Who knows what’s going on in the air? Something in it is stirring me to share this wonderful compilation of music brimming with ideas that seem so gauche in our time. It seems like the sweeping, uber romantic, and grandiose music of Parisian Michel Legrand only gets fleeting kudos whenever someone speaks of French music in general, and film music spefically. There are times and places for discovering the work of the John Carpenters, Hans Zimmers, and Alexandre Desplats of the world, but are there still ears open to the sound of Monsieur Legrand? With spring more here than there, I thought, what better time to discover his work?
For a man who has composed music to over 200 cinematic works, won countless film awards, and (more importantly) in a few piano plinks could put you exactly in the center of Place de l’Étoile, so many of his most notable works – soundtracks to Les Parapluies De Cherbourg (Umbrellas of Cherbourg), The Thomas Crown Affair, Wuthering Heights, The Summer of ’42, or The Lady Sings The Blues – suffer from constantly fluctuating availability, going in/out of print at a moment’s whim (especially if you’re based in America). Brian’s Song (Themes & Variations) is a rare selection, released at the height of his influence, showing just how much Michel had managed to wring out of jazz and Impressionist classical music all sorts of emotional tenors that evoked things anyone could easily identify as emoting a certain French je ne sais quoi. Though this compilation highlights its massive hit –the titular song from the iconic, weepy bromance “Brian’s Song”– its the selections from the other movies I mentioned a few sentences ago that truly make the collection magical.
If you know a bit of French music history, it was Michel’s work with Charles Aznavour and Claude Nougaro that would plant some of the seeds others like Serge Gainsbourg would take up, transforming this sweeping jazzy orchestral sound in their own musical world. For now, get a glimpse of Michel’s masterwork, featuring all those original, gorgeous musical peaks, that once heard, are truly hard to ever forget (and much less easily replicate/find anywhere else).
Not at all. My father took off when I was three years old [Mon père s’est tiré quand j’avais trois ans]. My mother had no real skills, we didn’t have a penny, we were living in a fleabitten apartment. My father had left behind an old piano. My sister was already going to school, my mother was out working, and I stayed at home alone with my adorable grandmother who understood nothing I said. It was so boring that I stayed at the piano all day long, and that saved my life. Otherwise I would have leapt out the window. I would listen to something on the radio and try to tap out the melody, then the harmonies. Music did come to me by some decision or event, but because there was nothing else for me. […] Seeing this, my mother gave me some little lessons in the neighborhood when I was four or four and a half. I was very gifted and entered the Conservatoire Supérieur in Paris when I was nine, four years before the minimum age, with special permission. I remember that at the solfege test, the pianist played the piece once through before the actual dictation began; well, I had already written it all down at that first hearing.
At the Conservatoire, you studied with Nadia Boulanger…
A monster, and one of the wonders of the world. She is the undeniable master who has made all the composers of the entire world work. I was in her class for seven years. I learned rigor there, discipline, and when she was done with me, when I was 20, I was ready for anything. I acquired such technique from her that, when I am at the podium, when I play, when I write, I know exactly what I want. I play very badly, but I play all the instruments, which means that almost no one can bullshit me. […] Here is how I work: when I think that a film needs to have a principal theme, I search for a melody. I have a very strange melodic gift: melodies come to me effortlessly. So I write melodies—thirty, forty, fifty—then I cast them off until I have just two or three. If only one is needed, I go see the director and ask him to decide. That happened one time with Jacques Demy for the duo of the twins [in Les demoiselles de Rochefort]: I went to his house in Noirmoutier to play 35 possible themes for him.
Michel Jean Legrand is the son of the very well known arranger, conductor, and pianist, Raymond Legrand. At the age of eleven, Michel –distinctly a child prodigy– entered the Paris Conservatory and emerged –nine years later– with top honors in composition and as a solo pianist. In the late 1950s, Legrand turned to composing for films, and has thus far composed, conducted and orchestrated the scores of more than fifty motion pictures. Now Michel Legrand is one of the most distinguished names in contemporary music. In 1965, The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences accorded him the unique distinction of nominating him for three different awards for his score for the “Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” and then followed through in 1968, 1969, and 1970 with nominations for the best song award. “The Windmills of Your Mind,” included in this album, won in 1969. Currently he is a candidate for an Academy Award for the score of “Summer of ’42.” He is the consummate musician-composer-arranger and pianist.
Perhaps Michel Legrand’s greatest musical achievement is the title song of this album, “Brian’s Song.” Written as the theme for the TV movie of the same name, it captures the heart-warming friendship that grew between two men, Brian Piccolo and Gayle Sayres, thrown together in the competitive world of pro football. It also captures the tragedy of how that friendship was cut short when Brian Piccolo’s life was snuffed out at a too early age by cancer.
This one theme, “Brian’s Song,” was heard by more people –at one time, over fifty million– than all of Michel Legrand’s other themes put together. And though it may not be nominated for an Academy Award, we feel that it may well live longer in the hearts of the people who hear it than any other of Michel Legrand’s compositions –and that is the ultimate award.
- Liner notes to Michel Legrand’s “Themes & Variations”