Il Segreto del Sahara

Ennio Morricone

" Il Segreto del Sahara is the best Morricone score "

Written by Joep de Bruijn - Review of the regular release

Il Segreto del Sahara (Secret of the Sahara, 1988) is mini-series directed by Alberto Negrin, starring Ben Kingsley, Michael York and Andie MacDowell. It's an adventurous and mysterious tale about an archeologist´s quest to discover the location of the legendary Talking Mountain of the Sahara desert and to find its hidden treasure.

Ennio Morricone scored mini-series in all shapes, sizes and genres, but he really stood out when scoring the ones larger in scope, which resulted in spectacular scores such as Moses The Lawgiver, Marco Polo, I Promessi Sposi and Il Segreto del Sahara.

In my evergoing exploration of the maestros resume Il Segreto del Sahara was by far the greatest eye-opener in 2007, outshining anything of a significant statue. It is a representation of the composer's greatest gifts united into a single body of work, yet it is also a score with inevitable recycling of musical ideas and very specific small details. On a positive note, there is the incredibly sweeping and memorable main theme, the outstanding use of pathos, inspiring desolate bass flute performances, an unforgettable secondary theme, thrilling, comparatively light experimental, epic music, the most fitting re-use of Morricone' previously written material ever conceived, an everlasting song based on an original theme, the most pleasantly light adventurous feel, the most infectious and noble tuba solo of all times, affections romantic shades, a series of intimate musical portraits of loss (Kerim), an outrageously beautiful thematic variations sung by Edda Dell'Orso.... In fact, there's so much more.

In the opening cue, the string section and soft choir gradually build to a full expressive introduction of the main theme, aided by the desolate and mystique of the bass flute, wonderfully performed by Paolo Zampini. Once the theme bursts out, the strings and choir soar, with a small hint of brass fanfare. Truly a memorable, classic approach and by far the most exemplary cue of the kind of pathos Morricone excels in. The theme resurfaces numerous of times, from bolder takes, to subdued and nostalgic sounding, carried over to different instruments. RCA Victor’s first release closes with a song rendition sung by Amii Stewart (Saharan Dream), which is nothing short of magic. However, the expanded release includes the marvelous wordless variation by Edda Dell Orso, while it is a very conventional take, I mostly adore it because of the melody she compliments.

There is a wealth of other musical ideas that I believe serve as a theme, motif, or even just for recognizable coloring. The therefore mentioned bass flute is a notable example, which consists of the repeating of a few phrases. While the main theme is used an as overarching view of the story, and the endless desert, the bass flute more so illustrates the desolate feel of the desert and the mystique feel of the quest for the treasure. Similarly, Morricone employed a short number of phrases for a solo tuba, performed by Carlo Ingrati, in cues such ´First Dedication´. It is not an instrument that is frequently used as a solo instrument, let alone used to perform a theme, but when it does, it is rarely an instrument to reflect on a feeling of melancholic nobility, which it does marvelously. Morricone also re-uses the brass fanfare from the pre-existing cues as a motif, addressing nuanced emotions throughout the score. In crafting sounds for the desert and the curiosity of the quest, some 'twirling bird´ woodwinds allude to both, but at times they so easily transform into unnerving dramatic tools.

Some characters are treated to a farewell, underscored by slower, saddening pieces for solo violins and cellos, amongst things, as heard in cues such as ´Farewell to Orso´ (not Edda) and ´Death of Tamameth´. They come at a time the adventurous side of the score is literally toned down to reflect on the dramatic side of the mini-series. While some carry the signature sound of mixed feelings, others are pieces of grief with a slight touch of tension. Similar dramatic passages are continued through Tales from Poland, while also reserving short moments of pure nostalgia, such as in Mariam and Philip. However, the most notable theme is for Kerim, which is a slowly performed orchestral cue for choir and strings. Of all the cues that Morricone wrote in such a meditative fashion, this truly his the best of all. Hans Zimmer' obvious tribute or lift, depending on where you stand, is evidently heard in a theme for his score to Gladiator.

Il Segreto del Sahara does have it's fair share of exotically sounding instruments, but they clearly are emulations by western instruments, which has always been part of Morricone' modus operandi. I would have to think very hard to come up with any examples that break with that tradition; the duduk in the 2012 L'Isola is a 'radical' example. Note, the lack of it never had an immediate effect on the quality of his music. Even the bass flute is presumably trying to give the score an exotic feeling. Interestingly, the source tracks´Dance of the Snakes´ and ´Dance of the chess game´, while still clearly emulating, also add a small touch of mystique.

In 1965, the maestro was attracted to score John Huston's American-Italian co-production The Bible (La Bibbia). He had composed and recorded several pieces of music, about 16 minutes, to demonstrate what he envisioned for the film, which was met with great enthusiasm. The composer explained in an interview that, at the time, he was bound to RCA by exclusive licensing, but producer Dino De Laurentiis wanted to work with him directly, leaving RCA out of the picture. This subsequently led to a disagreement over licensing, that ultimately had him replaced by Toshirô Mayuzumi to do the final score. Therefore, technically speaking his score wasn't rejected. Still, the recorded music was re-used in other films with an original score by Morricone, which actually happened quite frequently throughout his career. One of the most well-known examples is Chi Mai from Maddalena in Le Professionel, but there are so many others. In the case of The Bible, parts of the 10-minute-long, La Creazione, were first used in Il Ritorno di Ringo, after which more films followed – Il Giardino Delle Delizie, Il Fiore Delle Mille e Una Notte, Manti D'Oltretomba, I Malamondo and Da Uomo a Uomo - but they also used recorded music that wasn't in Il Segreto del Sahara. Ultimately the entire La Creazione cue, originally recorded as four separate cues, renamed ´The Mountain´, and Torre di Babele, renamed The Golden Door´, were selected for the mini-series. Usually, filmmakers chose a pre-existing piece of Morricone for their film, an offer that the composer consequently agreed to while writing the original score, but I suspect that in this case, he himself proposed it.

The monumental cue ´The Mountain´ opens with light emerging choir and small suggestive brass fanfare. It becomes quite hypnotic and builds to extremely intense thunderous brass, percussion, unnerving strings, swirling woodwinds and eerie, shrieking choir singing, only to ascend into calmer territory to rise again later. Unlike this building towards momentum, onward, the unnerving, slightly playful woodwind is literally invaded by this huge wall of sound, which is arguably more powerful. It truly is a magnificent structure for the majority of its lengths. It is followed by the basics of the opening of the cue, with the return of meditative light choir and solemn brass fanfare to conclude the piece rather nobly. You can clearly tell where the original four recorded cues start and stop, but the result remains a fluid and brilliant piece, and is crucial to the mini-series, even if the recording methods do show their obvious differences. I strongly feel any project should have an original score, knowingly Morricone less original trademarks are scattered throughout the score to Il Segreto del Sahara, but when something this spectacular remains (fully) unused in its original form, how could I refuse it now?

'The Golden Door´ is the second cue that uses the terrifying sounds produced by choir, now singing on the chromatic scale, creating an even stronger disturbing feeling, leading to an eruption of a brass fanfare. Magnificent material. It does show a lot in common with Moses The Lawgiver, while the actual degree of dissonance is far higher on numerous other experimental scores. Morricone expands on the use of choir of these pre-existing pieces by the matured, shouting voices appearing in the playful, minimal and rhythmic Red Ghost.

The mini-series is decent enough to keep the viewer entertained and is marked by repetitive use of the same pieces of score, but is overall really insignificant compared to the breathtaking standalone score. Il Segreto del Sahara is a classic Morricone score, which in so many ways, represents the very best, all in a single body of work.

The original RCA release is a solid listening experience. While I am clearly biased, Il Segreto del Sahara is the best Morricone score, I can see some issues with the release, of which most of its high lights have passed once ´The Golden Door´, only its seventh track, has ended. To those who love every minute, the expanded GDM release offers insightful new material, while it becomes a different kind of experience with additional pieces that are placed at the end, feeling more like isolated pieces of music, rather than being part of a conceptual idea that the original album did offer. Those who moderately love the score, will most likely only be drawn towards Edda Dell'Orso ’s incredible variation of on the main theme, as heard on the expanded release.

1. Secret of the Sahara (04:30)
2. Red ghosts (04:31)
3. Sholomon (03:26)
4. The Mountain (10:16)
5. Kerim (02:58)
6. The Hawk (03:08)
7. The Golden Door (02:09)
8. The Myth and the Adventure (04:32)
9. Anthea and the Desert (03:29)
10. Farewell Orso (01:56)
11. Death of Tamameth (01:43)
12. Secret of the Sahara (02:00)
13. First dedication (03:53)
14. Second dedication (03:30)
15. Miriam and Philip (02:28)
16. Saharan Dream (03:10)
17-22 previously unreleased bonus tracks:
17. Dance of the snakes (03:44)
18. Dance of the chess game (02:33)
19. Meeting Orso (01:48)
20. Tale from Poland (02:48)
21. Tuareg (03:37)
22. Secret of the Sahara (04:28)

Total Duration: 1:16:37

(written 08-07-2020)
(click to rate this score)  
(total of 2 votes - average 5/5)

Released by

RCA Records (regular release 1988)