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Michel Legrand Interview

Also on Ionarts:

Le Jazz in Saint-Germain (May 8, 2005)

Dessay and Solfege (August 9, 2005)

Agnès Varda (February 19, 2005)
How do you make music, which is so ephemeral, instantly evoke an era, an entire national character? Ask Michel Legrand, because he has done just that, writing music that is impossible to separate, for me anyway, from Frenchness. On my next trip to France, I will be buying the new 4-CD anthology, from Universal, of the film scores of Michel Legrand. To honor the occasion, Bertrand Dicale interviewed Legrand (Michel Legrand : «Je sais tout faire», August 22) for Le Figaro. Here are a few excerpts (my translation):
Your father was an orchestra conductor and film composer. Is that why you became one yourself?

Not at all. My father shot himself 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.

Françoise Dorléac and Catherine Deneuve, Les Demoiselles de RochefortAt 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.
It is hard to imagine that silly duet, with actual sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac playing musical twins, with any other melody than the zippy, dippy one that Legrand created for it.


Anonymous said...

I have followed Michel Legrand's career for 40 years and until I read this interview, had no idea his father killed himself.

Anonymous said...

Me neither: it is simply not true.
Raymond Legrand, father of Michel Legrand, was a composer too. He was born in Paris in 1908 and died in the same city in 1974. I cannot imagine that Michel Legrand would have told the interviewer otherwise.

Charles T. Downey said...

Well, it has taken several months, but I have made a correction to my translation. From the context, I thought the text meant that his father shot himself, but the verb has many meanings, another of which is to pull oneself out of a situation.

Thanks for the comments that helped me get this right!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting the above interview. I have been listening to the music of Georges Gurdjieff and Thomas De Hartmann. I have always loved the music in the film The Go Between and recently obtained a free DVD of it from a newspaper, watched it again and then tried to tap it out on the piano and it has an uncanny similarlarity with the feel of Gurdjieff. Particularly if you play not only the 6th as flat, but also the 2nd. I have found out today that Michael Legrand is French Armenian and I would suspect that the haunting quality of the theme to the Go Between, the Windmills of my Mind and I will Wait for you might owe much to his Armenian heritage. In any event he is a magical composer.