Arts: The Man Who Always Knew the Score ; French Composers Have Always Excelled in the Art of Music for Cinema, and None More So Than Michel Legrand. with over 200 Film Soundtracks and Three Oscars to His Credit, He Is Still Turning His Relentless Drive into Symphonies and Stage Musicals, and Playing Jazz
Sweeney, Phil, The Independent (London, England)
Michel Legrand lives high in the Valais region of Switzerland, not for fiscal reasons but because he adores the mountains and the lakes. Though the former can't be irrelevant to France's most successful musical export to the USA, where he is a show-business bigwig, keeping up effortlessly with the Quincy Joneses and hanging out as if by right with the Barbra Streisands.
Around 200 movie soundtracks ago, in 1956, Legrand was introduced to the States by France's great chanson export of the 1930s, Maurice Chevalier, who hired the young pianist as his musical director and took him off to the USA on tour. This was four years into a career which began, on leaving the Paris Conservatoire with First Prizes in harmony, piano and counterpoint, as an intermission pianist, at five francs a session, in suburban Paris cinemas, and progressed to session work for singers such as Henri Salvador and Catherine Sauvage.
On arrival in America, Legrand found himself, to his surprise, already a star. His first LP, a collection of French standards, a recording unremarked at home, had been issued in the States under the title I Love Paris, and was busily selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Legrand's love affair with the USA lasts to this day, albeit with distinct reservations. "I adore Americans, but they've no culture," he says on the telephone from his Swiss mountain. "Piaf told me before I went: `go, but don't stay, you'll lose your talent.' And it's true, the studios are magnificent, all the professional support is there, but life is too easy, you become less demanding with yourself."
Undemanding of himself is not a characteristic obviously associated with Michel Legrand. He appears to have hit the track running and worked flat- out ever since. He was born to a successful film composer father, Raymond Legrand, who abandoned him at the age of three to be raised by his mother in the Paris suburb of Becon- Bruyeres, a name which strikes the French as faintly humorous, like Pinner or East Cheam. He was a solitary child, happy only when learning on the family piano, and who blossomed on the precocious commencement of music study, three years before the normal age of 14. "My life began when I started at the Conservatoire," he says.
At the Paris Conservatoire he studied for seven years with the great Nadia Boulanger, "an old lady by then, but sublime, alert, with a dry wit, a formidable teacher, very demanding, tyrannical, I adored her". He didn't have a career plan on leaving, and drifted into work with Chevalier, "a nice man, professional, wanted lots of rehearsing, but solitary, not finally someone who enjoyed life". The Chevalier job was an experience, and Legrand wanted many, fast, and to keep moving. He still does. "Look, can we get on," says the voice on the telephone, "otherwise this is going to take an hour.
"The thing is, I like variety. I want to compose film music, popular music, to play jazz. I want to compose symphonies, sonatas, the classics. I've recently recorded Gershwin, Satie. I work very hard. I want to do everything."
If Legrand ended up doing everything, it was in film music that he made his mark, one of a succession of his countrymen to dominate the heyday of the cinema soundtrack. From Maurice Jaubert, the pioneering composer for Jean Vigo and Marcel Carne, through Paul Misraki, collaborator of Godard, Chabrol and Welles, and Maurice Jarre of Dr Zhivago fame, to Gabriel Yared (Betty Blue and The English Patient), French composers excel, it seems, at the art of film music creation. One reason may be the eclecticism required of a cinema score, a quality natural to French musicians. Another may be a facility for perceiving the musical implications of image and plot. "When I work on a movie soundtrack," says Legrand, "I first watch the film many, many times to get a real feel for the images and what the film is saying' …
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Publication information: Article title: Arts: The Man Who Always Knew the Score ; French Composers Have Always Excelled in the Art of Music for Cinema, and None More So Than Michel Legrand. with over 200 Film Soundtracks and Three Oscars to His Credit, He Is Still Turning His Relentless Drive into Symphonies and Stage Musicals, and Playing Jazz. Contributors: Sweeney, Phil - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: September 27, 1999. Page number: 10. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.