“Ever since I was a boy, my ambition has been to live completely surrounded by music. My dream is not to miss out anything. That’s why I’ve never settled on one musical discipline. I love playing, conducting, singing and writing, and in all styles. So I turn my hand to everything – not just a bit of everything. Quite the opposite. I do all these activities at once, seriously, sincerely and with deep commitment.”
This is how Michel Legrand describes his status as an atypical, compulsive musician who cannot be pigeonholed; or rather, his many statuses as a composer, conductor, pianist, singer, writer and producer. Tearing down the barriers between jazz, classical music and easy listening, he is at home in any musical situation. Born in 1932, Michel Legrand came from a family with a musical tradition represented by his father, Raymond Legrand and his uncle Jacques Hélian. When he was ten, he entered the Paris Conservatory, which proved to be an unexpected revelation. “Until then, my childhood had been flat and unhappy,“ he relates. “ My life revolved around an old piano and I was very bored. I was very lonely. Suddenly, when I joined Lucette Descaves’ music theory class, I discovered a world that belonged to me, people who spoke my language. From then on, I felt that life had something exciting and motivating to offer”
After studying under the iron rule of Nadia Boulanger, Henri Challan and Noël Gallon for several years, Legrand left the Conservatory with top honors in harmony, piano, fugue and counterpoint. He immediately gravitated to the world of song, working as an accompanist musical director to Maurice Chevalier. He traveled with the famous French singer on his international tours. This gave him the opportunity to visit the United Sates for the first time. His instrumental LP, I Love Paris, did extremely well in that country, topping the US album charts in 1954. His first hit record also had great symbolic significance, revealing his international potential: the talented 22 year old did not look back and continued to go from strength to strength in France and abroad.
In the 1950s, Michel Legrand also started composing for some of the artists he was accompanying. His first great song La Valse des Lilas, displayed an individual style of melodic writing which soon became his hallmark. “ I put a great deal of faith in melody”, he admits. “Nadia Boulanger always said: “ Put whatever you want above and below the melody but, whatever happens, it’s the melody that counts.’ For example, modern music tends to bore me now. It does of course contain innovative rhythmic and contrapuntal devices but, without melody, its lifeblood, it is lifeless and this helps to dehumanize it. For my part, melody is a mistress to whom I’ ll always be faithful.”
In 1955, Michel Legrand turned his hand to another mode of expression when he wrote the film score Les Amants du Tage by Henri Verneuil. Four years later, with the advent of the French New Wave, he became one of the architects of the revival of French cinema. He began collaborating with Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, François Reichenbach and, of course, Jacques Demy, his creative alter ego, with whom he invented a new genre of film musical. As well as being awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes festival and the Prix Louis Delluc, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg achieved massive world-wide success – despite the pessimistic predictions of many industry professionals. “Jacques and I had to work really hard to get this project off the ground,” remembers Legrand, “The producers showed us the door saying: “You’re a couple of nice young guys, but do you really think that people will spend an hour-and-a-half listening to characters singing life’s little platitudes!” They were afraid to finance a film that substituted singing for dialogue and that had a realist slant, much the same as everyday life. After a year of uncertainty, things began moving again, thanks to Pierre Lazareff (who introduced us to Mag Bodard, a young producer) and my friend Francis Lemarque, with whom I recorded the music. In other words, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a work that was made against everybody’s better judgement!” The parting lovers’ theme song, Je ne pourrai jamais vivre sans toi, initially covered by Nana Mouskouri, became a popular standard, largely owing to the English adaptation by Norman Gimbel ( I Will Wait for You ) as well as versions by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Louis Armstrong and Liza Minelli. Legrand continued to set Jacques Demy’s imaginative lyrics to music ( Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, Peau d’âne, Trois places pour le 26 ), although he moved to Los Angeles in 1968 for what he called “a change of scene”.
After the success of the Thomas Crown Affair and his song The Windmills of Your Mind, Legrand decided to divide his time between Paris and Hollywood, working on anything that appealed to him: Un été 42, Lady Sings the Blues, Jamais plus Jamais, Yentl, Prêt-à-porter . Regarding film music as another form of dialogue, Michel Legrand is the only European composer with a filmography that includes names like Orson Welles, Marcel Carné, Clint Eastwood, Norman Jewison, Louis Malle, Andrzej Wajda, Richard Lester, Claude Lelouch, to name just a few. Nonetheless, his prestigious awards in the field of screen music (three Oscars) have had no impact on his creativity. “An Oscar”, he stresses with conviction, “is a gold star, a piece of flattery, the sweet taste of success but, deep down, it doesn’t make you any better or worse as a composer, your strengths or weaknesses remain unchanged. When I was a boy, I imagined that I had a pot of grease with special powers: If I dipped my fingers in it, I would have the technique of a Horowitz. Unfortunately, Oscar statuettes aren’t covered in grease! (Laughter). In any case, that’s not what counts: I wrote all that music for and because of the cinema without films, none of it would exist.”
In 1964, Michel Legrand decided to perform his songs himself, adding yet another string to his bow. His voice became an additional instrument that he could put to unaccustomed use. “My idea”, he admits, “was simply to give it a try, to see what it was all about. I also did it to overcome my shyness. After years of being on stage with my back to the audience, I made up my mind to do the opposite, to turn round and face the spectators. Actually, I started to be tempted by the idea after Jacques Brel asked me to do the first half of his show at the Olympia. I was very surprised. Just as surprised as Claude Nougaro was when I encouraged him to perform the songs we’d written together ( Les Don Juan, Le cinema ). These things show how connected we all are, like interlocking wheels. With Jacques Brel’s encouragement, I took the plunge…” Michel Legrand worked on his voice and focused in particular on building up a repertoire with two writers of his choice: Eddy Marnay ( Les Moulins de mon coeur, Quand on s’aime, Les enfants qui pleurent ) and Jean Dréjac ( Comme elle est longue à mourir majeunesse, Oum le Dauphin, L’été ’42 ). He subsequently had the chance to put music to lyrics by Jean-Loup Dubadie, Boris Bergman, Françoise Sagan and Jean Guidoni and, in 1981, he himself wrote the words for his album Attendre… which he also performed and composed.
In America, Michel Legrand’s loyalty to Alan and Marilyn Bergman has given rise to scores of great numbers, usually theme songs ( The Summer Knows, How Do You Keep The Music Playing ? and The Way He Makes Me Feel ).
After more than 45 years of composing, Michel Legrand is more versatile than ever. Constantly on the lookout for new encounters and collaborations, he is an indefatigable inventor, refusing to establish a hierarchy between musical genres (“To my mind, a beautiful tango is worth more than some works by Wagner…”) He believes that composition is also an original means of introspection. “The way to make progress”, he declares, “is to be the only one who can create things that no one has ever thought of before. It’s also a way of finding out more about oneself. I want to be more aware of what I can do, even if it means going too far. If I want my ship to continue sailing the waves, I must try out new sails and see where they take me. Having said that, I am highly organized mentally, because of my classical education. I often work on several projects simultaneously. I spend three hours composing for a film, I play the piano for two hours, I finish a song. In fact, every job is a version of the previous one. Even so, music is still a never-ending set of equations that have to be solved. Sometimes, you think of an idea, you can picture it, you can already hear it. You rush over to the score to write it down, thinking a priori that it’ll be simple and easy. Wrong! Umpteen obstacles suddenly appear: form, content, small details. This is because, if you want to be original, every bar poses a problem.”
Also typical of Michel Legrand’s character is that he rejects the concept of a career: “I hate the idea of goals, results, limits. I’m an artist, not a politician. I’m motivated by life and by the richness and diversity of all kinds of music. Without forgetting that what’s really important is to remain a beginner. One of the most stimulating periods of your life is the time when you’re discovering things, when you’re learning. When you become too skilful, your spontaneity disappears, you’re no longer afraid of anything. I hope I never become someone whom people coolly describe as “very professional”. Throughout my life, I’ve always wanted to vary my musical pleasures, and to remain an eternal beginner, without ever rationalizing things in terms of a “career”. Stravinsky once said: “We insomniacs are always trying to find a cool spot on the pillow.” I’ve been searching endlessly for that spot for years!”
It is impossible to say everything there is to say about Michel Legrand in just a few lines – to describe his love of jazz, his historic sessions with Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Phil Woods or Stéphane Grapelli, his meetings with the big names in classical music (Kiri Te Kanawa, Jessye Norman, Maurice André) or easy listening (Yves Montand, Barbra Streisand, CharlesAznavour), to explain how he became a film producer ( Cinq jours en juin ) or chart the remarkable history of Passe-muraille, an opera buffa written with Didier Van Cauwelaert, which was on the bill at the Bouffes-Parisiens for a year, between 1997 and 1998. In any case, although he may still have some wonderful projects in store, Michel Legrand has already succeeded in meeting one singular challenge – that of living several lives in one lifetime.
2014 sees Michel Legrand still performing 60 concerts across the globe. His new ballet, choreographed by John Neumeier from the Hamburg Ballet opened to phenomenal success in Costa Mesa, California, as a prelude to a US tour. Michel’s new concerto for harp was premiered in Philadelphia in February 2014 and his new opera, ‘Dreyfus’, will open at Opéra de Nice in May 2014. To coincide with the 50th Anniversary of ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’, Michel Legrand will conduct the oratorio version of ‘Les Parapluies de Cherbourg’ at Théâtre Châtelet. There will be 5 exceptional performances preceding a worldwide tour.
The CD “Natalie Dessay Sings Michel Legrand” was released in October 2013 and has been certified gold, with sales of 50,000 in France and is on it’s way to platinum certification.
Michel Legrand feels very honoured to have been asked by Xavier Beauvois to score his new movie, which will be in the competition at Cannes this year.
There are lots of other new projects being organised for the 2014/2015 season, which will be announced in due course.