A tribute to my brother, Michel Legrand
Writer Benjamin Legrand has written for Connexion a moving letter, published below, in memory of his half-brother the composer, conductor, pianist and singer Michel Legrand, who died last month.
Michel Legrand was a household name in France and an international star, especially known for his film music. Among his most famous soundtracks are those for The Thomas Crown Affair (including the song The Windmills of your Mind / Les moulins de mon coeur), Ice Station Zebra, Yentl and French films Les Demoiselles de Rochefort and Les Parapluies de Cherbourg.
He was awarded three Academy Awards, five Grammys, a Bafta and a Golden Globe and two films for which he provided the music won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
He worked with some of the biggest stars of pop and jazz including Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Charles Aznavour, Ella Fitzgerland…. as well as such classical music greats as Jessye Norman and Kiri Te Kanawa.
He continued to work into his 80s and in 2017 he released two albums and performed in his 85th birthday tour around the world.
Legrand was born in 1932, into a family with a musical tradition, with a father, Raymond, who was a composer and conductor. When he was ten, he discovered that music would be the love of his life, when he entered the Paris Conservatoire to study piano and composing.
“Until then, my childhood had been flat and unhappy”, he said. “My life revolved around an old piano and I was very bored. I was very lonely. Suddenly, I discovered a world that belonged to me, people who spoke my language. From then on, I felt that life had something exciting and motivating to offer.”
On leaving he was immediately attracted to the world of song, working as an accompanist and arranger and becoming musical director to singer Maurice Chevalier.
His first instrumental LP, I Love Paris – jazzy arrangements of French tunes – topped the American album charts in 1954 when he was just 22.
Throughout his life he embraced music of all kinds: jazz, classical and pop, and achieved the boyhood ambition he said he set out for himself: “to live completely surrounded by music”.
He once said: “My dream is not to miss out anything. That’s why I’ve never settled on one musical discipline. I love playing, conducting, singing and writing, and in all styles. So I turn my hand to everything- not just a bit of everything. Quite the opposite. I do all these activities at once, seriously, sincerely and with deep commitment.”
Legrand, who died on January 26, had a sister, Christiane, who sang with vocal group the Swingle sisters, and three half-brothers, Patrick, Benjamin, Olivier, a painter and a half-sister, Coralie. He was married three times, to Christine Bouchard, Isabelle Rondon and then to actress Macha Méril. He had four children, Eugénie, Dominique, Hervé and Benjamin.
He was buried on February 1 with a church ceremony for family and close friends, followed by a public, musical tribute in the Marigny Theatre where an adaptation of one of the films he composed for, Peau d’âne, is playing.
Benjamin Legrand (pictured below) is a novelist, a writer of graphic novels including Snowpiercer which was adapted for the cinema and of animated films, and translator of English-language authors including Tom Wolfe and Robert Ludlum.
On the day I am writing, February 24, you would have been 87. So what is the best way to say Happy Birthday to you, up there?
You were my big brother. Not a half-brother to me, rather ‘more than a father’ to me. Our own had abandoned us, one after the other. Your beloved sister, Christiane, and you before the war, Patrick just after the war, Olivier and myself in 1954 and Coralie the youngest, by dying two years after her birth.
When we tell people this, they look at us in amazement. Yes, Raymond was a strange character, a famous conductor and composer who couldn’t care less about his forgotten children, except sometimes at Christmas, when he dazzled us with presents.
Most of us grew up to the sounds of the piano, sometimes hearing it even before birth. Christiane was a wonderful singer, and you, you became a musical genius.
For once you had discovered the path which led you to music, you worked like crazy to explore this immaterial world of notes and emotions.
Music is a universe created by all the music that has ever been written or played, since men first tapped out a rhythm on pieces of wood or drums and since women and children have sung or played on reed pipes.
You very quickly explored all the different styles. Because film music is made up of all musical styles. Jazz, classical, rock… Do you remember how surprised I was when you called me just before the new millennium?
“Grand Ben, do you know anything about rap?” “Er, yes…” “I would like to write a rap for the final theme music of a film. I need you to write the words for me.”
I had actually been writing the script for this film and the director did not even know we were brothers! When he found out he couldn’t believe it.
I have to say I would have felt awkward introducing myself to people by saying, “Hello, I am Michel Legrand’s half-brother”. Now you are no longer there, even more so.
You made me what I am today, by taking me to America when I was sixteen. In February 1967.
Things had been going very badly for me for a year and you saved my life by teleporting me suddenly to Los Angeles. (I say teleporting, because as well as finding myself in the sun in midwinter, I suddenly went from two black and white TV channels to nine in coulour and a dozen in black and white!)
I learnt to drive there and had my first romance. And those incredible times with you, Christine, Hervé and Little Ben, the other Benjamin. Eugénie arrived a little later. You adored her. Yes we were Grand Ben, and Petit Ben, and we are still called that!
Thanks to you I played tennis with Jean Simmons at her husband Richard Brook’s house, dined at Gene Kelly’s, laughed with Quincy Jones etc, etc… (I’m not going to play at name dropping!)
I was there when you created some of your best known theme tunes, and no doubt realised then that I would never be a musician!
Thanks to you, I got my first job at 18, as an assistant director, with Christopher Miles, Molinaro, Jacques Demy who I adored, on Peau d’âne, and a little later, I discovered writing.
I even wrote the script with you, for the only film you ever directed, and in which there was no music, other than that which we see played on the screen and an incredible blues number played by Ray Charles for the closing credits.
And I want to say, quite simply, thank you.
And my thoughts are with my nephews and nieces, Dominque, Sophie, Olivier, Hervé, Petit Ben, Eugénie, and those who remain of my brothers and sisters: Olivier and Coralie.
And also for Macha and Isabelle who were magnificent or magical during this musical drama on our little planet.
As Nietzche said: “Without music, life would be a mistake.”
Benjamin Legrand (Grand Ben)
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