31 March 2009

Maurice Jarre, 1924–2009

The Old Guard of the Film Music World, the Silver Age Artists, are slipping off into Valhalla. Maurice Jarre, one the major forces of film composition in the Silver Age, died on Sunday in Los Angeles, age 84.

The French composer made his name with two enormously popular scores from the 1960s to David Lean films, Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia. Both scores gained such popularity that they became part of the popular music landscape. Jarre composed work in a variety of genres, doing films as far apart as Top Secret!, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, the Western The Professionals, and Ryan’s Daughter.

Although Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia remain his best-known work, my personal favorite Jarre scores in my collection are a curious trio: Mohammad—Messenger of God, The Man Who Would Be King, and Grand Prix. The first two center on ethnic melodies—Jarre’s musicology background gave him exposure to the music of many cultures—and evoke a moving and strange sense of place and time. The balance between Indian tonal structures and British marches in The Man Who Would Be King makes for astonishing listening, and the plaintive end title music sounds like an elegy for the British Empire. The music from Mohammad—Messenger of God (also known as The Message) creates the most wondrous ancient Arabian desert sweep, and considering my background in Middle Eastern history, it’s an impossible sweep to resist. Finally, Grand Prix is a great salute to ‘60s cool and has a thrilling march the captures the world of Formula One racing better than any piece of music ever could. Try driving down a fast-moving freeway with “Theme from Grand Prix” playing. It’s a great sensation.

Goodbye, Maurice. Thanks for the melodies in the darkened theater. (And on LP. And CD.)