Death of an Exceptional Film Composer

Michel Legrand, born in Paris in 1932, died this Saturday. He was a great and internationally well-known composer, especially film music composer. During his vast career, he ennobled the status of film music which was denied by critics for a long time, especially by winning three Oscars for his creations. Music was innate for him and was his life companion until his last breath.

He studied music, mostly piano, at the Conservatoire de Paris at a very young age. Apparently, his mother understood that he had a gift for music and looked for a teacher to reveal and develop her son’s talent, but all the teachers asked for someone else to work with him because he was ‘too talented for them’. This shows how predisposed he was for this art. His instructor at the Conservatory, whom he considered as his second mother, wanted him to accomplish great things in classical music as composing for Ballets and Operas, however, he had a very different idea in mind. His passion was Jazz. He managed to satisfy this desire by recording several albums as a jazzman and notably Legrand Jazz in 1958 with the most significant jazz artists of the time as Miles Davis and Bill Evans. Besides, we can still find his love for Jazz through his career as in some of the music of the musical Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort, 1967).

Michel Legrand energetic and curious as he was, worked in multiple sectors. He accompanied in music several artists (Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Sting and multiple French singers), arranged songs and music tracks, conducted orchestras and finally wrote two concertos - one for piano, one for violoncello - and a symphonic suite for harp.

However, the birth of the cinema of the French New Wave in the sixties was, I think, the biggest turning point of his career. Very significant directors from this current as Jean Luc Godard (in Une Femme est Une femme, 1961; Vivre sa vie, 1962, Bande à part 1964), Agnès Varda (Cléo de 5 à 7, 1969), and others like Jacques Deray for his prodigious La Piscine (Swimming pool, 1969), all trusted him to create the now iconic tracks. But the most important moment in his career was the encounter with the French director Jacques Demy which gave cinema lovers one of the best duos of all times! Together they revolutionised the meaning and the place of music in films. If we look at the musicals Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964) or The Young girls of Rochefort for instance, it is obvious that music nearly overshadows the script or the actors. The music is a fully-fledged character of the film. And it was a revolution for France where the music had an insignificant part in the realisation of a film. The composer always found the good tune and feeling to attach to his soundtracks which fit perfectly the action going on screen. The tracks stay in your mind, either if it is a joyful, romantic or more dramatic melody as in the Bay of Angels (1963) with Jeanne Moreau, showing the dangerous passion of gambling that the two lovers of the film have. It is swinging music, with which you want to dance even alone in your bedroom while loudly singing the lyrics hoping no-one will witness this moment of amusement and truth with yourself. The Young Girls of Rochefort, in which he shows just enchantment and joy of life, or Donkey Skin (1970) which brings a touch of fantasy and wonder to the spectator (with the amazing Catherine Deneuve in both) are overwhelmingly delightfull and make you want t sway. Both of those are very famous and necessary French film for what we can call an ‘accomplished education’.

He also worked with Hollywood and one the most important soundtracks he realised and which had won an Oscar was for The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). There is so much said when the famous ‘Windmills of your mind’ are played while Steve McQueen is flying a plane and Faye Dunaway watching him in her car. Besides, the song was such a success that it was adapted in French and Michel Legrand was singing it. Indeed, he was also a singer, another of his multiple talents. Nevertheless, the opposite also happened when several French songs he wrote were adapted in English or other languages. 'La Chanson de Maxence' which becomes in English 'You must believe in spring' and retaken by Barbra Streisand or by Bill Evans as well as 'I will wait for you' taken from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and sung by Connie Francis or Andy Williams, are good examples. His second Oscar was for the soundtrack of Robert Mulligan’s Summer of 42 (1971) and the last one for his good friend Barbra Streisand’s film Yentl (1983) which is less famous but you will surely recognise the song taken from it: ‘Papa can you hear me’. We can also look at the song ‘What are you doing the rest of your life’ wrote and sung in English by the French composer in the film Happy ending (1969), again demonstrating his several skills. He was still strongly active at a very advanced age doing energetic and passionate concerts around the world, most of them with the soprano Opera singer Nathalie Dessay, some which were planned for spring 2019. He influenced a lot of directors and musicians. Damien Chazelle (La La Land, 2017) confirmed that Michel Legrand was one of his inspirations for the film and there are multiple references to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg or Young Girls of Rochefort in La La Land.

We can surely speak about a genius of music and assure, looking back at his life, that music can give you the power to accomplish everything! Unfortunately, his last journey for the stars happened earlier than expected…

He will be buried on Friday first of February at the very well known cemetery of the Père Lachaise in Paris as the most famous people of the art world like Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison, Delacroix, Proust, Balzac, Chopin or even Oscar Wilde. Michel Legrand is unforgettable and will still live forever in his so recognizable melodies that we will continue to sing/hum while wandering on the pavement.

This is a sad day for music!

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