Maurice Jarre: Composer who won three Oscars for his work with David Lean

Maurice Jarre, who won three Oscars – all for films by David Lean – was one of the last of the "silver-age" film composers, perhaps best known for scoring large-scale films but equally at home with more intimate fare.

Jarre began by studying engineering at the Sorbonne but despite the late start ("when I was 15 I knew nothing of music") decided to change subjects. Against his father's will he enrolled at the Conservatoire de Paris and, alongside composition and harmony, made the unusual choice of percussion as his major instrument. The decision would reverberate throughout his career.

He learned the ondes martenot under the instrument's inventor Joseph Martenot and played it and percussion in the theatre, eventually spending 12 years as music director at the Théâtre National Populaire ("the best time of my life, the most difficult, the most interesting, the most exciting.") It gave him a marvellous feeling for drama that would serve him well in the cinema.

In 1952 he struck up a working relationship with the director Georges Franju, scoring Hôtel des Invalides (1952) a documentary that upset the authorities by its concentration on the tragedy rather than the glory of the "invalides de guerre". After documentaries and shorts by directors including Franju, Resnais and Demy, his first feature was Franju's La tête contre les murs (1959, UK title The Keepers), about an escape attempt from a mental asylum. But their best collaboration was the ghoulish yet heartbreaking Les yeux sans visage (Eyes without a Face, 1960). Jarre's marionette-ish waltz with its brittle harpsichord set the scene for the story of a plastic surgeon's desperate attempts to atone for a car accident that left his daughter hideously disfigured.

It was in 1962 that Jarre's international career took off. Though he scored the D-Day epic The Longest Day (1962) what really helped was, in fact, being second choice for another film. Malcolm Arnold had won an Oscar for David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and was expected to score Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Stories differ as to how the two fell out but, without Arnold, the film's producer Sam Spiegel considered using more than one composer. However, after hearing Jarre's main theme, he offered him the whole film, giving him six weeks to score it. To complete the assignment, Jarre alternated four hours' work with 10 minutes sleep and picked up his first Oscar for the thrilling score that sets driving, exotic percussion and Rósza-like brass against a soaring theme on the strings that evokes the burning desert sun.

Lean was to make only three more films, and Jarre scored them all. In 1965 he picked up his second Oscar for Doctor Zhivago (one of the film's five). Jarre having failed to satisfy the director with his first few attempts at a main theme, Lean advised him to take a weekend in the mountains with his girlfriend, forget about the film and take his inspiration from that. He came back with "Lara's Theme", later a hit as "Somewhere My Love".

For Ryan's Daughter (1970) Jarre got a Grammy rather than an Oscar, but after the film's critical mauling Lean retired hurt, before returning in 1984 with A Passage to India, which was criticised for fatally misunderstanding Forster's novel. Jarre included some enjoyable "tea-dance" music in the otherwise serious score and won his third Oscar, as well as a Golden Globe. Lean also intended to have Jarre score Nostromo but he died before it went into production.

With Lawrence as a springboard Jarre's international career took off. For Is Paris Burning? (1965), set during the city's liberation from the Nazis, he wrote a jaunty French-inflected waltz featuring the accordion. The following year's Grand Prix featured a prominent percussion section to ramp up the tension but (sounding at some points like a modernised Lawrence), the score could not turn the Formula 1-and-romance project into a convincing epic. More successful was John Huston's Kipling adaptation The Man Who Would Be King (1975), with its stately, melancholic fanfare.

Jarre was also one of the composers who followed on from Bernard Herrmann after the composer's split with Hitchcock, but the director's third-last production, Topaz (1969), an international espionage story, was hamstrung by a directionless production process and Jarre's music could do little to save it.

Jarre had used the ondes mortenot in Lawrence and other scores but in the 1980s he began more fully to combine orchestral and electronic elements, leading to a period of experimentation. Parts of Fatal Attraction (1987) are weighed down by an almost unbearably suffocating feeling of dread as the music disintegrates into a hoarse texture pierced by fragments of melody.

On the other hand, his work on Peter Weir's 1980s films tends to the generously melodic. The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) captures an Australian reporter in Sukarno's Indonesia with the ondes and evocations of the didgeridoo, while Dead Poet's Society (1989) includes a pipe band. But their finest collaboration is Witness (1985), in which Harrison Ford protects a child witness to murder in the Amish community. The barn-building scene, accompanied by a stately chaconne, was the film's highlight. Jarre denied that adding electronics to the orchestra for the score was expediency, saying that it would have been easier and cheaper to omit them.

But at the same time he was taking on a range of other projects. He may (unfairly) have had something of a reputation for epics, so 1984's spy spoof Top Secret was a rare comedy. But the following year he played to his strengths in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome whose exhilaratingly over-the-top score features full orchestra, choir, a battery of percussion, four pianos and three ondes.

For the shockingly bleak Jacob's Ladder (1990) Jarre's rising and falling theme, led by the piano, gives a feeling of the ebb and flow of hope and hopelessness. But in the same year he also scored the romantic thriller Ghost (1990). It may be best remembered for the much-parodied ghostly pot-throwing scene, accompanied by Alex North's "Unchained Melody'"but Jarre also wrote a big-hearted theme – though it is perhaps a bit too old-fashioned for the film's youthful protagonists.

As well as percussion, Jarre had a penchant for other unusual instruments, sometimes inspired by the story and sometimes not. Unsurprisingly, "Lara's Theme" from Doctor Zhivago emerges from a haze of 22 balalaikas, and Villa Rides (1968) has an enjoyably Mexican-tinged score, again finding a place for a decent-sized percussion section. But The Tin Drum (1979) includes among its militaristic percussion, a fujara (a Slovakian flute) and steel drums. For the Irish-set Ryan's Daughter Lean specifically asked him to avoid traditional music and he had another hit song with "It Was a Good Time".

As well as his film scores, Jarre wrote some concert works including the Concerto for E.V.I. (electronic valve instrument), an instrument invented and played by Nyle Steiner. The third of its four movements is a protest against noise pollution, including rap and church bells. It was written in San Moritz and dedicated to his fourth wife. His son Jean-Michel also found fame as a composer, while another son, Kevin, is a screenwriter, and his daughter Stephanie is a set decorator and production designer. His last film was Uprising (2001) a Holocaust-story TV movie.

John Riley

Maurice-Alexis Jarre, composer: born Lyon 13 September 1924; married firstly Francette Pejot (one son); 1965 Dany Saval (marriage dissolved, one daughter); 1967 Laura Devon (marriage dissolved, one son), 1984 Fong F. Khong; died 29 March 2009.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
News
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
news
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
News
i100
News
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

£40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

£45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

£55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?