Michel Legrand (1932–2019) - an obituary by John Caps

Michel Legrand Only a few weeks before his 87th birthday, Michel Legrand died 26 January 2019. With apparently endless energy and, as I have described in an earlier tribute, restlessness, Legrand had vowed to fulfill eighty-five concert dates during his 85th year – and did so. Along the way, he produced sixty-five years worth of film scores; composed, arranged, and conducted elegant pop albums for the likes of Maurice Chevalier, Stephane Grappelli, Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin, Jack Jones, Kiri Te Kanawa, Ray Charles – jazz albums with Miles Davis and Stan Getz, Ray Brown and Shelly Manne, his own pop albums beginning at the age of 22 with the best-selling "I Love Paris", then both classical and stage-musical works and, of course, a whole lot of movie soundtracks.

Michel Legrand If his eclecticism and the impulsive nature of his creative choices seemed not just restless but sometimes reckless (the composer Richard Rodney Bennett was a fan but always said "He tries to write too much"), his credentials were impeccable: eleven years at the Paris Conservatory, seven years with the 20th century's greatest music teacher, Nadia Boulanger. His own career trajectory, then, happened to coincide with the rise of the so-called French New Wave in cinema so that his first scores with directors like Jean-Luc Goddard and Jacques Demy were quickly noticed. They were fragmentary scores at first ("Une Femme est une Femme"; "Cleo de 5 a 7") but he broke into the sun circa 1964 with the first all-singing French film "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" giving him an international audience. America rewarded him with Oscars for his screen scores to "The Thomas Crown Affair" (1968) and "Summer of '42" (1971) and there were many individual pop song hits in the US to follow. Another Oscar came in 1982 working with Barbra Streisand on her musical "Yentl".

Throughout the 1990s, Legrand produced a number of his own stage musicals including "Dickens's A Christmas Carol", "Le Passe Muraille" (aka "Amour"), and "Marguerite" about the French resistance in WWII. The 2000s saw him composing classical works including well-received concertos for cello and piano and receiving from the hands of the French government the Légion d'honneur.

One of his final scores was for the posthumous reconstruction and release of an unfinished Orson Welles film from the 1970s, "The Other Side of the Wind". Legrand had scored Welles's quasi-essay film "F for Fake" forty-four years earlier and Welles had him in mind again here but Welles could never get the completion funding – nor the proper ideas for how to structure the thing (it remains a relic-of-a-film rather than a satisfying Welles product). The completion/release deal was finally put together by Netflix.

We note that one excerpt from a 1959 Legrand score, "L'Amerique Insolite", is part of the soundtrack to "The Other Side of the Wind". For the rest of his film, Welles had planned on a jazz score but, in the end, the restless Legrand described his finished score this way: "...somewhere between a fugue, a swing-jazz trio, the influence of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg, etc.) and a piano duo where one is jazz and the other classical". Sounds like a summary of Michel Legrand's whole life and career.

Who is left to equal him?

Author: John Caps