tue 09/08/2022

theartsdesk Q&A: Composer Michel Legrand | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Composer Michel Legrand

theartsdesk Q&A: Composer Michel Legrand

He worked with everyone: the veteran composer tells his life story

“I want to be a man without any past,” said Michel Legrand, who has died at the age of 86. He had perhaps the longest past in showbiz. Orchestrator, pianist, conductor, composer of countless soundtracks, who else has collaborated as widely - with Miles Davis and Kiri Te Kanawa, Barbra Streisand and Jean-Luc Godard, Gene Kelly, Joseph Losey and Edith Piaf? When I visited him at his house at his splendid classical manoir 100km south of Paris, on the mantelpiece in the large white sitting room four familiar gilt statuettes stood sentry. The oldest was for “Windmills of My Mind”, the best original song of 1965.

A child prodigy at the piano, he converted from classical to jazz under the nose of his disapproving teacher, the composer Nadia Boulanger. Initially he worked as an orchestrator; his earliest triumph was I Love Paris, a set of jazz standards which sold seven million copies in two years. At 26 he recorded with Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Bill Evans. Then for 10 years he composed for the Nouvelle Vague directors, while his soundtracks from English-language films stretched from The Go-Between to Never Say Never Again via Portnoy's Complaint. Among his enduring works are musicals made for the screen. Les Parapluies de Cherbourg was an unexpected success in 1964, followed by Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967). He returned to the form in Yentl. Legrand’s Oscar for the score (the film’s only nomination) tells its own story.

Deep into his 70s he composed his first stage musical with Marguerite (2008), updating to occupied Paris the story familiar from La Traviata, Marguerite and Armand and sundry films. Then the Cornish theatre company Kneehigh retrieved The Umbrellas of Cherbourg from the archives. As Legrand’s classic score came alive again for a new audience, he looked back in a long biographical interview.

John Williams conducts Michel Legrand at the Boston Pops


JASPER REES: Do you approach music-making without any regard to genre? You’ve worked in so many different fields.

MICHEL LEGRAND: That makes me more than happy. I’ll tell you why. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (pictured below: Joanna Riding in Kneehigh's stage version) and Yentl, two musicals, it seems to me that it’s impossible to say this is the same composer who made those two things. And people say, “Ja but we hear eight bars of your music and we recognise.” Bullshit. It’s friendly but it’s not true. I cannot eat the same meal every day. I cannot do the same thing every day all the year long. For instance in the Fifties I was an orchestrator and I was pretty famous. I worked with Barbra Streisand, I worked with people in America, in Paris. And then after 10 years of that work or nine years I started to be less interested because I have written so much so I started to be less good. And I said to myself, “OK, now I know I have to stop.”

So I stopped. I said, “No records any more, no nothing, forget me.”So for six months or a year I had no job, no money, no work, nothing. And one year later I was really lucky. There comes in France the New Wave of film directors. They wanted new people, new technicians, new everything. So we were two or three new musicians and I spent 10 years in the Sixties with the film directors, and had a great time. We started to shoot a movie without having any money, without even a producer, not knowing if they were going to pay anyone. I loved it. After 10 years I stated to be less interested, less good, and I thought I have to quit. So I called every director and said, “Forget me, I’m finished.” I called Jean-Luc Godard and said, “Jean-Luc, I don’t want to work, it’s over.” He said, “No no no, I’ve finished a movie, I want you to score it.” I said, “No, Jean-Luc, no, it’s over.” “No no!” I said, “I’ll do it but it’s the last time.”

Joanna_Riding_Mdme_Emery_and_Sailors_The_Umbrellas_Of_Cherbourg_by_Steve_TannerI flew to America. I had no work, so I rented a house and I waited and then one day I did The Thomas Crown Affair, first Oscar, a big success and after that it was easy for me to work there. And after a certain amount of years, same thing. I had enough. I don’t understand how even a composer for film, how can he devote his whole life. I don’t know how John Williams, whom I love very much... I said, “How can you do the whole of your life the same thing? I have to change, I have to move.” Something that I found a long time ago, when you’re not in danger, your work is not very interesting, because I can search for months if I have time, slowly, nicely, from 9am to 8pm and trying and writing. But when for instance like when I have to do Summer of 42 movie, it was Friday afternoon in Los Angeles. The producer and the director took me to the screening. I said, “I love it, When do you need it? He said, “Wednesday.” I said, “Fine.” Wednesday I recorded it and I was finished by Sunday night. Because when they have no time to do something, a very short time, you come up with something much more extraordinary than if you have searched for two years. That’s what I think.

When you discovered jazz as a student of classical music, what did your professors say?

Nadia Boulanger – she hated it. She fought with me and said, “No no no, this stupid ridiculous music with three chords, don’t talk to me about it, no no, you are a classical musician, Michel.” She was doing some dinner at her home and she liked me very much as her student. She invited for dinner with three people like Paul Valéry, Jean Cocteau – it was extraordinary - so I was in the dark listening. At the end of the dinner she’d say, “One of my students is going to play something for you.” So every time I played jazz, because in front of her guests she couldn’t throw me out.

Did she ever forgive you?

I hope she did. She was Minister of Culture at the government of Monte Carlo with the Prince and when I was very young I did a concert there at the Opera with Gene Kelly and Gene onstage with a girl dancer told the complete story of modern dancing. And I was in the pit with an orchestra and Nadia Boulanger was there that night so she called me up afterwards and said, “OK, I forbid you to play jazz but this time it wasn’t too bad.” She forgave me.

Although you listened to it as a child, was your upbringing in classical music?

Before the war when I was a very young boy my father was a nice instinctive musician, a very gifted guy, but he left my mother when I was three years old. My mother had to go out to work so I was alone at home. My older sister was in school and I was too young to go anywhere and all day long I was bored to death. I hated the world of grown-ups, I hated the world of children because it’s so cruel, so rude, so I stayed at home. Miraculously my father forgot an old piano at home so I spent all my days at the piano. All the time I was listening to the radio. I heard a rhythmic song, so I tried to find the melody on the piano, then I tried to find the harmonies underneath. My only reason for living was this piano.

So my mother was a very bright woman, so seeing that she gave me some teacher and I entered the Conservatory when I was very very young, I was nine years old, much too young. Officially I couldn’t come at nine years old so I had special intervention of my teachers. I did extraordinary work. I have great memories of working at the Conservatory because I hated the world, I refused to go to school, I never went to school, never, but when I entered the conservatory at nine years old that was my planet because the only thing they were doing was music everywhere in this big building. And I said, “That’s my life.”

Did you know it would be your professional life?

No, I knew that my life was music but I didn’t know what.

Did you know how good you were?

Good no but I knew how gifted I was because everything was easy. My colleagues worked one week on something and I could do it in two hours.

How early on did you have melodies pouring out of your fingers?

No. Melody didn’t pour naturally. In the Fifties when I started professionally to write orchestrations, arrangements, for Piaf, for Yves Montand, for everyone, I was not writing songs of melody at all. It started when the film came in 1959, ‘60, when I had to write scores for movies. I always wrote 30 or 40 different things and then I proceeded by elimination day after day until one or two or three resisted until the very end.

Why don’t the French like musicals?

I was very bad towards films. In the Sixties I made a hundred French movies. In the Seventies and Eighties I made a hundred American movies. So I was really concentrated on films. But in 1963 or 1964 I was one of the first persons to see West Side Story onstage, which I loved. French people are not musicians. Not because they are not by instinct, they are like everyone, but there is no musical education at all in France. Art, painting: nothing. Literature: enormous. France is a country of literary people. That’s all. Music: nothing. French audiences know nothing about music so when they see people singing onstage they don’t understand why. It’s exactly what happened. I was extremely surprised and I still don’t know why when we did with Jacques Demy The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in 1964 it was such a success. I swear to you. When we were writing it, everybody was saying, “Jesus Christ, how can you expect people in a dark theatre to stay 90 minutes listening to people singing? Do you feel better today and how is your stomach? It will never work, never.” We couldn’t find the producer to do the film. So everybody said, for weeks and weeks and for months. So we were sure that it was going to be a flop and the first day it was a success. We had no money even to promote it

Barbra Streisand is very temperamental and very demanding so people don’t like it very much

Have you ever wanted to have control of the lyrics, especially in a foreign language?

I don’t have this pretension but I’m very sensitive on lyrics, so very often I said to lyricists, “I’m not sure this is exactly right.” But I’ve never wanted to have control. Especially with the Bergmans, my American lyricists who are really extraordinary [Alan and Marilyn Bergman wrote the lyrics for “The Windmills of My Mind” and Yentl]. I was really ecstatic about their work. I chose to work with extraordinary lyricists of course.

Did you know what they mean by “Windmills of My Mind”?

Yeah, because I asked them. With [Norman] Jewison we decided to have a song. I said to Norman, “Why don’t we have a song when they’re on the glider? “So I called the Bergmans. I said, “I would love to have something which moves all around, like an airplane.” The windmills of my mind, I love that idea very much.

"Windmills of My Mind" from The Thomas Crown Affair

How often do you write to words?

I did it. I prefer to write the music first of course. But it happened to me for instance in Yentl. We had nine songs in it, I think three of the songs come from the lyrics first.

Why is that film not loved?

It is very well done, I liked it very much. But it’s funny because Barbra Streisand, her colleagues, she’s not liked over there. So for instance when the film appeared to be nominated for the Oscars, not one nomination. Just one, for the score. And that’s not nice because she deserves more than that, better than that. But she is very temperamental and very demanding so people don’t like it very much.

Barbra Streisand sings "Papa Can You Hear Me?" from Yentl

Are you able to cope with that?

Very easily. She’s a 12-year-old little girl. I have to tell you, because we have done so many things together – records and piano and afternoons singing – she knows me so well, she knows that I can get her to do anything just like this, so she trusts me, she has confidence, so life is very simple. We are like two kids playing the same game. And she is so sweet and lovely. For instance, one little anecdote. During the recording of Yentl, one session we had 120 musicians, four pianos, eight guitars, symphony orchestra. And we recorded the first take, marvellous, and then Barbra came to me and said, “Michel, I would love to try it half a tone lower because today I feel a little tired.” So she said, “Have it re-copied and we’ll do it tomorrow.” I said, “No, we’re going to do it now.” She said, “It’s impossible.” I said, “Yes, we will right now.” So she goes back to the booth and I didn’t know how to tell the musicians how to transpose, because half a tone is the worst. So I said, “OK guys, it was beautiful, do exactly as well as you did before, with just one tiny little change, three, four!” They had no time to react. And they did it. Pretty well. She was amazed at what they did. For her it’s magic but for us it’s simple.

It’s quicker to list the people you have not worked with. Has there ever been a time when you have not liked working with someone?

Interview continued overleaf

No. I have worked with so many different characters. A film director is basically a writer, an actor, a technician, a cameraman, a photographer. Music: nothing. Nothing. He knows nothing. He knows about everything but music. So most of the time when they make the editing they use records and day after day after day they listen to the same piece of music of their films so when the cutting is almost finished and they ask the composer to come and the director says, “This is the type of music I want in my movie,” there have been many times when I have said, “OK, goodbye. If you want this take this. But if you ask me to do it let me do something very different. I don’t know what I’m going to do but what I know is I’m not going to do that.” I understand why because they are used to it.

‘I decided when I was 20 that I wanted to be married with every woman. I wanted to sing, I wanted to play, conduct, jazz, classical. I wanted it all’

The worst which happened to me was with Joseph Losey on The Go-Between. I did a lot of films with Joe. It’s one of the most extraordinary films, I loved it very much. So I go to his home for dinner after the screening, he put a record in, and it was tenor sax, slow stuff with big strings underneath. He said, “That’s what I want.” I said, “Goodbye.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Joe, I don’t know what I’m going to do but that…” He said, “That goes very well.” I said, “No, it does not.” You know, a kind of sexy saxophone. I said, “Jesus Christ.” So one month after that I called him. “It’s not a saxophone, no string, nothing. It’s a chamber orchestra with two piano solos.” He said, “Fine, go.” I go to London. The first cue Joseph said, “Ah, Michel, it’s terrible, not for the movie, it will never work.” Second cue - “Ah terrible.” Third cue – “Terrible.” I said, “Joe, let me finish it.” He said, “Michel, it will never work.” I said, “Fine but you asked me to write it so do me a favour. Dub the film with it because I worked for months so you owe me that.” He said, “That’s fair."

The opening theme from The Go-Between

So it was in September. Joe Losey never telephoned. He sent only telegrams. He never phoned once in his life. So I go back home and I wait - September, October, November, December. Not a word. I didn’t want to call him or to write him. January, February, not a word, so I didn’t know what happened with this film. March I see in the French paper that it represents England in the Cannes film festival in May. I said, “With which music?” I didn’t know. April, not a word. May, I don’t go to Cannes. Palme d’Or! Not a word from Joe, nothing. The next morning early he sent a telegram. Two hundred lines. “Michel, you were right.” That’s the fight that we have to do! I’m sure that when he was editing his film he put the saxophone and string on it. He was used to it.

And yet you’ve spent many years of your life with directors. So you found out how to accommodate them.

No, I never wanted to accommodate them. I had big fights with director sometimes and sometimes they threw my music out of the movie unless I wanted to rewrite it. I don’t care. But I never compromised once with anything.

No one else can claim to have worked with Miles Davis and Kiri Te Kanawa.

That’s beautiful because that’s a variety of working in music. Music is music. What I learned with Nadia Boulanger and other teachers – I spent years and years and nights learning everything and I decided when I was 20 that I wanted to be married with every woman. So I wanted to embrace everything. I wanted to sing, I wanted to play, conduct, jazz, classical. I wanted it all. So I tried to have it all. Because it’s like a game.

Who is the most surprising person you worked with?

The first one is Ray Charles. When I gave a tiny melody to Ray when he starts to sing, I’m destroyed, I’m on the floor because of what he does with it. I know how good this is, what I wrote, but when he sings it it’s a million times better and he’s the only one. If anyone else tries to sing it, even the great ones, it’s nothing. The emotion was so high because he understood so deeply every little crotchet. For me he’s not a singer; he’s a huge inventor. You give him a string quartet and when he sings it’s a symphony orchestra. Streisand, she sings so well and she’s so musical instinctively. When she sings it’s better than what I wrote too. But Ray was the highest one of them, because every note had a life with him. There were some extraordinary instrumentalists. Ivry Gitlis in violin. I used him many times. The horn players -  Vince DeRosa, Georges Barboteau - I’m speechless. Miles, of course. All the greats.

Bill Evans. It’s terrible because Gil asked me once to write a piano concerto for him after recording with Stan Getz. He recorded so many of my songs, Bill Evans. I said, “Fine.” So once I flew to New York and I looked in the book and Bill Evans is playing in a little club where I played myself called Fat Tuesday Mardi Grass. I went to the club and heard Bill play so well. We had supper together. He said to me, “When you write the concerto don’t write it too difficult” because his fingers were puffy. He goes home that night, during the night he feels sick, goes to the hospital and one week after he died. And that was something terrible because one of my principal goals of my life is to write something for him and I didn’t.

I was really lucky to work with Kiri Te Kanawa whom I worship. She was a bird, she wasn’t a singer. Extraordinary. You know all those people are so extraordinary.

"Now You're Gone": Michel Legrand and Stan Getz

Who would you like to work with?

I never worked with Sinatra but it’s too late. I’ll work with him later when we’ll be in the same boat. I don’t know. I like the things to come to me. When there is someone I want to meet, for instance a great poet like Louis Aragon, I need to be surrounded by those extraordinary people. I need to talk. I’m famished to learn.

That hunger will never go away?

No. I want to learn. I don’t want to teach. I have been assaulted by so many saying, “Would you teach me?” No never, because I’m no good at it. I know I’m terrible at it because Nadia Boulanger got sick one night when I was a student, she said, “Can you do the class tomorrow morning?” I said, “Sure,” and the next morning I am ridiculous. I do a monologue for three hours. I cannot understand that what I know they don’t. If you start like that how can you be a teacher? It’s ridiculous. So I’m terrible and it’s boring and I have no patience. But to learn, yes, my God, my God, that’s my nourishment.

Have you ever suffered from blockage?

No. Hank Mancini was a very close friend in Los Angeles. He said to me, “Aren’t you afraid that some day you wouldn’t have any ideas?” I said, “No, I don’t think it will happen.” He said, “I’m scared of it.” I said, “You should not be because it seems to me that if we constantly work the spring will bring water.”

Have you ever accepted a commission just for money?

No. Never. I love good life, I love cars, planes. I lived all my life higher than my financial possibility always for one main reason: it would force me to go to work because I need to money to pay for what I organised around me.

MichelLegrandIn Los Angeles you lived like a king?

Not like a king but I had a huge house. Here too.

Can you afford this house?

I can barely afford it but I have to work like mad, which is good, because it makes me go ahead but never compromising with anything never. Because I want to be a happy man.

You seem happy.

I am. I practise my piano every day and I hate it but I do it  because I want to stay the best.

Are your fingers still working?

Still working? They have never played as good as now. And it’s good because when you do something very well it’s a huge augmentation of the pleasure. My mentor was Oscar Peterson with whom I worked a lot. I did the two last records of Oscar. I’m extremely ambitious for me, only for me alone. I don’t care if I’m famous or rich or whatever. The thing is I want to know how far can I go. That’s all. And for me alone I want to try everything possible.

If someone said you can only compose or play…

No I need both. I need everything.

Which composers did you grow up listening to?

Every one. Verdi, I can’t stand him. Rossini, I can’t stand him. The whole Italian opera school, sometimes there is one lovely melody but most of it you have to put it in the bin.


Pffff. It’s a lie. It’s a lie. All the music they wrote is operatised and all the stories are dramatic with knives, with killing, with murdering, and it just doesn’t work. In 1850 when there was nothing to put in the operas they took the plays. Verdi came to Paris with 38 operas in his brief case that he wrote in three months! For example in the States there is Stephen Sondheim. He is an extraordinary man, because he controls the book. That’s beautiful.

How many lyricists have you worked with?

Not many. In France I worked with three lyricists, and in the States I worked with two. The Bergmans, Alan and Marilyn, and Johnny Mercer.

‘If Miles likes you you’ll work in New York. If Miles doesn’t like you you’d better go home now’

I Love Paris sold eight million copies. You got $200.

I didn’t care. It was the first recognition of my orchestrating. It was the first time I was seen in America. I have to tell you, for this television show in New York on NBC the seven minutes I did I was paid $7000. I’ve never seen such a fortune before in my life. I was the king of New York. Every night I went to the best restaurants, I invited all my friends. I went to the clubs. At the time on Broadway there was the first Birdland. It was extraordinary. And I didn’t want to go back to France. I said to my friends, “I’m staying here.” I almost did. I Love Paris was a very good launch for me. I was very pleased with it.

I Love Paris: Michel Legrand and the Paris Jazz Trio

How soon did they offer you artistic remuneration?

Not money but they said, “We owe you something: which record do you want to make?”

How many years after?

Not many. Maybe two. They sold about seven million in less than two years. I said, “Fine, OK, great, thank you. I want to do this jazz album” and I gave them the names. They said, “Fine, we’ll pay for it.”

How difficult was it to get them?

It was very easy for them. I guess that Miles asked for a lot of money and they paid him so I was the happiest man on earth.

Can you remember the first time you met Miles Davis?

No, I don’t remember the first time but I remember the recording. Everyone in New York said Miles at that time in the Fifties was the king of the scene in New York and all the jazz guys with whom I worked said to me, “If Miles likes you you’ll work in New York. If Miles doesn’t like you you’d better go home now.” That’s exactly what they told me. They said, “When Miles goes to a session he arrives 15 minutes late on purpose, he opens the door of the studio and he stays at the door for five minutes to listen to it. If he likes it he gets in and undoes his trumpet case and he starts to play. If he doesn’t like it he goes out and you’ll never hear from him.” So I said, “Jesus Christ.” It’s exactly what he did, you know. At that time Columbia recorded in a church on 30th Street, extraordinary sound. So I was rehearsing with the orchestra and after 15 minutes the door opened the door and Miles arrived with his trumpet case and he stays at the door a few minutes, then he closes the door, he gets in, he sits down and he starts to play. The first take we did together he comes to me and he says, “Michel, you like the way I played it?” I said, “Miles, it’s not for me to tell you how to play.” He said, “Absolutely you have to tell me how you want me to play your music.” I was 26.

Do you listen to the CD still?

No. I don’t want to have anything in the past. I want to be a man without any past. For two basic reasons. First I don’t want to be tempted to listen to one of my old records which was a success and try to do it again. I don’t want to fall into the trap. Also I don’t want to listen to an old record or an old film and say, “Jesus God, how could I write such shit?” I don’t want to be tempted or to suffer.

How do you avoid the films on your television above the fireplace? You can catch them by accident?

No it’s no accident, because it’s easy to cut it.

When did you last turn off the television?

Not a long time ago because Cherbourg, they’re playing it all the time. At least very often. So I know it by heart. It’s a bore. It’s like when I enter a club or a hotel and if the pianist at the hotel recognises me entering I am scared because he starts to play and most of the time he plays so badly it’s terrible and I don’t know what to say. A long time ago I was on my motorcycle in the part of Paris on the Seine where you buy old books. I was alone and I was hungry, a beautiful day. I put my moto there and had lunch and I was sitting there outside and suddenly comes a guy with a violin who opens his violin just in front of me for money. He didn’t know me. He played so badly, so out of tune, it was terrible. I said, “Come here. Let’s have lunch together.” He said, “Sure.” I said, “Put your violin in your case.” Do you know I asked him many questions about his life. I didn’t tell him who I was. I said, “Do you tune your violin?” He said, “What for?” That was extraordinary.


Reading your article on Mr. Legrand's thought processes brings back sweet memories of my childhood days in the seventies as I listened to my father's Legrand vinyl collection. Michel Legrand remains the most sophisticated writer of film music in my generation.

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