Composer Maurice Jarre, who today receives the Berlin Film Festival’s Honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement, has worked with more world-famous directors than any other living film composer.
His list of nearly 180 scores, dating back to 1952, includes collaborations with John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock, William Wyler, Elia Kazan, Luchino Visconti, Fred Zinnemann, Rene Clement, John Frankenheimer, Volker Schlondorff - and his best-known partnership, David Lean.
Jarre scored Lean’s last four films, winning Oscars for three : “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Doctor Zhivago” and “A Passage to India.” And while the fourth, “Ryan’s Daughter,” failed to gain even a nomination, it remains Jarre’s personal favorite.
“I owe him everything,” Jarre said of Lean. “He gave me the best pictures, the opportunity to receive three Oscars for four films - not so bad ! - and he gave me his friendship. He was a gentleman. When I lost him, I lost not only a great director, but a great friend.”
The Lyon-born, Paris Conservatory-trained composer had been music director of the Theatre National Populaire and scored a number of French films throughout the 1950s. But it was his grand, sweeping music for “Lawrence of Arabia” that catapulted him into the front rank of composers for international cinema.
“I was so lucky to work with great directors,” he added, singling out Schlondorff’s “The Tin Drum,” three films with Huston, and Frederic Rossif’s documentary “To Die in Madrid” as other favorite assignments. “Even when the pictures were not great, it was still wonderful,” he said. Asked what all those famous directors had in common, he replied with a single word : “Talent.”
Jarre’s remarkably diverse output over half a century of scoring films ranges from the Russian romance of “Doctor Zhivago” (his biggest commercial success) to the mystical moods of “Ghost,” the offbeat electronic soundscape of “Witness” and majestic music for the gentle creatures of “Gorillas in the Mist.” Jarre’s music added suspense to “Topaz,” terror to “Fatal Attraction” and charm to “Dead Poets Society.”
He is especially proud of his effective use of ethnic instruments to evoke exotic locales, partly because of his own background as a percussionist and his ongoing fascination with ethnomusicology. “I was always looking for new combinations of sounds and musicians who could play very strange instruments,” he explained.
So Jarre flavored Huston’s “The Man Who Would Be King” with the sarangi, an Indian lute ; “The Tin Drum” with the fujara, a Slovakian shepherd’s flute ; Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” with the santur, a Middle Eastern dulcimer ; the James Clavell miniseries “Shogun” with the Japanese stringed koto and biwa ; and, for “Zhivago,” an entire ensemble of Russian balalaikas.
Although orchestrally trained, Jarre became fascinated from an early age with electronic instruments as a way of adding new colors to his sound palette. He was using the eerie Ondes Martenot keyboard as far back as the 1950s and, during the 1980s, used synthesizers on numerous scores from “The Year of Living Dangerously” to “Witness” and “The Mosquito Coast.”
He says the single biggest moment in his career was meeting Lean, when the director was looking for a composer for “Lawrence of Arabia.” “It was a very big challenge,” Jarre said. “I didn’t realize at that time how important the film would be not only for me, but to the film community. After 40 years, it’s still among the best five or 10 films in the world. That is incredible, when you think about it - there are no women, no car chases, no bang-bang-bang everywhere.”
Jarre, now 84, no longer composes for film. His last project was the 2001 miniseries “Uprising.” “The biggest directors I worked with are gone,” he said sadly. “And the fashion now is very quick-cut, so fast that you don’t even see what is going on. Also, there is no music - it’s a kind of complement of sounds, more like clang-clang-clang. We don’t know if they are sound effects or music.”
The composer divides his time between homes in Malibu and Switzerland, where he occasionally composes new pieces for the concert hall. But, even in his concert music, he still strives for that elusive quality : a memorable theme. “Life without music is a mistake,” he said. “And music without a real theme is a mistake.”