What put me in mind of this old classic by Michel LeGrand was a track on Adele’s latest album, “25.” Now, when I have some time, I will try to write a fair and comprehensive review of her album. For now, while I thought it had some good moments, her new songs are pretty much what I had expected from her – and I found the concept of a 25-year old writing songs of nostalgia such as “When We Were Young,” a bit odd. (I would have found it just as odd and unconvincing when I myself was 25 years old.)
Be that as it may, it was track #11, her song “Million Years Ago,” that most caught my attention. In that song she used a chord progression known as a falling 5th progression that seemingly has not been used in a ‘million years’ – or, more accurately, since the 1960’s. Basically this progression, which is most associated with the Baroque era, involves chords the roots of which descend by the interval of a fifth (e.g. E7-Am-D7-Gmaj7-Cmaj7). Now, this progression can descend into a kind of slushy romanticism when put into the song form, but I think that the best example of the use of this progression in a song is in LeGrand’s “Windmills of Your Mind.”
I will present what I consider to be the three best versions of this song on the internet.
- First, say what you like about her as a person or her leftist politics, but when it comes to music Barbra Streisand has solid interpretive skills and real taste.
Now, “Windmills of Your Mind” was written for the 1968 movie “The Thomas Crown Affair” which I can only describe as a cat and mouse game between an amoral man and woman in which the one who is slightly less amoral, the woman, loses. It’s a pretty depressing film in the end, but the song’s lyrics, originally written in French, have only a loose connection to the theme of the movie. English lyrics were written by the husband and wife lyricist team of Alan and Marilyn Bergman, who won an Oscar for best original song of 1969 for these lyrics. The English lyrics are not a translation but use some of the same imagery from the French lyrics which were written by LeGrand himself. As you can see, the French title was “Les Moulins de mon Coeur” (The Windmills of My Heart) and interestingly (and, perhaps, oddly) the original lyrics make reference to Norway, Saturn, and The Almighty (!) that did not make it into the English version.
- My second version is one recently recorded with the French lyrics, sung as a duet by the composer and operatic soprano Natalie Dessay:
While I enjoy this version very much, I feel that the way the two of them divide up the melodic line into increasingly smaller fragments (though, in one sense, musically very effective) slightly obscures one of the most important things about this song: the long-breathed nature of its melody. Basically, the A section consists of a seamless 14-measure phrase, while the bridge is a similarly seamless 16-measure phrase. However, the A and B sections are motivically connected, creating a ‘super-phrase’ as the melody spins its way out and actually reaches its melodic climax (on the word “footprints” in the English version) in the normally contrasting B section, after which the melody gradually descends, creating overall an arch-form. (This ‘super-phrase’ is also obscured by the space placed between the A and B sections in this version. It is much more evident in the Sinne Eeg version below.)
This process of “spinning out” (Fortspinnung) was a practice common in the Baroque and later eras whereby “musical material in symphonies and other works (is developed) as opposed to symmetrical repetition of that material.” But then again, what would you expect from a former student at the Paris Conservatoire?
What we are sorely lacking these days in popular music are such song writers with a connection to the classical music tradition. At best what we have now are earnest performers, guitars slung over their shoulders, whose best concept of ‘tradition’ is 1960’s soul music, writing songs. It’s all so insular.
- Finally, here is one last internet version which I can highly recommend. This by Sinne Eeg, an up-and-coming Danish lady jazz singer:
For some reason, this song seems to be very popular with foreign female singers. You can find it sung by women from Australia, Greece, and Scotland, as well as in Arabic, Greek, and German. The last is, to me, the most intriguing. I don’t know if it is the arrangement, her voice, or my psychological associations with the German language, but Bibi Johns’ version just sounds a touch . . . ummm . . . ‘disciplinary.’
There are versions by men as well, of course. The original version for the movie was sung by Noel Harrison, son of Rex Harrison, and Sting has done a version. Whatever you think of these versions my point is that, even in the case of less than convincing interpretations, there is a reason that so many people want to record this song which is nearing the 50-year mark.
It is very well written.