Bob Shingleton, in On an Overgrown Path: “My parents’ 1962 LP of the Oscar-winning soundtrack for Lawrence of Arabia was an integral part of my music education.”
It was of mine, too, except that, as a boy, after seeing the film, I insisted on being given the LP.
In a Comment, Bob adds: “I have to say I am astonished at the lack of coverage on the music blogs of the death of Maurice Jarre. He may not have been a musical genius – whatever that means. But his music, which was never less than wonderfully crafted, touched many, many more than that of, say, Schoenberg.” On an Overgrown Path is the best blog about so-called classical music on the web, and only a really musical person would have said what Bob said in such unpretentious terms or dared to put him in the same sentence as Schoenberg. The Toynbee convector isn’t a music blog, but Bob’s remark has given me the confidence to write an appreciation of Jarre here.
Jarre’s 1962 score for David Lean’s film was the last major work of French musical orientalism in the line that began with Félicien David’s Symphonic Ode Le désert (tenor, speaker, chorus, orchestra) in 1844.
Le désert at least is usually given as the start of the romantic vein of orientalism in French music. Possibly a couple of Berlioz’s Prix de Rome cantatas, from somewhat earlier (1827-30), should be put into the bracket. I had never heard of a recording of Le désert until just now, but Amazon is showing one as due for release later this month. Marco Polo have recorded other work by David, including piano cycles such as Les brises d’orient and Les minarets.
After that, we have music in the nineteenth century by Reyer, Saint-Saëns, Delibes, Bizet, Massenet et al, much of it not particularly highly-coloured. Franck and Fauré did not really go down the orientalist road, though Franck wrote Les djinns. Then, at another level, Debussy and Ravel, Debussy’s orientalism tending towards Indonesia, where Britten would follow him; and some of the music of Koechlin (who occupied both impressionist and modernist space), and Schmitt, and their contemporary Rabaud, an anti-modernist. I have a 3-CD box of Rabaud’s Mârouf, savetier du Caire, based on the Arabian Nights. Its premiere took place in the final season at the Opéra Comique before war broke out in 1914.
The Saint-Saëns includes, of course, his opera Samson et Dalila. Another, La princesse jaune (one act), is about (without being set in) Japan. Saint-Saëns’s orchestral orientalism was concerned with Egypt and perhaps with Algeria, though Maghreb means west, not east. On the Egyptian side, we have Africa for piano and orchestra, the fifth piano concerto, and Sur les bords du Nil, a piece for brass band. The orchestral Suite algérienne is a gentle celebration of the French in Algeria. There is a Marche dediée aux étudiants d’Alger, I suppose for orchestra or band.
Saint-Saëns often visited Algeria. He died there in 1921. He also visited Ceylon. Somebody once imputed homosexuality to him in public, perhaps thinking of these travels. The composer is said to have snapped back: “Je ne suis pas homosexuel, je suis pédéraste.” Would he have used a piece of jargon like “homosexual”? Did his interlocutor use it first? He married and had two sons, who both died young. His answer was probably accurate. Today he would be advised to state it the other way round.
Few books have been written about Saint-Saëns. The one I have, by Stephen Studd (2003), doesn’t tell this oft-repeated story.
Milhaud, reacting against not only against the later stages of orientalism and not only against French music: “When I first started to write music, I was immediately conscious of the dangers of following the paths of impressionist music: all that haziness, those balmy breezes, those pyrotechnics, those sparkling raiments, those veils of smoke, that languor marked the end of an era I found so affected it filled me with overwhelming disgust. The poets were my salvation. Francis Jammes’ stanzas led me out of the mists of symbolist poetry and introduced me to a completely new world all the easier to apprehend because I had only to open my eyes. Poetry was at last turning back to everyday life, to the appeal of simple people and familiar things.” I can no longer find the source for this quotation: it is probably given by Paul Collaer.
The reaction, shared by many composers, meant that fewer orientalist or orientally-inflected works were written or, if they were, the borrowings were of a different kind, as with Messiaen, whose more grown-up approach to eastern music had been anticipated by Debussy. The middle movement of Ibert’s Escales, published in 1924, called Tunis-Nefta, is in the older manner.
Jarre came very late to music. He was a Lyonnais, but studied engineering at the Sorbonne, before moving to the Conservatoire. He has said that music was nothing in his life before he reached the age of fifteen. He produced his first film score in 1951, but the most important part of his early career was in theatre, as musical director of the Théâtre National Populaire from 1951 to 1963, when it was run by Jean Vilar. There is a 3-CD box containing some of the music he wrote for productions there. Somewhere I have a CD of songs composed for the French post-war theatre, which contains one by Jarre.
The film of 1951 was Georges Franju’s Hôtel des Invalides. There is a CD of some of the film music between 1959 and 1964 called Ma période française. His international breakthrough came with Lawrence of Arabia in 1962. He composed for three more films by David Lean: Dr Zhivago (1965), Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and A Passage to India (1984) and for about 150 films in all. He won Oscars for all the Lean scores except Ryan’s Daughter. His music for The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), about Indonesia in 1965-66, was his first purely electronic score, but he had used the ondes-martinot to fine effect in Lawrence. He lived in the US in his later life.
Lean had wanted Malcolm Arnold to compose the music for Lawrence, while the producer, Sam Spiegel, wanted William Walton. In Tony Palmer’s astonishing film about Arnold (2004), Toward the Unknown Region (“I think it must surely set the nation alight when broadcast”: Paul Driver; Palmer’s films about English music are the less flamboyant successors of Ken Russell’s), Arnold says that he was asked to provide the “dramatic” music and William Walton the “patriotic”. They watched the unscored film together. Both turned it down. I’ve read elsewhere that Walton fell asleep. Lean never spoke to Arnold again.
According to the Telegraph obituary of Jarre, Spiegel, who had heard some of Jarre’s music, then hoped that Jarre would write the “incidental dramatic sequences”, while two better-known composers, Khatchaturian and Britten, would handle the “theme music”. Neither Khatchaturian nor Britten turned out to be available, and can one imagine Britten having done this? Spiegel turned to a Broadway composer, Richard Rodgers, keeping Jarre in the background. Lean strongly disliked what Rodgers produced, so Spiegel asked Jarre if he had written anything. Jarre proceeded to play what became the main theme. Lean insisted that he should be given the whole job. Jarre was left with six weeks to compose, rehearse and record about two hours of music. Arnold could have done it in two.
Writing music for a film that has already been made or to an exact scenario is like the way some ballet music was written in the nineteenth century.
Tchaikovsky was expected to follow Marius Petipa’s scenario for the Nutcracker:
“No. 1. Soft music. Sixty-four bars.
No. 2. The tree is lit up. Sparkling music. Eight bars.
No. 3. Enter the children. Animated and joyous music. Twenty-four bars.
No. 4. A moment of surprise and admiration. A few bars of tremolo.
No. 5. A march. Sixty-four bars.
No. 6. Entrée des Incroyables. Sixteen bars, rococo (tempo menuet).”
And in a film, every bar had to be marked in seconds.
Jarre’s score was to be recorded by the London Philharmonic with a subsidy from the British government, which required the conductor to be British. Adrian Boult was duly brought in for a rehearsal, but when Jarre began to explain the technicalities of synchronising the music of the orchestra with film footage, Boult withdrew and Jarre himself conducted. Boult’s name remained on the film credits to safeguard the subsidy, but Jarre was credited on the LP.
There are two recorded versions of Jarre’s Lawrence music: his own soundtrack with the London Philharmonic and a more recent one conducted by Tony Bremner with the Philharmonia. Bremner’s sound is far better. There are some passages here which do not appear in Jarre’s version. The first appearance of the main theme is even more stomach-punching. But there is something soupy in the way the brass play under Bremner. This is the main defect of this version. And the ppppppppianissimo, if I can coin a word, at the beginning of the section called Miracle under Jarre, which must surely, in its LP impression, be the quietest sustained note in all of recorded orchestral music, is barely piano.
The theme of Born Free is not so different from, sounds like a variation of, the Lawrence theme, but is merely a vulgarly sentimental film tune.
The Overture in which the Lawrence theme first appears was played before the projector started turning, yet was part of the film. It begins with two bursts of timpani, separated by a rest which already suggests the desert.
With Lawrence, Jarre succeeded Malcolm Arnold as “master of the Lean’s music”. Arnold had written, and won an Oscar for, the music for The Bridge on the River Kwai. Here we come to a problem. Who wrote the Colonel Bogey march as we know it? Arnold often gets the credit. The Tony Palmer film I’ve referred to credits him. It sounds like Arnold. Others say it was by FJ Ricketts, aka Kenneth Alford. Or that Arnold wrote a counterpoint to the original march. I haven’t worked this out. But Spiegel and Lean used a fine march by Alford in Lawrence of Arabia, The Voice of the Guns, which took the place of what Walton might have written. It was the only music, in the end, not written by Jarre.
The film, of course, had little to do with the real TE Lawrence. Prince Feisal was played by an English actor, Alec Guinness. Lean’s A Passage to India must have been the last somewhat serious film in which a white actor (Alec Guinness again) had his face painted to look like an oriental. It appeared after Richard Attenborough’s hagiographic Gandhi, in which Ben Kingsley played the main role. (In this post, I wondered what the last case was of an Englishman dressing up in real life in Arab service as an Arab.) The march was a counterpoint to the scenes in Cairo and Damascus. Memorable acting by Claude Rains.
What does French orientalist music amount to? Some attractive pieces (the Debussy and Ravel more than that), but there is no descriptive masterpiece among them. Unless it is Jarre’s score.
There is no French tone poem of the Sahara. But some of Jarre’s material could have been used in one. Some passages in his score are as imaginatively detailed as passages in La mer.
That does not mean that you can simply lift this music into a concert hall. Jarre did this occasionally by performing a Lawrence of Arabia “Suite” at gala concerts. It doesn’t work and embarrasses anyone who wants to take Jarre more seriously. This is film music and needs images, or headphones. But some of the musical ideas, if you concentrate enough to hear them, are worthy of the great, unwritten, French tone poem.
According to the French Wikipedia article, “Jarre a aussi composé des œuvres de concert majeures et écrit cinq ballets dont Notre-Dame de Paris pour l’Opéra de Paris”. In the passage in Jarre’s recording called That is the Desert, we hear an embryonic symphonist. Bremner makes nothing of it. None of the other film music that I have heard is as good as Lawrence, even for films that you might have thought would bring out a similar style. But Lara’s theme in Dr Zhivago is his other claim to immortality. It took human beings this long to reach such a simple musical idea.
Jarre deserved the Oscars for Lawrence and Zhivago, but not, I think, the last one, for A Passage to India. The score is recycled Jarre (partly recycled from Ryan’s Daughter), less distinguished, and neither Jarre nor Lean appears to have had the slightest idea what the book was about.
The picture above and the first below show Jarre at the Berlin Film Festival in February this year, where he accepted a prize a few weeks before dying from cancer.