Remembering Maurice Jarre

The news that Maurice Jarre passed away today is a sobering reminder that even the most accomplished of film music legends will not be with us forever.  Jarre, one of the finest craftsmen of what is called the Silver Age of Film Music, died in Los Angeles at the age of 84.

With more than 160 scores to his credit, Jarre is one of the second wave of Hollywood film composers who helped shape the form of film music throughout the 1960s.  The French-born composer began scoring movies in his native France in 1952, but it was his work for massive Hollywood blockbusters like, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, and a multitude of others that made the composer a legend.   “Lara’s Theme” from Zhivago remains a popular standard and one of the most recognizable movie themes of the 1960s.

Born in Lyon, France, in 1924, Jarre discovered an interest in music in his late teens.  He went on to study at the Conservatoire de Paris and later with noted inventor Joseph Martenot, whose electronic keyboard, the Ondes Martenot, would foreshadow the modern synthesizer and become a key element of Jarre’s later musical pallet.  He served as the music director of the Théâtre National Populaire (French National Theater) for a dozen years; his music to a 1950 theatrical presentation attracted filmmaker Georges Franju, then shooting mostly short documentary films, who hired Jarre to score a short documentary film he was making, and Jarre went on to become the director’s primary composer for the next several years.  When Franju made his first feature film in 1958, Jarre came along to score it.  Franju’s second feature film, Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without A Face), that became the director’s masterpiece and remains one of Jarre’s most potent fantasy film scores. 

Jarre came to the notice of Hollywood and in 1960 scored Richard Fleischer’s crime drama, Crack in the Mirror.  He scored another picture for Fleischer, 1961’s The Big Gamble, but had his first real hit in 1962 with The Longest Day, a massive all-star World War II film about the D-Day invasion.   That brought him to the attention of producer Sam Spiegel, who brought him on board David Lean’s epic historical drama, Lawrence of Arabia.  Jarre’s further efforts for Lean, which also included Doctor Zhivago (1965), Ryan’s Daughter (1970), and A Passage To India (1984), were largely responsible for his reputation as a credible and commercially popular composer for films.  In the 1960s, he collaborated with the decade’s greatest directors, including René Clément (Is Paris Burning, 1966), John Frankenheimer (The Train, 1964; Grand Prix, 1966); Alfred Hitchcock (Topaz, 1969), Luchino Visconti (The Damned, 1969), Arthur Hiller (Plaza Suite, 1971), Terence Young (Red Sun, 1971), Michael Anderson (Pope Joan, 1972), John Huston (The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, 1972; The Man Who Would Be King, 1975); Elia Kazan (The Last Tycoon, 1976), Franco Zeffirelli (Jesus of Nazareth, 1977), Peter Weir (The Year of Living Dangerously, 1982; Witness, 1985, Dead Poet’s Society, 1989), Michael Apted (Gorillas In the Mist, 1988), and many others.  He scored Disney adventures (The Island at the Top of the World, 1974), television miniseries (Shogun, 1980), Japanese science fiction (Shuto shoshitsu [Tokyo Blackout], 1987), and manic comedies (Top Secret!, 1984).  Jarre won 3 Oscars for music, along with another 20 wins and 26 nominations in other awards.

While his somewhat unique style of melodic interpretation and orchestration initially did not endear him to the purists still clinging to 1930s and 1940s styles of classical film music – Jarre’s inclinations tending to mix the classical orchestration with more commercial melodic sensibilities; the famous 1972 issue of High Fidelity magazine devoted to film music, for example, described how “popular” composers like Jarre were scorned by traditionalists – Jarre’s abilities and prolific outpouring of magnificent movie music soon proved them myopic and wrong, and Jarre soon joined the ranks of Bernstein and Goldsmith and Delerue, titans of movie music whose losses remain as keenly felt.

Jarre was not one to settle into a comfortable style and remain there.  His music of the 1960s remains fairly symphonic and melodic, although in the 1970s and 1980s his interest in electronic music resulted in scores like Witness being composed and performed entirely electronically, yet with no less emotive quality.   Despite his popular successes of the 1960s, some of his most inventive music came about during the 1980s, embracing all manner of styles and musical modes.  Jarre’s music for Peter Weir’s Year of Living Dangerously and Dead Poet’s Society were noted for their minimalist and quietly flavored passion.  The eerie music for Dreamscape (1984) utilized a sensual saxophone theme for the protagonist and rhythmic syn­thesizer material for the dream landscape through which he roams. Fatal Attraction (1987, the Psycho of the 1980's) was scored mainly for synths, emphasizing the madness and malevolence of Michael Douglas’ partner in illicit dalliance.  More symphonically oriented was Jarre's music for the romantic horror tale, Ghost (1990). While overshadowed by the film's use of the pop song “Unchained Melody” (originally written by film composer Alex North for the 1955 prison drama, Unchained, with lyrics by Hy Zaret), Jarre provided the film with some excellent spook music, low brood­ing synths for the demons, with more angelic melodies for the “good” afterlife.   His score for

1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was written for a symphony orchestra and chorus, augmented by four grand pianos, a pipe organ, digeridoo, fujara, a battery of exotic percussion, and three ondes Martenot.   In 1985’s Bride of Frankenstein revision, The Bride, Jarre's romantic score reflects the sensuality, not the horror, of this female monster and underlines the friendship and rap­port between the male monster and his diminutive circus friend, Rinaldo.   The compelling psychological horror thriller Jacob's Lad­der (1990) featured an imaginative score for keyboard, voice, pizzi­cato strings and Japanese flutes that effectively externalized the tortured psyche of guilt-haunted Jacob Singer; the score reflected much of the film's stylistic hallucinations as well as its pervading pessimism.   2000’s I Dreamed of Africa, Jarre’s second-to-last film score, saw a return to the musical sensibilities of Lawrence of Arabia, with a thoroughly engaging orchestral score rich in thematic persuasion.

Jarre retired from movie music in 2001, after scoring John Avnet’s Uprising, a film about the Holocaust.  Jarre’s son, Jean-Michel Jarre, is a pioneer in the world electronic music with numerous recordings to his credit;  his youngest son Kevin Jarre is a screenwriter who worked on such movies as Tombstone and Glory.

The legacy of music Maurice Jarre has left behind secures a high position in the pantheon of composers who devoted their artistry to music of cinema, who enlivened storytelling on big screen and small, and to whom all lovers of movies owe a debt of gratitude for hours of marvelous entertainment, inspiration, and impassioned music.

Randall D. Larson
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