Writing about the work of composer Maurice Jarre, director John Huston said his music “transcends time and space, touches every visual and aural sense, whisks you to the far reaches of your imagination.”
Although Jarre turns 75 next month, and boasts an impressive roster of nearly 200 film scores (including three for Huston), the French-born composer has no intention of retiring — or even slowing down.
During the past several months, Jarre has penned two more film scores — for Istvan Szabo’s “The Taste of Sunshine,” starring Ralph Fiennes, and Hugh Hudson’s “I Dreamed of Africa,” starring Kim Basinger. He also has written two concert works: one for chorus and orchestra to be debuted Christmas Day at the Vatican and the other for brass quintet and orchestra to bow in June in France.
In a few days, Jarre will accept a lifetime achievement award at the Deauville Film Festival. The event also is scheduled to screen an hourlong documentary made for French TV that chronicles his celebrated career and includes interviews with old friends James Coburn, Gregory Peck and composer-conductor Pierre Boulez.
Jarre probably is most famous for writing “Lara’s Theme,” the love motif for “Doctor Zhivago.” The score for the David Lean pic won him a 1966 Oscar, the second of his three Academy Awards, all for Lean films: 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia” and 1984’s “A Passage to India” were the others. They also did 1970’s “Ryan’s Daughter” together.
“Four films, three Oscars, that’s not so bad,” quips Jarre from a hotel room in Switzerland’s St. Moritz, where he is finishing his brass quintet.
“Lawrence” remains his favorite film, Lean his favorite director. “He was such a perfectionist, you cannot believe it,” says the composer, noting that Lean always had specific ideas about music and involved him from the earliest stages of pre-production.
Just a few days before his 1991 death, the director called Jarre with musical ideas for “Nostromo,” a film that never was made. A year later, the composer paid tribute to his old friend with a London concert of his music for Lean’s films that was videotaped and later aired on U.S. public television.
“Lawrence” established Jarre as a major figure on the international film scene. He moved to the U.S. in 1964 and became an American citizen a few years later.
“When I arrived in America, it was wonderful, because I knew the last part of the great Hollywood era,” Jarre says. “I was really lucky to work with a lot of great directors, not necessarily for great movies.”
Among the composer’s ’60s and ’70s collaborators are Fred Zinnemann on “Behold a Pale Horse” (1964); William Wyler, “The Collector” (1965); John Frankenheimer, “Grand Prix” (1966); Richard Brooks, “The Professionals” (1966); Alfred Hitchcock, “Topaz” (1969); George Stevens, “The Only Game in Town” (1970); and Elia Kazan, “The Last Tycoon” (1976).
But while many of these films are forgettable, Jarre’s credits also contain several cinema masterpieces, including Lean’s “Lawrence,” Luchino Visconti’s “The Damned,” Huston’s “The Man Who Would Be King,” Volker Schlondorff’s “The Tin Drum” and, for television, Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth.”
“I think I am the only composer in Hollywood to be lucky enough to have worked practically everywhere in the world,” says Jarre, whose travels have enabled him to achieve authentic sounds with the use of indigenous instruments of many cultures.
During his studies at the Paris Conservatory, he recalls, he became something of an ethnomusicologist, learning about Arabic music (which came in handy scoring “The Message”), Russian music (“Zhivago”), Japanese music (“Shogun”) and Indonesian music (“The Year of Living Dangerously”).
Jarre’s fascination with synthesizers reached its pinnacle in the ’80s with a series of hugely popular films, including “Witness” (a controversial, all-electronic score for the Harrison Ford movie set in Amish country), “Fatal Attraction,” “Gorillas in the Mist” and “Ghost,” all of which featured electronic-music elements mixed within orchestral settings.
Says Jarre, “Nothing can replace a great orchestra. When you write music, you always like to tease the audience with interesting combinations of sounds, and with the orchestra the possibilities are infinite.”
In recent years, the honors have continued to pile up: A gold record for “Ghost,” British Academy Awards for “Witness” and “Dead Poets Society,” Golden Globes for “Gorillas in the Mist” and “A Walk in the Clouds.” In 1994, he was awarded the rank of officer of the National Order of Republic by French President Francois Mitterrand.
Today, Jarre’s musical life is divided into thirds: film scores, concert hall commissions and conducting. A little more choosy than he once was, he says, “I can work when I like and when I’m inspired, and that is really great.”