Epic Composer Maurice Jarre Dies at 84

  • Share
  • Read Later
Johannes Eisele/Reuters

Maurice Jarre

Woodwinds murmur and percussion rattles portentously as the sun inches over the horizon. As the sun rises the clanging music ascends as well, then crescendos in burly romantic strains, mimicking the luscious contours of the Arabian desert. Lawrence has come to Arabia; the music announces the beginning of a lifelong communion between a man and the endless sand.

In the frosty wastes of Stalin's Russia, a thousand balalaikas chorus in a dreamy waltz. "Lara's Theme" promises that "Somewhere, my love, there will be songs to sing." Not here, not yet, but for Yuri Zhivago and his elusive darling, the music holds both the ache of separation and the hope of ecstatic reunion. (See the 100 best movies of all time.)

Scalding sun; fields of snow. Maurice Jarre created memorable anthems for these two extremes in his first films for David Lean: the 1962 Lawrence of Arabia and the 1965 Doctor Zhivago. The French composer, who died Sunday in Los Angeles at 84, after a losing bout with cancer, wrote the scores for more than 150 features, but he'll always be associated with Lean, as much as Bernard Herrmann is with Alfred Hitchcock or John Williams with Steven Spielberg. The director devises the images; the composer gives them emotional heft. Both the pictures and their accompanying sounds lodge indelibly in moviegoers' memories. (See pictures of the Venice Film Festival.)

Born in Lyon in 1924, Jarre was no child prodigy; he was in his late teens before he decided to study music. In Paris after the war he hooked up with two exceptional impresarios of French theater: Jean-Louis Barrault and Jean Vilar. For Vilar he wrote incidental music for modern readings of classical plays. In 1951, Georges Franju, a director of spare, uncompromising documentaries, hired Jarre to score his film essay on wounded veterans, the 1951 Hôtel des Invalides. In the next dozen years they would collaborate on two more shorts and five sepulchral features, including Head Against the Walls and Eyes Without a Face. Franju's images were so haunting they needed no assertive music to drive their points home; Jarre's scores were subtle and looming, the shiver in the shadows. By the time of their last film together, Judex in 1963, Jarre had won his first Oscar, for Lawrence.

Jarre had been commuting between French films and Hollywood-financed ones for a few years before Lawrence. He graduated from short films (for Alain Resnais and Jacques Demy as well as Franju) to international employment with the 1960 doppleganger mystery The Crack in the Mirror; perhaps writer-producer Darryl F. Zanuck had been impressed by Jarre's scores for the early Franju features. Zanuck used him for two other Fox films, The Big Gamble and his D-Day superproduction The Longest Day. But it was not this work that led Jarre to Lawrence; it was his music for Serge Bourguignon's Sundays and Cybele, the tender story of a emotionally shattered veteran and a 12-year-old girl, for which the composer created some of his swooniest, most ear-grabbing strains. (See pictures of the movies' best-loved costumes.)

Producer Sam Spiegel saw, and heard, the movie, and thought Jarre could be helpful in finding an aural complement to Lean's sand-swept tribute to T.E. Lawrence. As Stephen M. Silverman tells it in his excellent Lean biography, Spiegel had originally wanted Lawrence to have three composers: Jarre would do the dramatic music, while Aram Khachaturian scored the Arab scenes and Benjamin Britten the English. When those two estimable gents proved unavailable, Spiegel corralled Richard Rodgers into writing an Arabian motif and a "love theme" — for an all-male movie. Sanity eventually prevailed: the not-so-well-known Frenchman composed the whole score for Lawrence, and for the three Lean films that followed.

However Arabic or Russian the orchestrations, Jarre's music fit the plangent mood of French postwar pop: the mordant, worldly-wise chansons of Gilbert Bécaud, Marguerite Monnot, Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour. The simple melodies follow a clear ascending or descending line, and sound either inevitable or predictable, depending on the extent of the listener's fondness for the form. Jarre didn't write pop songs, exactly; "Lara's Theme" was his one Top 40 hit. But the sound was marketable in movies, and after Lawrence, Jarre's tinny, tinkly, discordant music was in high demand by directors searching for a creepy undertone. (See the 100 best albums of all time.)

He lent it to William Wyler's The Collector, Volker Schlöndorff's The Tin Drum, George Miller's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Paul Mazursky's Enemies; A Love Story and Jerry Zucker's Ghost. He could churn out military music in a minor key, like a sarcastic Sousa; that's what you hear under the espionage chicanery in Alfred Hitchcock's Topaz, ornamenting the anti-Nazi smuggling in John Frankenheimer's The Train and underlining the grand folly of two British soldiers' Afghanistan caper in John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King. At times Jarre mocked his own mocking tone, as when he connived with Zucker in the spy parody Top Secret!

For a while it was hard to find a movie for which Jarre didn't contribute the score. He put his name to more than 50 films in the '60s, another 36 in the '70s, 46 in the '80s. He told one sympathetic critic, Jon Burlingame of Variety, that he took on so many assignments because he had a bunch of ex-wives (three) and owed them all alimony. The first of these marriages begat a son, Jean-Michel, who made his own name as a composer of electronic music and producer of gargantuan sound-and-light shows, one of which drew 3.5 million people to celebrate the 850th anniversary of the city of Moscow in 1997. (See pictures of Russia celebrating Victory Day.)

Papa Maurice enjoyed a 50-year career, including three Oscars (for Lawrence, Zhivago and Lean's last film, A Passage to India), because he knew that film music is not the star of a movie; it is the secret supporting player that brings out the tension, the yearning, the drama. And because, back in 1962, when he was a little-known composer auditioning for a famous director and his imperious producer, David Lean said to Spiegel, "Sam, this chap here should do the work." Movie lovers and music lovers should be happy that Jarre got the job.

See TIME's pictures of the week.

Cast your votes for the TIME 100.