstasy of Ennio Morricone’s Music

Nov 23, 2020 05:00PM ● By ERIK ENTWISTLE

“The pain and joy inside a character is what my music is about.”  —Ennio Morricone (1928-2020), quoted in 1984

When composer Ennio Morricone passed away this past July at the age 91, he left a world immeasurably enriched by his musical legacy. Thanks in large measure to a prodigious catalog of some 400 film scores, his music has reached the ears of millions and has been championed by an array of musicians from Joan Baez to Yo-Yo Ma. As John Zorn aptly observed in his New York Times posthumous appraisal, Morricone’s “sonic adventures stand on their own merits both in the context of the films he scored and on their own terms as pure music.”

Let us consider one of Morricone’s most attractive (if less well-known) melodies—the principal theme from 1994’s Love Affair, starring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. The film was neither a critical nor box office success, and at the time of its release was judged unnecessarily redundant, given the original 1939 film of the same name and the 1957 remake entitled An Affair to Remember. But despite the perhaps overly-familiar plot, Morricone’s musical stamp on the film adds immeasurably to its emotional impact, conjuring an inner world of intense yearning and desire.

Morricone conceived the main Love Affair melody to not only represent the romantic feelings between the two main characters, but the actors themselves. Beatty and Bening were recently married at the time of filming, a surprising development given Beatty’s history with women, and it is more than a touch ironic that Beatty’s character in the film is a philanderer. Morricone makes the on/off-screen connection explicit in the Love Affair soundtrack by giving the first appearance of the theme the title “For Annette and Warren,” underscoring the serendipity of art imitating life in the film. Interestingly, this particular rendition of the tune (featuring a flute solo) is heard in only the soundtrack and does not appear in the movie; rather it forms the basis for a series of subtle variations that saturate the final hour of the film.

The first appearance of the Love Affair theme does not take place until 45 minutes into the story, when Katharine Hepburn, portraying the Beatty character’s aunt (in Hepburn’s final film appearance), performs it at the piano. Bening is soon humming along, while Beatty looks on. It’s a critical turning point in the film where the protagonists realize they are falling in love, with the encouragement of Hepburn’s musical matchmaking.

The tune itself is a perfect example of Morricone’s gifts as described by Zorn, who asserts that the composer “was one of those musicians who could make an unforgettable melody with just a small fistful of notes.” The instantly memorable tune’s simplicity is deceptive, for it is Morricone’s masterful craftsmanship and unerring judgement that enables him to suggest sincere, deeply-felt emotions with this melody without coming across as superficial or saccharine.

Once introduced, the main theme dominates the rest of the soundtrack as well as the film, becoming an omnipresent idée fixe. Each appearance is given a different instrumental cast so that one never tires of hearing it. Although Hepburn’s performance at the piano is the first and only diegetic instance of the tune in the film, the piano continues to play an important role in the variations, connecting the listener to the first time the melody had been introduced.

The comforting tune’s frequent appearances in the film have an additional effect of reassuring the audience that love will triumph in the end—despite the frequent, near-tragic misunderstandings that take place. It’s an illustration of the composer’s observation that “what commands in film is the way in which the audience comprehends the music: that is, what the music is saying, which isn’t what the dialogue is saying.” And whether we are watching Love Affair or any of Morricone’s films, it is more than worth the effort to contemplate what it is that his music is “saying.”

Pianist, instructor and musicologist Erik Entwistle received an undergraduate degree in music from Dartmouth College. He earned a post-graduate degree in piano performance at Washington University in St. Louis and his doctorate in musicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He teaches on Sanibel Island.