Georges Delerue at 87

Georges Delerue at 87

87 years ago today, on March 12, 1925, Georges Delerue was born in Roubaix (in the northern tip of France). The son of factory workers, he overcame severe back problems, early resistance in the conservatory, and the cultural stigma of composing for film and television to become one of the most respected and accomplished film composers of the twentieth century…first in France, then America.

I’m nearing the end of several months writing about Delerue’s career in Hollywood (from 1980 to his death in 1992), and he is foremost on my mind today. I fell in love with his music only five or six years ago. I was at work, listening to a streaming film music station. His suite from Rich in Love (his final score) came on, a tapestry of various solo instruments assuming the gorgeous central theme. As the guitar gently took the reins of the melody, I had to stop what I was doing to listen. It was a moment of pure, unplanned surrender—one of those moments I chase after in film music. It would be the first of many with Delerue.

I used that piece of music in the film I created for my wedding, under images of Alison and I during our dating years. It thus became very personal.

I met Georges’ wife, Colette, the summer of my wedding, while writing liner notes for Georges’ score for Maxie. That experience, combined with my adoration of his music, led to the thesis I’m writing. (It is the final chapter of what I hope to be his complete biography). In speaking to his wife, daughters, friends, and colleagues—and listening to hours and hours of his work—I’ve only fallen more irretrievably under the spell of Georges Delerue. And while I wish I could have known him in life, I feel like I’ve met him through the warm glow of his friends’ recollections…and especially through his music. Many people have said that Georges was just like his music: gentle, sweet, nostalgic, and full of life.

Here is an excerpt from the thesis, to honor Georges on his birthday.

If a melody is a story, as suggested by composer Frederick Talgorn, then Georges Delerue was one of the great storytellers of the twentieth century.

His early music rode the “New Wave” of French films in the 1960s, and he resisted the direction of serialism, atonality, and what he saw as the increasingly inaccessible avant-garde concert music of his era. Rather, he wrote music with a kind of timeless European sensibility—instantly evocative, with an evergreen visceral power. He gave supreme attention to melody, that most eternal of musical organisms. Each Delerue film score is characterized by at least one distinct and memorable theme, so lyrical in contour that many beg for words.

In film music’s long and often conflicted struggle for acceptance as a serious art form, Georges Delerue plays an interesting role. He brought a formal conservatory education and a mind steeped in centuries of music to bear in his writing for film. He was a master craftsman who poured all of his faculties into his music, from the first stage to the last. The result is that the scores he wrote transcend their initial function (to dramatize and underscore movies), and contain an intellect in their writing, a formality, and an internal logic. His music is one of the twentieth century’s most persuasive arguments that film (as a venue) is, or at least can be, the rightful heir of ballet and opera—if not the concert hall itself.

At the same time, Delerue fully submitted to the demands and commercial restrictions of his trade. He was a humble collaborator, serving the needs of film and director. He took his music seriously, but did not take himself too seriously. Even when he knew a film he was being offered was bad, he usually scored it anyway, because he simply loved to write music. He was a proud artist, but not an artiste. Unlike other film composers who chafed at the descriptive prefix “film,” people like Bernard Herrmann whose high opinion of their talents made them very particular about what projects they accepted and very difficult to work with, Delerue wasn’t picky. As long as he was putting on paper the music in his head (and getting along with the filmmakers), he was happy.

Thus, we have a body of film music from Delerue (to say nothing about his symphonies, operas, and other concert works) that is pure, lovingly constructed, influenced by the classical masters who preceded him yet markedly his own. “The greatest strength in Delerue’s music is that outside of the movies, it became pure,” said French film composer Alexandre Desplat. “It’s the kind of music I listen to. I can listen to Debussy, or Ravel, or Herrmann, or Rota, or Delerue without asking myself the question, ‘Is it film music or just music?’ No, it’s music.”