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Luis Bacalov dies; Oscar-winning composer was 84

Luis Enrique Bacalov holds the Best Original Dramatic

Luis Enrique Bacalov holds the Best Original Dramatic Score Oscar for "Il Postino" at the 68th Annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles in 1996. Credit: AP / Damian Dovarganes

Luis Bacalov, an Argentine-born composer whose lilting score for the international hit romance “Il Postino” earned him an Oscar, and whose ominous guitar melodies for dozens of Italian crime movies and spaghetti Westerns were used in films by Quentin Tarantino, died Nov. 15 at a hospital in Rome. He was 84.

The Orchestra della Magna Grecia in Taranto, Italy, where Bacalov was principal conductor, said in a statement that Bacalov had suffered ischemia, a condition of restricted blood flow.

A wide-ranging composer and pianist, Bacalov’s scores for blood-splattered B-movies were complemented by works for the leading Italian directors Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini, orchestral compositions inspired by the Catholic Mass, Italian prog-rock records and a one-act opera, “The Mother Was There,” about women whose sons were killed in Argentina’s “dirty war” during the 1970s and ’80s.

Bacalov was born near Buenos Aires but spent nearly all his working life in Italy, where he incorporated a twist of tango into works such as his score for “Il Postino,” about a lonely postal worker (Massimo Troisi) who delivers mail to poet and political exile Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret) on a tiny Italian island.

The film, which featured a gentle melody on the accordionlike bandoneon, premiered in Italy in 1994 and opened in the United States one year later as “The Postman,” introducing Bacalov to a mass audience that had eluded him for much of his career.

“Bacalov was a solid craftsman who could work in any genre,” film-soundtrack historian Jon Burlingame said in an email, pointing out two of the composer’s signature scores: “We Still Kill the Old Way” (1967), in which Bacalov counterpointed the film’s mobster violence with “a haunting theme for piano and strings,” and his “lighthearted, jazzy and fun” soundtrack for the 1980 Fellini movie “City of Women.”

Bacalov’s Oscar win, Burlingame said, “ushered in a new era of foreign-born composers winning Academy Awards,” including Gabriel Yared (Lebanon), Tan Dun (China), Gustavo Santaolalla (Argentina) and Dario Marianelli (Italy).

Though he was often overshadowed by his friend Ennio Morricone, whose electric guitars and whip-crack percussion came to define the spaghetti western sound, Bacalov composed some of the most memorable tracks of Italy’s 1960s and ’70s western filmmaking boom.

His title song for “Django” (1966), a Franco Nero movie that was so bloody it was banned in England for nearly three decades, featured what director Tarantino later described as a “quasi-Elvis style” vocal part from Rocky Roberts: “(Django!) Django, have you always been alone? (Django!) Django, have you never loved again?”

The song was one of three by Bacalov that Tarantino used for “Django Unchained” (2012), a revisionist Western that starred Jamie Foxx as a revenge-seeking former slave loosely inspired by Nero’s character of the same name.

Tarantino, fond of eclectic soundtracks, had previously used a pair of Bacalov’s songs for his “Kill Bill” movies.

“I’ve always loved this song,” Tarantino told the Los Angeles Times in 2012, describing his affection for “Django.” “I have to say, when I came up with the idea to do ‘Django Unchained,’ I knew it was imperative that I open it with this song as a big opening credit sequence . . . Any spaghetti Western worth its salt has a big opening credit sequence. In fact, if it doesn’t, I don’t really want to see it.”

Luis Enríquez Bacalov (his middle name is sometimes spelled Enrique) was born in San Martin on Aug. 30, 1933. His family had emigrated from Bulgaria at the turn of the century, according to the reference guide “Encyclopedia of Film Composers,” and he began playing the piano as a 5-year-old, studying under conductor Daniel Barenboim’s father, Enrique.

Bacalov was a radio and television composer in Colombia before moving to Italy in 1959, where he worked as an arranger, composer and pianist for singers such as Gianni Morandi, Rita Pavone, Claudio Villa and the red-haired chanteuse Milva.

On-screen, he had his first major success with the score for Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (1964). The movie drew its dialogue from the Bible and featured an insistently anachronistic soundtrack — including a Congolese interpretation of the “Gloria” of the Latin Mass, arranged by Bacalov — that was nominated for an Academy Award.

Bacalov continued composing into his 80s, reuniting with “Il Postino” director Michael Radford to write the score for the romantic comedy “Elsa & Fred” (2014). At the same time, he faced a yearslong legal battle over his acclaimed melody to “Il Postino.”

The song’s opening bars seemed to mirror those of “Nelle mie Notti” (“In My Nights”), a popular 1974 song by Bacalov’s former collaborator, Sergio Endrigo, who sued him for plagiarism. Bacalov acknowledged the resemblance but denied plagiarizing, comparing the songs’ relationship to that of a Mozart sonata and a reworking by Verdi.

“Fortunately, I’m capable of writing 100,000, 500,000 pieces in real time because God gave me this gift,” he told Reuters in 1996. “Why would I need to copy someone else?”

Bacalov at one point organized a news conference in which Morricone insisted the songs were not “the same,” and courts in Rome initially ruled in the composer’s favor. On appeal, however, a court found in favor of Endrigo, who demanded about $6 million in restitution.

Legal wrangling continued until 2013 — five years after Endrigo’s death — when Bacalov acknowledged using motifs by Endrigo and reached an out-of-court settlement with the singer-songwriter’s family.

A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

“There are many fantastic musicians but not a lot who have the feeling and approach to apply that to film,” Bacalov told the Hollywood Reporter in 2002, describing the difficulties of his craft. “It’s sort of a sixth sense.”

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