Thursday, March 28, 2024

This Day in Film History (Death of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ Composer Maurice Jarre)

Mar. 29, 2009—Maurice Jarre, a French composer and conductor who netted three Oscars among his 150 movie soundtracks, died at age 84 of cancer at his villa in Malibu, Calif.

You might wonder why I picked a photo of Peter O’Toole to illustrate a brief account of someone else. Well, it’s because that picture instantly brings to mind the first of Jarre’s memorable Oscar-winning scores: Lawrence of Arabia.

Accomplished film composers have existed for nearly as long as there’s been a Hollywood, but except for John Williams, I don’t think that one has emerged as a name brand in his own right—and the latter’s fame was surely enhanced by his 14-year association with the Boston Pops.

But once you see that picture of O’Toole, more likely than not, the majestic theme of Lawrence of Arabia will resound in your head—as distinct a contribution to that epic’s grandeur as the spectacular cinematography of Freddie Young.

So indelible were the sounds created by Jarre that his soundtrack for the film was voted #3 on the American Film Institute’s 25 Greatest Film Scores of All Time, surpassed only by Williams’ Star Wars and Max Steiner’s Gone With the Wind.

Yet the soundtrack that Jarre produced for Lean’s next epic, Doctor Zhivago, produced an even more inescapable melody: “Lara’s Theme,” a hit international single.

Oscar honors came yet again for Jarre for his work on that 1965 film, then again 19 years later for what turned out to be Lean’s last big-screen epic: A Passage to India.

As Jarre’s agent and friend Richard Kraft noted in a 2009 appreciation for The Hollywood Reporter, Jarre came to the U.S. when pioneering symphonic-oriented film composers such as Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold were passing from the scene, replaced by Elmer Bernstein, Alex North, Burt Bacharach, Henry Mancini, and Jerry Goldsmith interested in new sounds.

Although Jarre’s conservatory training leaned heavily on percussion, he shared the younger composers’ interest in different musical textures, using instruments that evoked the settings of his films, as seen in:

*The Man Who Would Be King, featuring sarangi and sarod, or Indian lutes;

*Ryan’s Daughter, with eight harps among the “lot of little experiments in the sound, music and concept” that Jarre mentioned in an August 1993 interview with Susan King of the Los Angeles Times;

*Witness, relying on synthesizers;

*The Dead Poets Society, with Celtic harp and flute layered over synthesizers.

Hired by producer Sam Spiegel, Jarre found Lawrence of Arabia a far more complex and high-stakes job than any he’d experienced in French theater and cinema. It was on a grand scale, requiring more than two hours of music; Lean was editing the second part of the film first, so Jarre would have to compose out of chronological order; and he had only six weeks to compose and conduct.

Making matters worse, as Sheila O’Malley noted in a perceptive 2007 blog post, Adrian Boult was engaged to record the soundtrack because British subsidies would not fund a foreign conductor, even though the first rehearsal made it plain that Boult didn’t know key aspects of what he was about to take on, such as keep an eye on the chronometer and an eye on the screen. (Boult ended up on the film credits, even though he didn’t record a note.)

Early on in researching this post, I wondered what Jarre’s personality was like—an inquiry triggered by Williams’ recent comment in an interview with Variety Magazine in which he discussed the older breed of film composers: “Alex North, David Raksin, Jerry Goldsmith and others — brilliant, beautiful talents. All unhappy.”

I’ve come to think that, while Jarre might have been a “brilliant, beautiful” talent, he was far from “unhappy”, with these traits among his most prominent:

*Perfectionism: Lean helped instill this characteristic, Jarre explained in commentary for a tribute concert for the director recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

*Loyal: Jarre worked on the last four films completed by Lean and was starting on a fifth, an adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel Nostromo, before the project died with the director’s death from cancer.

*Convivial: At the time of the composer’s death, Bernard Miyet, then leader of French musicians’ guild SACEM, praised his friend’s “eternal good nature, a way of living and a simplicity that became legendary.” Jarre loved to regale listeners with anecdotes spotlighting the films and personalities he had known over the years, including how during an L.A. recording session, his entire orchestra stopped playing after spotting actress Sophia Loren in the technician’s booth.

No comments: