Jacques Ibert
Jacques Ibert
In the “A to Z” of classical French film composers of the past century, the names Ibert, Milhaud, the two Georges (Auric and Delerue) and les deux Maurices (Jaubert and Jarre) stand out. There’s no question that in recent years the highly prolific Alexandre Desplat has become the shining star of contemporary French film composition in the Hollywood sense; however, many others fit squarely into that pantheon.

In 2009, the Film Music Society of Los Angeles and American Cinematheque were among those sponsoring “French Music Composers Go to Hollywood”, a film series tribute to a number of these Gallic luminaries. Highlighting the event was a screening of Sur mes lèvres (Read My Lips, 2001), featuring a score by Desplat.

Whether in France or in Hollywood, Prix de Rome-winning composer Jacques Ibert was equally at home writing incidental music or full scores for films, and during the silent era made his living playing piano in movie theatres. He stepped in for an unwell Ravel in Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s Don Quichotte, but his most innovative was his score for Orson Welles’ Macbeth, with its use of  supernatural special effects, leitmotifs for some of the characters, and quirky instruments such as Chinese gongs.

Like Ibert, the jazz-influenced Darius Milhaud began composing movie scores in the epoch of silent movies. His first major success was Le boeuf sur le toit, originally subtitled a Cinéma-Symphonique, which he deemed an appropriate complement for a Chaplin film. He churned out music for over two-dozen flicks, most of them French, but despite his uncomfortable relationship with Hollywood (e.g. their insistence on having more “traditional” composers orchestrate his scores), he still managed to collaborate on The Private Affairs of Bel-Ami (based on Maupassant) with director Albert Lewin, who granted Milhaud approval not only to orchestrate his score but also to conduct it and participate in mixing sessions. Thus inspired, Milhaud produced a vivid evocation of Belle Époque Paris.

Maurice Jaubert pioneered 1930s French cinema, though sadly his career was cut short when he died on the battlefront in 1940. His partnership with French director Jean Vigo produced one of the composer’s most creative scores, considered his most memorable by cinéastes: the poetic, lyrical L’Atalante, in which Jaubert famously used the accordion and saxophone to capture Vigo’s erotic atmosphere. Jaubert, who worked with France’s most revered directors, including René Clair and Maurice Carné, was paid posthumous homage to in the 1970s by legendary director François Truffaut, who chose to use four of Auric’s non-cinematic compositions for four of his most celebrated films, among them L’Histoire d’Adèle H., and L’Homme qui aimait les femmes.

Georges Auric was one of Jaubert’s major influences, and also influenced Milhaud, but unlike Milhaud he maintained a more tranquil association with Hollywood, where he composed the wildly successful scores for William Wyler’s Roman Holiday and John Huston’s Moulin Rouge. But Hollywood was not the major venue for Auric’s imaginative, often fanciful musical imagination. Some of that whimsy may have stemmed from his association with Jean Cocteau, who was known for his fondness for opium as “artistic inspiration”. With Cocteau, Auric produced two of his most creative scores: La Belle et la Bête and Orphée, both of which demonstrated what Cocteau described as a “twinkling etherealness”. Auric not only wrote scores for films but also for serialized French TV, lived even longer than Maurice Jarre (see below), and counts a Venice Festival special award among his credits.

A student of Arthur Honegger, Maurice Jarre, passed away in 2009 at the age of 90 and started his long-lasting film career in France in the 1950s. By the early 1960s he mostly worked in Hollywood, where he set off on a lifetime journey of collaboration with director David Lean. Jarre won three Academy Awards for scores written for Lean which demonstrated his skill for adding exotic elements of foreign cultures: Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago (with its iconic “Lara’s Theme”) and A Passage to India. Given the aforementioned, it’s notable that he also wrote the score for Roger Vadim’s Barbarella.

Georges Delerue’s prolific film music career began with the New Wave but his popularity soon proliferated with innumerable filmmakers. His scores, many of them masterpieces, number in the 300’s. For his numerous accomplishments, he was appointed Commander of Arts and Letters, one of France’s most prestigious awards, won three Césars, and was awarded an Academy Award for his soundtrack for George Roy Hill’s A Little Romance. However, more significant than his awards was the scope of his work with François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and especially Alain Resnais. Not only was the latter’s emotionally devastating, highly stylized Hiroshima mon amour considered a milestone in film history but Delerue’s brilliant score captures the film’s improvisatory feel, reflecting his background playing jazz in Parisian piano bars and learning about offbeat musique concrète while conducting the innovative Club d’Essai orchestra in the 1950s.

Having become somewhat of an international wunderkind, Alexandre Desplat has been nominated for six Césars, garnered two, and nominated for Oscars four times. Each score reflects his distinctive voice. In The Queen, Desplat used the harpsichord to give a sly spin on British royalty; for Argo he created an exotic atmosphere with Middle Eastern instruments and a Persian vocalist. The unstoppable Desplat has proved himself to be perhaps the most versatile film composer on the planet. French historical dramas, Harry Potter blockbusters, independent dramas, and even animation, have flourished under his prolific pen, all of them impressing the listener with Desplat’s distinctive “I write what I like” voice.

Sharing the spotlight with the above are the less mainstream but highly contemporary and worthy of mention music scribes André Hossein and Philippe Servain, Charles Dumont, Gabriel Yared, Henri Salvador, Michel Legrand, Serge Gainsbourg, Stéphane Grappelli and Michel Colombier.

What causes this proliferation of accomplishments among French composers is open to speculation. It would be too obvious to attribute it to the wines. Perhaps, then, it simply can be ascribed to the French predilection toward Évian, Badoit and Vichy waters. Hollywood, take note.