Maurice Jarre (1924-2009)

Three-time Academy Award-winner Maurice Jarre died today at age 84 from cancer. And it is his music that we celebrate in remembrance.

Jarre had his first international hit with his Oscar-winning score for Lawrence of Arabia in 1962. But he wasn’t the original choice to score the entire film. William Walton and Malcolm Arnold both passed on the assignment.  Then producer Sam Spiegel informed Jarre that there were going to be three composers working on the film: Russian composer Aram Khachaturian for the Arab music, Benjamin Britten for the British music, and Jarre would round out the trio with the rest of the dramatic score. Spiegel also had the legendary Broadway composer Richard Rodgers on hand as composer.  When director David Lean expressed his dislike for Rodgers’s themes, and Khachaturian and Britten were both unavailable, Jarre was given the job of scoring the entire film with a mere four weeks left till the premiere.

The “Lawrence” theme was an instant classic and that, coupled with the film’s obvious sweep of the awards, virtually guaranteed Jarre an Oscar.  “I was in Paris, listening to the radio, and got news of my nomination for Lawrence of Arabia,” remembered Jarre. ” I asked Sam Spiegel to pay for my trip to the Oscars.  He said, ‘Oh, Maurice, it’s for Americans.  You don’t have a chance.’  Then I learn that he tells the same thing to Omar Sharif and others.  He knew that I had a good chance of winning, but this way he could collect them himself.  I had to get my Oscar from Sam Spiegel’s office in London.  The customs official didn’t want me to take it to France.  He said that they had to confiscate gold.  Well of course, it’s gold-plated, not solid gold.  She he scratched it to see.  So my first Oscar is scarred.”

Jarre’s second Oscar came for David Lean’s worldwide box office smash, Doctor Zhivago (1965). The film’s epic scope demanded a larger-than-life score by Maurice Jarre, utilizing a 110-piece orchestra, twenty-four balalaika players, and a 40-member chorus.  The score contains probably the single most recognizable piece of film music from the 1960s, the love theme for Yuri and Lara (later popularized as the hit song, “Somewhere My Love”).  In the six weeks he had to compose the music, Jarre composed three rejected themes before finding the inspiration for “Lara’s Theme” with his girlfriend in the mountains of Spain.

Jarre was critically drubbed for the overuse of the theme, but it wasn’t necessarily his fault.  Lean and producer Carlo Ponti became so enamored of theme during the production of the film that much of Jarre’s other music was thrown out and substituted  with “Lara’s Theme,” music to the composer’s disdain.  While its overuse weakened a potentially heartbreaking melody, this same overuse turned it into a monster hit.

Jarre won his third Oscar for Lean’s final film, an adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Passage To India (1984). Jarre also received nominations for Sundays and Cybele, the song “Marmalade, Molasses and Honey” from The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Mohammad – Messenger of God, Witness, Gorilla in the Mist, and Ghost.

Though I have never been a big fan of Jarre’s music, his scores often contributed greatly to the success of their respective movies. One can’t imagine Julie Christie in snow-swept Moscow without Jarre’s balalaika strumming in the background, or T. E. Lawrence’ trekking across the Mojave without Jarre’s grand theme urging him along.

Thank you, Maestro, for your gift of melody and your majestic, orchestral sweep.

5 comments

  1. Though its many months too late I was saddened by Maurice Jarre’s passing early this year. While he too often could be exasperatingly trite he could on occasion rise to the exotic and hauntingly beautiful heights of a Lawrence, Zhvago, and even l Americana as he did in the memorable fugue for the barn building scene from Wier’s Witness.

    I really enjoyed reading your piece on him Jim and the back stories behind the scores of Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. Richard Rodgers? How I would have loved to have heard those themes.

    A few days ago I composed a piece with Jarre in mind called “The Orientalist”
    If you or anyone feels like taking a trip back to the days of the Jarre/Lean epics you might enjoy this.

    It’s up on http://www.myspace.com/charlesmazarakes

    Charles Mazarakes

    1. Hi Charles, thanks for commenting! Though Jarre was never a favorite composer of mine, I too was saddened when he passed. I agree with your assessment of his music and of course there are moments in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and ZHIVAGO that do take your breath away. Ironically, I always thought the barn building scene from WITNESS would have made a much better cue with a full orchestra. The music was there, but the synthesizers distanced it for me.

      I wonder if his passing will be noted in some special musical way on the Oscars or will he just be lost in the In Memoriam scroll of names.

      I too would like to hear those Richard Rodgers themes for LAWRENCE. Can you imagine? I’m sure they made their way into later shows of his.

      Thanks for the link to your Jarre-inspired piece. You nailed his sound down! From the harmonic progressions to the instrumentation and his unique use of percussion. I hope other readers and Jarre fans click on the link as well.

  2. I agree with you about the barn raising being even more effective with a full orchestra – in fact I have one on a Jarre compilation and it’s quite good. I think he must have spending too much time with his synthesizer playing son Jean Michel.

    And thanks for checking out “The Orietalist” Jim and for the kind things you had to say about it. Much appreciated.
    Cheers,
    Charles Mazarakes

    1. I seem to remember that orchestral version, though I’ve never heard it. I was never a fan of the purely synthesizer scores in general. And I think only Vangelis on occasion used them well. Unfortunately, I think synthesizer only pointed out the weaker elements of Jarre’s music. Thankfully that trend didn’t last long.

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