The word for Michel Legrand, as every interviewer knows who ever tried to sit him down for a chat, is "restless". His musical backpack is jammed with baroque influences, classical affectations, pop songs both exquisite and banal, jazz both melodic club piano and free-range styles and, of course, film music that can follow action on screen as impetuously as a hyper child. And in further evidence of such impatience, Legrand has said that once a film score or a new record album is finished, he never wants to hear it again. Move on, move on, is his motto. There is no such thing as the past. To this day, he remains in motion – composer, conductor, pianist, vocalist, erstwhile film director, licensed pilot, boatman, horseman, and now octogenarian-plus-five. He says his goal for 2017 (he was born February 24, 1932) is to give 85 live concerts in his 85th year and his website lists them all, along with 64 years of film scores and 62 years of music recordings.
Such capriciousness would be merely amusing if he were just a facile tunesmith, but the fact is that Michel Legrand has been, for at least these 60 years, one of the most melodically fluent and orchestrally colorful souls on the planet. The best of his chansons (indebted to Franck and Bach and Pigalle) are among the most sing-able songs around – the best of his film scores are striking indeed. Compositionally, they don't declare any progressive agenda; they're not harmonically daring. They're most often, when they're not being jazzy, on the fence between romanticism and renaissance. A Legrand melody often has a circular feeling – one phrase stated, then repeated in steps up or down the scale, rotating towards a resolution – "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" or "You Must Believe in Spring" or "Windmills of Your Mind" all have that revolving, music-box quality. It's a formula that can result in cliché, yet just a fine adjustment of the same ingredients and some self-discipline can result in such charismatic songs as "Pieces of Dreams" or "China Doll" or "Dis-Moi". Other pop writers pause in envy. So he has admirers in the highest places even when they have reservations, any disapproval aimed usually at the flash-dance aspect of his career. But of course out of eclecticism comes impulse, comes creativity, comes discovery.
From where does this Legrand-restlessness come? His parents (half Parisian; half Armenian) were both musical, his father Raymond a popular band leader. But the latter's four marriages and general absences from home left Michel alone for most of his early childhood toying with the family piano alongside his sister Christiane (later a celebrated soprano soloist with The Swingle Singers). Still, before very long, Michel's piano games started to manifest as real talent and, by age ten, he was enrolled at the prestigious Paris Conservatoire where he would study for the next eleven years. There he would master classes in composition, piano performance, counterpoint, fugue, solfege. And, ever impatient, when he could not find a class for orchestration, he would spend his extra time auditing tutored classes for trumpet, trombone, violin, cello, harp – lessons that would later aid him as a master orchestrator, knowing the most comfortable range in which to score each instrument and the best blends to use.
After five or six years of the conservatoire's toughest curriculum, Legrand would merit the most famous music teacher of the 20th century, Nadia Boulanger for a much-dreaded class called Piano Accompaniment. Some said that she considered Legrand her "most gifted pupil" of that season, and yet, the story goes that one day she brought into class the Bartok Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion for study purposes and asked Legrand to sight-read the piano parts. Impressing everyone, he managed to get through it but when it was all over, she asked him, 'Well, what did you think of that?' And he kind of looked up at her and shrugged his shoulders and said, 'Pas mal- - not bad.' Her fury was equal to her shock: How did he dare speak of such a master work in such a flippant manner!? How conceited; how adolescent. But underneath she must have recognized that his rudeness was part of his improvisatory character; that music was fun for him and to take anything too seriously, too reverently made a chore out of it, a lonely chore like those childhood days practicing solo.
Nadia Boulanger's explosion at the brash 16 year old can only be imagined. But Legrand did graduate from her class and from the conservatory with honors, if also with a playful sense of impudence. Thereafter, no moribund classical career was going to satisfy him. So much was happening on the 1950s musical scene. Almost immediately, Legrand got himself hired to score his first films, Beau Fixe (1953) and Les amants du Tage (1954), helped to ghost-write a rock 'n roll hit "Tell Me That You Love Me, Rock", and arranged/conducted a best-selling easy-listening album, "I Love Paris".
Someone else can trace in proper detail Legrand's intermediate rise as a film composer from that point on – except to say that he rose on the surfboard of the French New Wave filmmakers from 1959, splashed into international fame in 1963 by composing the first film musical whose script was entirely sung, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and then, through recommendations from Henry Mancini and Quincy Jones, landed in Hollywood to win Oscars for songs and scoring – i.e. The Thomas Crown Affair, The Summer of '42, Yentl – and to create albums for a whole host of pop singers and jazz folks with programs of his endlessly lyrical, adaptable, and memorable songs. His broad reputation, then, was for "pretty" love ballads most prized during that retro-romantic pop era; but his professional reputation was high for the fluency of his best songs and the zest of his best orchestral writing.
One who I found watching his rise with both envy and something like Boulanger's exasperation was the great British composer Sir Richard Rodney Bennett. "At that time Legrand was one of the few composers whose scores I would go and listen to in the cinema," Bennett told me. "At one time he did some marvelous things and, I'll even say it, at one time I found myself influenced by him. For instance, there was a Legrand film that used, maybe, three pianos at the beginning giving a sort of brilliant jangly sound for this story about a woman addicted to gambling called Bay of Angels. A marvelous picture and a good score -- and I used that same sort of multi-piano idea for the cold, computer world in my own score to the picture Billion Dollar Brain. Indeed, if I am ever asked to lecture on film music one of the examples I use is a Legrand sequence from The Thomas Crown Affair – the chess sequence. Do you know it? The scoring is absolutely dazzling; I mean even if you explain it to the students: that this is a sort of erotic chess game – his move, her move – and how the music hesitates and thrusts and demurs and checkmates – you still can't quite communicate it unless you actually watch it work. It's all there; I mean, it's brilliant film scoring. And yet, too often his output has been sort of frustrating. I think he just works too much. And America has a way of draining talent anyway. [This conversation was more than 20 years ago now, so it's hard to credit a decline.] But even so, I still find myself connected to Legrand in strange and serendipitous ways. For instance, people say that my main theme for the film Lady Caroline Lamb uses four notes that are identical to Legrand's tune 'Windmills of Your Mind'. And they're right! Then there's been this sort of strange trade-off of scores between us, or rather of scoring assignments..."
Bennett is referring there to a couple of film scoring jobs for director Joseph Losey that began as Bennett assignments but ended up with Michel Legrand music. Case #1: When Losey wanted to make a film of Ibsen's play A Doll's House, he approached Bennett for the scoring. But Bennett declined: "I don't think it should be scored at all," he had said. "Music will only compete with Ibsen's dialogue. Besides, there's nothing that music can contribute to such a scenario." So with Bennett out, Losey called on Legrand who dashed off an attractive neo-classical score for brass ensemble – pleasing to the film audience but of questionable value to Ibsen. Case #2: The more egregious example of trading-off is associated with Losey's original version of the film The Go-Between. From RR Bennett: "I've known that (L.P. Hartley) novel since I was about 15. It's one of my favorite novels in the world. But I always found it to be a very frightening story (the tale of a naïve country boy manipulated into acting as a secret messenger between illicit lovers)...but what Joe was telling me was that he wanted the film to be scored with avant garde jazz and electronic music! And I just looked at him as though he'd gone insane. Anyway, the music I provided and recorded was avant garde, alright, but it just wasn't a concept Joe could accept." So once again, Losey turned to Michel Legrand who this time supplied a formal classical score for two pianos and chamber orchestra, much in the style of the orchestral suites of Bach. Bennett was abashed at the rejection, and baffled about the replacement score: What had Bach to do with this Edwardian fable of manners and morals and the corruption of an innocent well-meaning boy? Not the setting nor the era nor the thesis nor the characters of such a story seemed related to such a score – and yet Legrand's The Go-Between went on to win the British BAFTA score award for that year – once again, Legrand as a source of admiration and exasperation. (Yet another tussle took place the year Bennett's massive choral and orchestral Oscar-nominated score for Nicholas and Alexandra lost to Legrand's brief, quiet Summer of '42.)
Not unaware of criticism, Legrand sometimes seems to be courting it – again the bored child, defiant at the piano at home – now taking too many jobs on purpose, writing in ways that often challenge his boss's expectations, telling ASCAP's Jem Aswad, "I never approach a score in a safe way, I try to find an oblique way to bring something different and to put myself in danger...yes, I'm an adventurer."
To me, Legrand's best music is that which combines that explorer's sense with a genuine love and loyalty towards the Boulanger legacy of music-from-the-heart. You can see him clowning around on screen in Agnes Varda's 1961 film Cleo from 5 to 7 (sitting on the floor, playing a keyboard over his head, obviously enjoying fame and freedom), but to experience Legrand the responsible musician, I seek out films like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Une Femme est use femme (whose score parodies American musicals), Dingo (far-out jazz with Miles Davis), The Thomas Crown Affair, Ice Station Zebra (blatant Hollywood thriller music), La Piscine (scat & fugal vocal jazz, though largely rejected by the director), Summer of '42 (composed in five days, developing a fragment from La Piscine), A Time for Loving, Adventures of Don Quixote (TV-gypsy violin vs. guitar), The Three Musketeers (frenetic opera buffa music plus one of the loveliest string adagios in films since Walton's Henry V), Pretty Polly, Yentl (music grounding a complicated libretto), the concerto-like Partir Revinir, Madeline (happy storybook scoring), Parking, Castle Keep, L'Evenement le plus important, the quasi-opera Dreyfus, the rejected score for Robin and Marion, Streisand singing "Papa, Can You Hear Me," Stan Getz playing "Moods of a Wanderer," Jack Jones singing "Years of My Youth" or the great jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli doing "The Summer Knows", all with Legrand's fastidious orchestrations...or Legrand himself at the piano jamming with drummer Shelly Manne and bassist Ray Brown on one great Verve album.
There is much to admire in all of that music and it makes you forgive any exasperation that his perhaps too-eclectic, still-restless and, even at the age of 85, still on-rushing career may deserve.
John Caps has written on music for High Fidelity/Musical America, National Public Radio and the New York City Opera; and on film music for Film Comment, Film International, The Cue Sheet, and the University of Illinois Press's "Music in American Life" series.