Feature

Maurice Jarre

The versatile movie composer who won three Oscars

The versatile movie composer who won three Oscars
Maurice Jarre
1924–2009

“When I die,” Maurice Jarre once said, “there will be a final waltz playing in my head that only I can hear.” But countless others heard and loved Jarre’s scores for more than 170 movies and TV shows, including Lawrence of Arabia, The Longest Day, Ghost, and Fatal Attraction. He died last week of cancer.

Born in Lyon, France, Jarre (pronounced “Zhar”) initially studied engineering at the Sorbonne, but switched to music, said The New York Times. “His early compositions were not for film but for the theater.” Then, after working with movie director Georges Franju in the 1950s, he broke through in David Lean’s 1962 spectacle Lawrence of Arabia—his main theme, scored for soaring strings, became inseparable from the film’s iconic image of the sweeping, searing desert. Jarre scored the whole film in just six weeks, alternating 10-minute catnaps with four-hour work sessions to win the first of his three Oscars. Three years later Jarre triumphed again with his theme for Lean’s epic of the Russian Revolution, Dr. Zhivago. “The lilting tune, with a seeming sigh of longing attached to each phrase,” was popularly known as “Lara’s Theme,” and it “became a standard of easy listening, a staple of elevators and dentist’s offices.” It also yielded Jarre’s second Oscar.

“Jarre subtly conveyed changes in tone, depending on the story being told—and yes, he often came up with a memorable melody that kept people humming,” said the Los Angeles Times. Beginning with his use of 35 balalaikas in Dr. Zhivago, Jarre also incorporated ethnic instruments to underscore the distant settings. For John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975), “Jarre hired Indian musicians to perform on the sarangi and sarod, Indian lutes; for Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum (1979), a Slovakian shepherd’s flute seemed right.” In A Passage to India (1984), his last collaboration with Lean, the director wanted hundreds of monkeys to chatter during a pivotal scene with Judy Davis. Able to obtain only five monkeys, Lean told Jarre, “You have to give me the missing monkeys with your music.” Jarre did and won his third Academy Award.

A few years ago, Jarre mentioned to a film mogul that he was thinking about combining two Bach themes in his next score. The man asked what Bach’s latest hit had been. “Then I knew,” Jarre related, “I no longer had a place in cinema.” 

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