In October 2018, French composer Philippe Sarde receives the Film Fest Gent World Soundtrack Lifetime Achievement Award together with a tribute concert of some of his nearly fifty years of screen music. Along with lasting relationships with directors like Sautet, Tavernier, Polanski and Annaud, Sarde gradually made inroads to the mainstream Hollywood film industry including an Oscar nomination for the 1979 music to "Tess". Worldwide, he is probably heard more via soundtrack discs than through any large audiences seeing his films. And indeed his scoring over the years has seemed more musical than cinematic, more compositionally interesting than narrative (which is what movie scores usually try to be).
I call him enigmatic because, right from the beginning, he seemed to present contradictions. Along with Michel Legrand, Vladimir Cosma, Antoine Duhamel, and Georges Delerue, Sarde quickly became my favorite living French screen composer and that sprang from my strong admiration for his vigorous, detailed and original score to the 1973 Granier-Deferre film "Le Train" – so carefully shaped, cue by cue, to its own internal logic, full of pulsing locomotion, rolling figures, then static holding figures, then barreling on down the tracks, all in the same minor key mode that tied the whole score together (learning only later that Sarde had composed the score in advance of the film and had then participated in the process of applying the film to the score).
At the same time I was admiring "Le Train", I was also learning his impressive half atonal/half folksong score to the historical thriller "Le Juge et l'Assassin" (1975, scored for string quartet, accordion, harp and the beautifully gravelly voice of Jean-Roger Caussimon) and his half baroque/half jazz music to the police action comedy "Flic ou Voyou" (1978, scored for the Gabrielli Quartet versus jazzmen Chet Baker and Ron Carter) and his subtle orchestral setting for the Irish ensemble The Chieftains in 1977's "The Purple Taxi". All of these made impressive soundtrack albums because the themes were compelling, the orchestral details were sophisticated and literate, and the scores seemed to hold together, no matter what the musical genre.
I learned that Sarde's mother had been an opera singer and that he had studied harmony, counterpoint, fugue and composition at the Paris Conservatory with Noel Gallon. His personal instrument was piano and he never did learn to conduct. That was all impressive, but there were puzzling caveats to my applauding of him. If he was so well trained and his scores were so erudite, what did it mean that Hubert Rostaing had orchestrated "Le Train" which had shown all that original and ambitious string writing -- or that the aforementioned Vladimir Cosma had orchestrated Sarde's first film score "Les Choses de la Vie" (1970) which had seemed so confident and lyrical?? And when, in 1981, he had started to accept American film jobs and I heard the fierce command of orchestral forces, the memorable themes and the strong scene-setting ability so handsomely demonstrated in his score to "Ghost Story", it was surprising to find the name of the conductor Peter Knight credited with the orchestrations there. How much of this growing Sarde reputation was Sarde's? Biographical sketches were no help; they rather leaned toward myth: one press release claimed that Sarde, "when he was four years old, conducted a brief section of Carmen at the Paris Opera"! And so I sought the help (this is years ago, now) of a Paris contact of mine, the intrepid Jean-Pierre Pecqueriaux who headed off to interview Sarde in Paris in person and agreed to press that very question about the use of orchestrators. Sarde's answer was one I should have expected:
"No, I never orchestrate my music. I make very extensive sketches and give them to the orchestrator whom I work with very closely. It gives me the chance to have a second view concerning the music... it breathes new life into what you have written... during those three months on your own. Of course, if you're a real composer you have already put in very precise ideas about the orchestration."
It's what other composers have said in the past to this question: that they use orchestrators almost as copyists, to lay-out the instrumental parts in a clearer hand for sight reading, cleaning up any anomalies, maybe making suggestions as they go along. "I compose in my head," Sarde said, again through Pecqueriaux, "rather than at the piano or by resorting to computer aids. Then I check certain harmonies on the piano and then I write it down. I'm a pianist and so I do tend to go to the piano but not to compose; it takes shape in my head."
So I have come to assume that Sarde's score sheets are the full seven-line pages, not the simple lead-sheets that song writers use, and that all that compositional detail I am hearing really does come from him. He says that his first thought is for instrumentation when getting into a film score assignment: the huge London Symphony Orchestra for "Tess", selecting sax virtuoso Stan Getz for "Mort d'Un Pourri", Stephane Grappelli's violin for "l'Adolescent" and "Beau Pere", Ivry Gitlis's violin for "Madame Rosa", a string quartet for "Une Histoire Simple", the distinctive Vietnamese flute in "Le Crabe Tambour", the full New York Philharmonic for "Lovesick", a colliery brass choir in "Le Dernier Civil" (Final Justice). Surely only a genuine composer could mount this variety of scoring and make each one convincing. As a pianist, his piano-duo scores are especially exciting: soulful twin pianos for the bluesy score to "Mille Milliards de Dollars", then a blend of Poulenc and ragtime pianos (!) for "Le Sucre". The soft porn film by David Hamilton, "Premiers Desirs" is graced with several lovely Chopin-like preludes for solo piano. But then there are the violent percussion effects in "Quest for Fire" and "Lord of the Flies". Much of this music has flown under the radar because the films themselves had weaker distribution but at least critics have been aware: witness Sarde's twelve Cesar Award nominations including as recently as 2010's "The Princess of Montpensier".
And so I've come to the conclusion that Sarde must be the genuine composer I've always suspected, not a mere tunesmith for whom others orchestrate and equivocate. There are still some nagging caveats to me – for instance, why would he import past themes from his French pictures when scoring American films (a theme from "Les Choses de la Vie" in "Ghost Story"; the main theme from "Le Droit a Aimer" used as the main theme for Marshall Brickman's "Lovesick" without explanation or copyright question)? This is not an occasion for criticism; it's just puzzling to me that such a prolific composer, never at a loss for solid and lyrical melodies, should repeat himself so. Anyway, there're enough fine Sarde tunes to go around -- hear his endlessly lyrical score to "La Baule-les-Pins" (Game of Jacks) or "Vincent, Francois, Paul et les Autres" or "Les Innocents". It all seems evidence enough that Philippe Sarde is a 'real deal composer' – and now a Lifetime Achievement Award winner as well.