Friday, February 4, 2011

Film Music with a French Flavour

Maurice JARRE: an appreciation

Editor’s Note: Film composer Maurice Jarre, three-time Academy Award winner, died March 28, 2009, aged 84. His 50-year career began with the French New Wave cinema of the Fifties and Sixties and ended in Hollywood in 2000.

The fascination started with Lawrence of Arabia. Not the 1962 movie by David Lean, but the music, by a young Frenchman, Maurice Jarre. I borrowed the soundtrack LP from a friend, a film buff. The music captivated me, even if I didn’t see the film until much later. Using for a conventional, large symphony orchestra that often reached unabashedly into the usual grand flourishes, this music nevertheless had a modernity and an intimacy then unheard of in a big Hollywood score.
Like most teenagers at the time (1965), my ears, when not blasted by rock ’n roll, had, in the movie house or watching reruns on television, bathed in the stream of typical mid 20th century American film music, the romanticism of Max Steiner, Franz Waxman and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. These masters, all Jewish émigrés from Vienna, had built Hollywood music from the ground up on foundations of Chopin, Liszt, Wagner and Richard Strauss. They combined a largish symphony orchestra, conventional orchestrations, and late 19th century harmony, to convey the sweetness and melodrama that typically defined a golden age of film music.
But this was the sixties, and Hollywood music had just broken out of this mould. Elmer Bernstein with his jazz, Jerry Goldsmith and electronics, Lalo Schifrin with an exotic Latin beat, and even jazz bands and rock groups were leading the way into novelty and informality. Maurice Jarre joined this scene, and brought an individuality that blended modernist instrumentation with the intimacy of French popular chanson. But he had come to Hollywood almost by accident.
For Lawrence of Arabia, (1962) director David Lean had failed to book either Matthew Arnold or William Walton, both landmarks in 20th century serious music. His producer, Sam Spiegel, however, had heard Jarre’s score for Sundays and Cybele, and recommended the 32-year-old composer on the strength of ten minutes of music he wrote for four instruments, worlds away from the sweeping grandeur needed for his own film.
Jarre and his assistant, Schurman, had six weeks to write, orchestrate and record, two hours of music for a 100-piece orchestra. Writing at deadline speed, he achieved a sound as shimmering and expansive as the crested dunes, and as spare and intimate as a campfire in a cool desert night. Lawrence received several Academy Awards, of which one was for Jarre’s music.
Maurice Jarre’s next Oscar-winning score was for Doctor Zhivago, (1966) also directed by David Lean. For this film, based on Boris Pasternak’s novel, Jarre employed one of the largest musical forces assembled in a studio – a men’s chorus, 24 balalaikas, and a host of folk, oriental and electronic instruments that included accordions, shamisen, and novachord – beyond the occasional mandatory grand orchestral sweep borrowing heavily from Glinka opera tunes, the score has lightness of texture and intimacy inspired more by chamber music and popular song.
The centerpiece of the music is “Lara’s Theme”, a tune that evolved into a hit popular song. Repeated, but not developed, and perhaps played a bit too much throughout the film, the theme highlights the prime romantic interest of the film. There is also a lot of “found music” in the soundtrack: a revolutionary song, and parlor waltzes for piano trio. The rest of the score, which is softly mixed into the film sound, is unorthdox in style and instrumentation, modern-sounding but not disturbing.
Immediately after Doctor Zhivago, Jarre set to work on the score for The Collector, directed by William Wyler, a tale of a butterfly enthusiast loner who, on winning a soccer pool, kidnaps a young woman to share his winnings and love. Here, Jarre pares down his forces to ten instruments, to produce a score influenced by jazz and baroque music, among other things, and constructs a musical narrative that is Japanese in flavour.