Film Music Interview

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

Writing Music for Comedies

- The Film Music of Vladimir Cosma (1940- )

An appreciation by Didier C. Deutsch

Vladimir Cosma discography:-

Individual scores

Milan/France CD 061/Rykodisc RCD 10010 36:23

L'amour en heritage (Mistral's Daughter)
Sony Pomme/France 950 660 44:48

Le bal
Sony Pomme/France 950 291 70:59

Sony Pomme/France 950 661 41:58

Till We Meet Again
Colossal/Germany XCD-1003 43:18

La gloire de mon pere/Le chateau de ma mere
Sony Pomme/France 950 652 62:12

L'affaire Crazy Capo
CAM/Italy CSE 018 35:44

Le diner de cons
Sony Pomme/France 952 422 CB 791 40:05

Le grand blond.../Le retour du grand blond
Sony Pomme/France 950 312

La chevre/Les comperes/Les fugitifs
Sony Pomme/France 950 252

Asterix et la surprise de Cesar/Asterix chez les Bretons
Sony Pomme/France 951 292


Compact d'or
Carrere/France 96.504 74:01

Disque d'or
Carrere/France 96.426 51:15

Les meilleures musiques de films
Carrere/France 96.427 47:10

Les plus belles musiques de film
Fremeaux/France FE 952 60:10

The Very Best Of Vladimir Cosma
DRG 32900 115:19


It is highly unusual for a film composer to have many of his scores compiled in a massive 23-CD anthology released by a major label, but that is precisely what happened in France where Sony Music put together 63 scores by Vladimir Cosma in a series appropriately titled Cosma Cinema Collection. Included among the most memorable titles in this collection were such scores for The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob, Le bal, Chateauvallon, My Father's Glory, My Mother's Castle, Michel Strogoff, Le grand blond (The Tall Blond), and a spate of other films, all of them major box office hits in Europe.

Altogether, however, the series represents an infinitesimal portion of Cosma's output which, after some 30 years of activities in film and television productions, numbers more than 150 scores, including light comedies, a genre in which he has particularly distinguished himself, thrillers, period dramas, costumers, etc. Recognition from his peers and the public alike has manifested itself in many guises, including two Cesars, the French equivalent of the Oscar, for Le bal in 1982, and Diva in 1986, and a Grand Prix at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival for the entire body of his works up to that time.

The honors do not seem to have heightened Cosma's self-importance. In fact, when he talks about himself and his achievements, he shows a casual modesty that proves quite endearing. "They are nice to have," he says of the awards, "but I've never considered that receiving one was all that important. What really matters is to be successful with the public. Let's face it, awards often go to a certain type of film, and very seldom are comedies and comedians rewarded for their efforts. Great directors like Yves Robert, Francis Veber or Gerard Oury, and great actors like Louis de Funes or Jean-Paul Belmondo have never won a Cesar, because they work in comedies. The two Cesars I have won were for very special films, not comedies. The fact that I won was rewarding, because I don't usually work in a category that gets awards, but my true reward comes when I have written a score that I know is good, and the public responds positively to it."

The son of a famous concert pianist and conductor, Cosma was born in Bucharest on April 13, 1940. He spent his formative years studying music, eventually attending the Rumanian National Conservatory from which he graduated with two first prizes, one for violin, the other for composition.

In 1963, he moved to Paris to further his studies at the French Conservatory, and was tutored by the celebrated Nadia Boulanger. "In addition to studying the classics, I also became passionately interested in jazz, in film music, and in all sorts of folk music," he says.

Between 1964 and 1967, he toured the world as a concert violonist, notably visiting the U.S., Central and South America, and the Far East. A chance encounter with Michel Legrand, the reputed film composer, provided the first step toward the career he would eventually embrace. "I had met him shortly after first arriving in France," he says; "later on, I worked with him for several years. If anyone influenced me and my style, he did, though at the time I was also influenced by the works of other composers like Henry Mancini and Burt Bacharach."

In 1968, Cosma received his first film assignment when director Yves Robert asked him to score Alexandre le bienheureux (Alexander), starring Philippe Noiret, Marlene Jobert, and "charming little dog." The film, an international success, marked the start of a long-term relationship with Robert, that has resulted in Cosma scoring several comedies starring Pierre Richard, one of France's best-know funnymen, including Le grand blond avec une chaussure noire (The Tall Blond With A Black Shoe)(1972), Salut l'artiste (1973), Le retour du grand blond (1974), Un elephant ca trompe (1976), Nous irons tous au Paradis (1977), Courage, fuyons (1979), and Le jumeau (The Twin)(1984).

More recently, Robert and Cosma worked again on the critically-acclaimed dual bill, My Father's Castle and My Mother's Glory, based on the childhood memories of writer and cinematographer Marcel Pagnol. The two films also marked a change in artistic direction for the two men, whose creative bend moved away from a straight comedic tone to adopt a style that seemed more suffused with nostalgic impressions. Characteristically, Cosma used this opportunity to write two scores that were bathed in strong melodic material, with a tinge of romantic expression in them.

"Any working relationship with a director that extends over a long period of time is bound to generate satisfying results," he says. "Writing a score for a film means that you bring to the task your taste, your talent, your know-how, but you have to blend these with a director's own vision. If I'm working with a director who stimulates me, who gives me confidence, and who expresses similar likes and dislikes, the resulting score will be a great deal more effective than if I have to work with a director who knows nothing about music, or who does not share my feelings or my concepts about how a score should work within the framework of the film.

"Because I am well-know in the industry, and sometimes because what I do appeals to their general concepts at that time, some directors have come to me to compose the scores for their films without having a clue as to what it takes to be creative.

"Personally, I prefer long-term relationships with a director, because in the long term you develop a greater understanding about the interplay between music and image. Working with the same director over a period of years means that we know each other better, we have greater exigencies toward one another, and at the same time we have greater freedom of expression because we understand better each other's creative sensitivities."

A prime example of how the relationship with Yves Robert resulted in a better musical approach can be found in the theme Cosma developed for Le grand blond, their second film together. The film, about an innocent musician who becomes an unwilling pawn in the power struggle between two police secret services, was viewed by the director as a mild spoof of the James Bond spy thrillers.

"I didn't like the idea of writing a pastiche," says Cosma, "or of creating a theme for the central character that might recall another composer's music. I felt that lacked imagination. I thought it would be much more interesting to bring to it an original color. I wanted to use unusual instruments, to suggest a spy who comes in from the cold, say from Russia or one of the Eastern European countries.

"Yves Robert and I talked about it at length, and we finally agreed on the general concept, but then it was up to me to try and find the instrument or instruments that would give the music its unusual coloring. That's when I came up with the idea of using the syrinx played by Gheorghe Zamfir, and the cymbalom, both of which gave me the desired effect."

The relationship with Robert is not the only that found Cosma involved with the same director over a series of projects. Among others, with whom he shared several films, are Gerard Oury, for whom he scored The Mad Adventures Of Rabbi Jacob (1973), Le coup du parapluie (1980), and Levy and Goliath (1987); Francis Veber, with whom he worked on La chevre (The Goat)(1981), Les comperes (The Partners)(1983), and Le diner de cons (The Dinner Game)(1998); Claude Pinoteau, on L'etudiante (1988) and Cache Cash (1993); and Claude Zidi, in whose L'aile ou la cuisse (1976), L'animal (1977), and La zizanie (1978) his music played an important role. These, and others, starred some of France's best known comedians, including Louis de Funes, Pierre Richard (for whom he scored a total of 16 films), Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Gerard Depardieu, something that no doubt enhanced the films' general appeal, and gave Cosma's music a stronger popular recognition.

"Scoring a comedy is always a very difficult thing to do," says Cosma, "particularly if you want to write something that's not cheap, with effects that do not sound rehashed. In the first place, music is seldom meant to be funny per se. Look at the works of the great composers, or even at the songs that are written today: they might make you cry, they might make you dream, but they seldom if ever make you laugh. In fact, what most people like about music is that it moves them, it thrills them, and optimally it brings them close to tears.

"Writing music for a comedy is to go against the grain, and for that reason it is extremely difficult. When I began writing for the movies, the scores I created all seemed to be for comedies. I didn't look for them, it just happened that way. As a result, I became pigeonholed, I became known as a composer who specialized in comedies. Nothing could be further from the truth: even though I have scored quite a few comedies, I find it difficult to come up with fresh ideas, and I much prefer writing serious scores."

The opportunity to write "serious" scores has also often presented itself to Cosma, who includes among his works the music for police thrillers like L'affaire Crazy Capo (1973), period films like Michel Strogoff (1975) and Kidnapped (1978), and even soap operas like the television series Chateauvallon (1985) and Mistral's Daughter (1985). Interestingly, both these series yielded pop songs which tremendously added to Cosma's visibility in the public eye, the first with "Puissance and gloire" (Power and Glory), the second with "Only Love,"a major hit for singer Nana Mouskouri.

Cosma's popularity (and name recognition) also received a boost when the theme he composed for Le bal (1982) proved a major instrumental hit throught Europe and most of the world, a feat he repeated two years later with the gorgeous "Promenade sentimentale" heard in Jean-Jacques Beineix's international hit, Diva.

Whether writing for a comedy, or expressing himself in a more romantic vein, Vladimir Cosma exemplifies the film composer whose style attracts a lot of people who might not otherwise be aware of music in the movies.

"If I were to sum up my career so far," he says, "and perhaps express a personal opinion about the scores I wrote that I like best, I probably would chose My Father's Glory and My Mother's Castle, because they are the ones that gave me the most pleasure composing. I've also been fond of another early score, Salut l'artiste, which I wrote in 1973, because there was so much understanding between the musicians and me when we recorded it. Sometimes, when I write a score for picture, and when I record it, there is an osmosis that develops between the director, the musicians and myself, an overall perfection that pervades everything. That was one such case... but they are rare!"

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