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Michel Legrand, Oscar-Winning Composer, Dies at 86

Michel Legrand, three-time Oscar winner and composer of such classic film songs as “The Windmills of Your Mind,” “I Will Wait for You,” “You Must Believe in Spring” and “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?,” along with the groundbreaking musical score for “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” has died. He was 86.

Legrand died at his home early Saturday in Paris, his publicist told Agence France-Presse. His wife, French actress Macha Meril, was at his side.

His most recent film score was “The Other Side of the Wind,” composed for Orson Welles’ last film, which was finally completed and released in 2018. Decades ago, after their 1974 collaboration on “F for Fake,” the legendary director had asked for another Legrand jazz score. “I take it as a gift from Orson, through the clouds,” he said early last year.

The Paris-born Legrand was active in all musical fields, composing classical works, stage musicals, arranging and recording albums, playing jazz piano and conducting orchestras in concert, as well as scoring for movies and television. He once said, “I’ve never settled on one musical discipline. I love playing, conducting, singing and writing, and in all styles.”

His approximately 150 scores include Jacques Demy’s 1964 classic “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” a landmark film in which all of the dialogue is sung and which is believed to mark the only instance in Oscar history in which a composer was nominated in all three music categories for the same film (best song, best original score, best musical adaptation). The songs “I Will Wait for You” and “Watch What Happens,” both of which became standards, emerged from the “Cherbourg” score.

Legrand earned 13 Oscar nominations in all. He won for the song “The Windmills of Your Mind” (1968), the score “Summer of ’42” (1971) and the song score for “Yentl” (1983). In addition to the three “Cherbourg” nominations, others included score nominations for “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort” (both 1968) and song nominations for “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” (1969), “Pieces of Dreams” (1970), “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” (1982) and two songs from “Yentl” that have also gone on to standard status: “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” and “The Way He Makes Me Feel.”

His best-known scores are from the 1960s and ’70s, including “Ice Station Zebra,” “The Go-Between,” “Le Mans,” “Lady Sings the Blues,” “The Three Musketeers,” Orson Welles’ “F for Fake” and “The Other Side of Midnight.” His 1980s scores included Louis Malle’s “Atlantic City,” the James Bond film “Never Say Never Again” and his sole film as writer-director as well as composer, 1989’s semi-autobiographical “Five Days in June.” In the 1990s he collaborated with trumpeter Miles Davis on the score for “Dingo” and with director Robert Altman on “Ready to Wear.”

“Cherbourg” was one of 10 films Legrand made with Demy. They began with “Lola” (1961) and “Bay of Angels” (1962) and went on to do the musicals “The Young Girls of Rochefort” and “Peau d’Ane” (1970) and other films including “Lady Oscar” (1979).

Legrand worked occasionally in television, earning Emmy nominations for his music for the telefilms “Brian’s Song” (1971) and “A Woman Called Golda” (1982). He scored a dozen more TV movies and miniseries in the ’70s and ’80s including “The Adventures of Don Quixote,” “Cage Without a Key,” “The Jesse Owens Story,” “Crossings” and the Richard Chamberlain version of “Casanova.”

His most famous work, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” was adapted into a stage musical in 1979 and received stagings in both New York and Paris. His other musicals included “Le Passe-Muraille” (1997) for the Paris stage which became the Tony-nominated “Amour” on Broadway (2002); and the West End production of “Marguerite” (2008). He also wrote a ballet, “Liliom” for the Hamburg Ballet in 2011, and an opera, “Dreyfus,” that debuted in Nice in 2014.

Legrand won five Grammy Awards, including Song of the Year in 1972 (“The Summer Knows” from “Summer of ’42”) with longtime collaborators, lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman. Legrand penned dozens of songs with the Bergmans, notably the songs for “Yentl” plus “Windmills,” “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” and “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?”

He won other Grammys for “Brian’s Song,” two for his 1975 jazz album “Images” and one for arranging a 1972 album with Sarah Vaughan. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1990 and received the Henry Mancini Lifetime Achievement Award from ASCAP in 1998. In 2016 he was named a commander in the Legion d’honneur, France’s highest honor.

Nearly every great singer of the last 60 years recorded Legrand songs, among them Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Ray Charles, Jack Jones, Lena Horne, Michael Jackson, Johnny Mathis, Ella Fitzgerald, Liza Minnelli, Sting, Neil Diamond and opera stars Jessye Norman and Kiri Te Kanawa.

Legrand himself was a prolific recording artist, releasing more than 100 albums in addition to his many movie soundtracks. His 1950s albums “I Love Paris,” “Holiday in Rome” and “Castles in Spain” were all top-10 hits in the U.S.

He was also widely acknowledged as a brilliant jazz pianist. His 1959 album “Legrand Jazz” featured such greats as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Ben Webster and Phil Woods, and he recorded later jazz albums with Stan Getz, Stephane Grappelli, Bud Shank, Oscar Peterson, Arturo Sandoval and other artists.

In recent years Legrand, while continuing to concertize, was writing new music for the concert hall, including concertos for piano, cello, harp and violin. He conducted major orchestras including the Pittsburgh Symphony, National Symphony of Washington, D.C., Boston Pops, Minnesota Orchestra and others.

Legrand was born Feb. 24, 1932, the son of popular French bandleader Raymond Legrand. A child prodigy, he entered the Paris Conservatory at the age of 11, emerging at 20 with top honors in composition. He also studied with the legendary Nadia Boulanger and later served as arranger and conductor for top French stars Maurice Chevalier and Edith Piaf.

He is survived by his third wife, Meril, whom he married in 2014; and four children. His sister Christiane, who was part of the Swingle Singers and sang in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” died in 2011.

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