As Maurice Jarre remembers it, producer Sam Spiegel and director David Lean were intrigued by his score for Serge Bourguignon’s Sundays and Cybele (1962): “Spiegel was quite perspicacious, he found the music I had written for that film interesting.” It amounted to roughly ten minutes of sound parceled out over the picture’s 110-minutes, but the situation lifted the French composer from semi-obscurity to the gilded plane of Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
These and other recollections are part of an interview and audio commentary in Maurice Jarre: A Tribute to David Lean, a DVD and CD set of the composer’s 1992 concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s a pleasure to watch him conduct and comment on his own work. Superbly orchestrated despite a limited rehearsal period, he plays selections from Lawrence, Dr. Zhivago (1965), Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and A Passage to India (1984), performed months after Lean’s death at eighty-three.
Lean approached filmmaking with the precision of a novelist and the eye of a painter. That he contacted Jarre when he was relatively unknown outside of France illustrates the fastidious control Lean exerted over his work. A more seasoned composer could deflect attention away from the screen with signature motifs and orchestrations, but Jarre was open minded and willing to take direction.
[Jarre composed his first film score in 1952, for Georges Franju’s 22-minute Hôtel des Invalides. He continued working with Franju on several pictures including Les Yeux sans visage (1960), and wrote the music for early shorts by Alain Resnais (Toute la mémoire du monde) and Jacques Demy (Le Bel indifferent). Jarre’s first English-language film was Richard Fleischer’s Crack in the Mirror (1960) starring Orson Welles.]
“David always had a very clear idea of what he wanted from the music and where the music should come in,” recalled Jarre. “When the music is good, it’s when it conveys something you don’t observe visually…rather than underline effects, [the score should] say something that the film doesn’t say.” One Hollywood cliché he consciously avoided is euphemistically termed ‘Mickey Mousing,’ when the tempo and action are synced.
By the time Lawrence went into production, the studios had fallen, outsourcing their wares to Europe or downscaling for television, and only workhorses like Max Steiner were hanging on to the old forms. Lawrence came after Lean’s tenure with the studios and, most importantly, his shrewd investment in Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). A blockbuster shot on location, it was budgeted at three million (flamboyant in ‘57) and grossed over $33 million (extraordinary for the time).
Lawrence was an even bigger venture shot on foreign soil (Spain and Morocco), full of the director’s pet themes: military intervention, romantic idealism, bourgeois comfort rocked by change and revolution, uprooted characters pining for simplicity — plot elements he’d revisit throughout the rest of his career. These are the things Jarre was asked to illustrate with subtlety despite the grand scale productions. He was also instructed to avoid the expected — hence, no Indian music in A Passage to India, no Russian music in Zhivago — Lean preferring a universal sound to underline the universal humanity of his stories.
Jarre’s success was no small accomplishment. As presented in A Tribute to David Lean, the music flows as a natural extension of the image. Saved for the concert’s finale, Lawrence of Arabia has lost none of its majesty and power, but the scores for both A Passage to India and Ryan’s Daughter — each tinged with sublime moments reminiscent of Nino Rota — now seem superior achievements. Generally overlooked and undervalued, the pictures arrived long after Lean’s brand of grandeur fell out of favor with the public. Ironically, it was Dr. Zhivago that signaled the turning point as one of the last epic hits. “Lara’s Theme,” tailored for Julie Christie’s timeless beauty, is as moving today as it was in ‘65.
Jarre often emphasized percussion, used eight harps on Ryan’s Daughter (trimmed to two for the concert), and is among the very few to work with the Ondes Martenot. Similar to the Theremin, Jarre describes it as an “ancestor of the synthesizer… it produces sounds that are absolutely impossible to reproduce with acoustic instruments.” He offers comical asides about the balalaika players hired for Zhivago (none could read music), and Sir Adrian Boult’s abbreviated role in the recording of Lawrence thanks to the rigid conditions of the chronometer. Jarre reenacts an exhausting test with the device, wherein the orchestra is timed with the moving image and the conductor down to the second.
Although he’s composed for several well known pictures and won numerous awards (Oscars for Lawrence, Zhivago and Passage to India), Jarre remained a somewhat low key figure. Milan Records’ DVD-CD set is a rare celebration of the man and his music that also piques interest in Lean’s films once again.
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