Jacques Brel

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Jacques Romain Georges Brel

Jacques Brel
Born 8 April 1929
Schaarbeek, Belgium
Died 9 October 1978 (aged 49)
Bobigny, France
Cause of death lung cancer
Resting place Calvary Cemetery, Atuona, Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands
Nationality Belgian (French speaking, of Flemish descent)
Religious beliefs Atheist (Lapsed Catholic)
Spouse(s) Thérèse Michielsen
Children Chantal Brel, France Brel, Isabelle Brel

Jacques Romain Georges Brel (pronounced [ʒak bʀɛl] in French) (8 April 1929 – 9 October 1978) was a Belgian singer-songwriter. The quality and style of his lyrics are highly regarded by many leading critics of popular music.

Brel's songs are not especially well known in the English-speaking world except in translation and through the interpretations of other singers, most famously Scott Walker and Judy Collins. Others who have sung his work in English include Marc Almond, Dave Van Ronk, Alex Harvey, David Bowie, Spencer Moody, Barb Jungr, Dusty Springfield, Ray Charles, The Dresden Dolls, Frank Sinatra, Terry Jacks, Nina Simone, Rod McKuen, The Kingston Trio, Gavin Friday, Jack Lukeman, Dax Riggs and Beirut. In French-speaking countries, Brel is also remembered as an actor and director. Jacques Brel has sold over 25 million records worldwide, including over 12 million albums and singles in France and Belgium[1].


[edit] Biography

Brel was born in Schaarbeek, Belgium, a district of Brussels, but lived half of his life in Paris. He died in Bobigny in the suburbs of Paris, of lung cancer, and is buried in the Marquesas Islands.

...in a man's life, there are two important dates : his birth and his death. Everything we do in between is not very important.
- Jacques Brel

Although the Brel family spoke French, they were of Flemish descent, with some of the family originating from Zandvoorde, near Ieper (Ypres in French/English). Brel's father was co-owner of a cardboard factory and Brel started his working life there, apparently destined to follow his father's footsteps. However, he had no interest in it and showed an interest in culture instead, joining the Catholic-humanist youth organisation Franche Cordée, where he sang and acted. At Franche Cordée he met Thérèse Michielsen ('Miche'). They married in 1950.

In the early 1950s Brel achieved minor success in Belgium singing his own songs. A 78rpm record (La foire/Il y a) was released as a result. From 1954 Brel pursued an international singing career. He quit his job and moved to Paris, where he stayed at the Hotel Stevens and gave guitar lessons to artist-dancer Francesco Frediani to pay for his rent. Francesco Frediani witnessed his first show at the Olympia as "ouverture de rideau" act (i.e. while the public was entering and being seated). Brel had to change behind the bar. Bruno Cocquatrix, the owner, invited him to come back. He carried on writing music and singing in the city's cabarets and music-halls, where on stage he delivered his songs with great energy. In January 1955 he supported in the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels the performances of the Belgian pop and variety pioneer Bobbejaan Schoepen. After some success his wife and daughters joined him from Belgium. By 1956 he was touring Europe and he recorded the song Quand on n'a que l'amour that brought him his first major recognition. He appeared in a show with Maurice Chevalier and Michel Legrand.

By the end of the 1950s Miche and Brel's three daughters had returned to Brussels. From then on he and his family led separate lives . Under the influence of his friend Georges Pasquier ('Jojo') and pianists Gérard Jouannest and Francois Rauber, Brel's style changed. He was no longer a Catholic-humanist troubadour, but sang grimmer songs about love, death, and the struggle that is life. The music became more complex and his themes more diverse, exploring love (Je t'aime, Litanies pour un Retour), society (Les Singes, Les Bourgeois, Jaurès), and spiritual concerns (Le Bon Dieu, Dites, Si c'était Vrai, Fernand). His work is not limited to one style. He was as proficient in funny compositions (Le Lion, Comment Tuer l'Amant de sa Femme...) as in more emotional ones (Voir un Ami Pleurer, Fils de..., Jojo).

Brel's acute perception made him an innovative and creative painter of daily life with rare poetic ease. His intelligent use of words was striking and simple, exhibiting a very visual and meaningful vocabulary. Few of his peers are considered as matching his skill in fitting as much novelty and meaning in a sentence from a few words in common usage.

Brel had a keen sense of metaphor, as in Je suis un soir d'été where the narrator is a summer's evening telling what he observes as he falls on a city. Although regarded a master with lyrics, his musical themes were of the first standard, and also here he was not limited to one style.

He composed both rhythmic, lively and captivating tunes (L'aventure, Rosa, Au printemps) as well as sad and solemn songs. (J'en appelle, Pourquoi faut-il que les hommes s'ennuient?)

Brel's romantic lyricism sometimes revealed darkness and bitter irony. At moments his tender love songs might show flashes of barely suppressed frustration and resentment. His insightful and compassionate portraits of the so-called dregs of society: the alcoholics, drifters, drug addicts, and prostitutes described in L’Ivrogne, Jef, La chanson de Jacky and Amsterdam evaded easy sentimentality, and he was not shy about portraying the unsavoury side of this lifestyle.

On stage, Brel gave additional dimensions to many of his songs, thanks to a strong theatrical sense and an apparently boundless energy. His recitals - his farewell performance at the Paris Olympia, in 1966, being particularly emblematic - were a unique combination of poetry, drama and popular music.

Brel composed and recorded his songs almost exclusively in French, and is widely recognized in French-speaking countries as one of the best French-language composers of all time.

But he occasionally included parts in Dutch as in "'Marieke", and also recorded Dutch versions of a few songs such as Le Plat Pays (Mijn vlakke land), Ne me quitte pas (Laat Me Niet Alleen), Rosa, Les Bourgeois (De Burgerij) and Les paumés du petit matin (De Nuttelozen van de Nacht). A rather obscure single was uncovered only a few years ago having Brel singing in Flemish De apen (Les singes) and Men vergeet niets (On n'oublie rien). These two were included in the 16 CD box Boîte à Bonbons. Since his own command of Dutch was poor, most of his later Dutch interpretations were translated by Ernst van Altena, but De Apen by Eric Franssen, Men vergeet niets by well known Flemish artist Will Ferdy and Marieke was translated by Brel himself.

He goes to the limit of his strength because, through his singing, he expresses his reason for living and each line hits you in the face and leaves you dazed.
- Edith Piaf

Brel's attitude towards the Flemish was marked by a love of Flanders and the Flemish countryside (as evidenced in songs such as 'Le Plat Pays', 'Marieke', 'Une Ostendaise' and 'Mon Père Disait'), but a marked dislike of the Flemish nationalists ("les Flamingants"). He declared himself Flemish and presented himself to the world as a Flemish singer (saying "moi je suis un Flamand" on French television), but he also mocked rustic Flemish life with the comic song Les Flamandes. Later in his career he directed his political anger at the Flamingants. From La, la, la (1967) are the words "Vive les Belges, merde pour les flamingants" ("Long live Belgians, shit for the flamingants"). In Les F... (1977) Brel portrays the flamingants, ignoring any sense of nuance, as "Nazis durant les guerres et catholiques entre elles, vous oscillez sans cesse du fusil au missel" ("Nazis during the wars and Catholics in between, you constantly swing from rifle to missal"). The Flemish were very insulted by this song. After a long debate it was banished from Flemish radio. France Brel, his daughter, has been quoted as saying, "he was very Flemish. He believed in discipline, hard work, he was always punctual. Our family is Flemish in character in many ways, Jacques was proud of his Flemish blood."

"If I were king," Brel himself once said, "I would send all the Flemings to Wallonia and all the Walloons to Flanders for six months. Like military service. They would live with a family and that would solve all our ethnic and linguistic problems very fast. Because everybody's tooth aches in the same way, everybody loves their mother, everybody loves or hates spinach. And those are the things that really count."

Although France was Brel's "spiritual home" and he expressed contradictory statements about his native Belgium, some of his best compositions pay tribute to Belgium, like Le Plat Pays or Il neige sur Liège.

He starred in the musical L'Homme de la Mancha (Man of La Mancha) which he also translated into French and directed. As an actor he gained fame playing opposite Lino Ventura in L'Emmerdeur. In 1969 he took the lead role opposite Claude Jade in Mon oncle Benjamin. Le Far West, a comedy which he directed, co-wrote and appeared in, competed for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973.

In 1973 he embarked in a yacht, planning to sail around the world. When he reached the Canary Islands, Brel, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer. He returned to Paris for treatment and later continued his ocean voyage.

In 1975 he reached the Marquesas Islands, and decided to stay, remaining there until 1977 when he returned to Paris and recorded his well-received final album. He died in 1978 at age 49 and was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Atuona, Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia, only a few yards away from painter Paul Gauguin.

[edit] Translations of his work

Brel songs have been recorded by hundreds—if not thousands—of musicians.

English versions of his songs have been recorded by a huge variety of artists too, most frequently using the translations by Mort Shuman and Eric Blau. Rod McKuen was one of the first American artists to discover and translate Brel. Canadian Terry Jacks' version of "Seasons in the Sun" became a global pop hit in 1974, topping the charts internationally.

However, his most frequently recorded song is "Ne me quitte pas" ("Don't Leave Me"), usually rather freely translated in English as "If You Go Away". Overall, there have been at least 400 different recorded versions of this standard in at least 22 different languages. Marlene Dietrich recorded "Ne me quitte pas" in German ("Bitte geh' nicht fort"). Mireille Mathieu, Nana Mouskouri, Nina Simone, Natacha Atlas, Karrin Allyson, and Sting recorded "Ne me quitte pas" in French. Paris-based Colombian salsa singer Yuri Buenaventura performed versions of "Ne me quitte pas" in both French and Spanish ("No Me Dejes Mas").

English translations of Brel's songs, in particular also "Ne me quitte pas" translations, have been subject to criticism and are regarded by some as being stripped of their original brilliance and magical lyricism.[original research?] For example, Brel's "Ne me quitte pas" evocatively states, "Moi, je t'offrirai / Des perles de pluie / Venues de pays / Où il ne pleut pas" [As for me, I'll offer you pearls of rain that come from a country where rain never falls]. However, Rod McKuen’s English translation replaces that imagery with "But if you stay / I'll make you a day / Like no day has been / or will be again."

In 1986 Momus and more recently Barb Jungr recorded new English translations of "Ne me quitte pas" which are much nearer to the original. Jungr used a translation called "Don't leave me now" by Des de Moor. Momus translated and recorded "Don't Leave" beause he felt "Mc Kuen's version was highly sentimentalised and Shuman's translation really Americanised" [2]. Nevertheless it is Rod McKuen’s English translation that is most performed.

Other examples of critique include songs like "Jef", as translated by Mort Shuman and Eric Blau, bearing little resemblance to the original. Terry Jacks intended to "lighten up" "Seasons in the Sun" and thereby completely removed the cynical gist of Brel's "Le Moribond", which perhaps explains why this version became such a global pop hit in 1974.

Translations to other languages, e.g. German, have also come in for much criticism. However, Ernst van Altena's Dutch early translations, partly done in cooperation with Brel himself, are generally considered to be relatively true to the original as well as poetic.

Brel's widow said that Arnold Johnston, a professor at Western Michigan University, translated Brel's work more accurately than Blau and Shuman, and eventually gave Dr. Johnston exclusive rights to translate Brel's work into English. Dr. Johnston recorded I'm Here! a collection of twenty songs, using a grant from the university.

An American musical revue of his songs, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which debuted in 1968, has played around the world since. The opening song of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is "Les Flamandes", translated by Shuman and Blau as "Marathon", which is a charming encapsulation of the United States in the 20th century (mentioning, among others, Charles Lindbergh and Sacco and Vanzetti) but it bears no relationship to the original French lyrics of the song, a tongue-in-cheek assessment of the Flemish.

Scott Walker's first three solo albums, titled Scott, Scott 2, and Scott 3, each contain three of the Blau/Shuman translations. Several of the original songs on this album, and on the later Scott 4, can be seen as heavily influenced by Brel.

David Bowie sang Brel's "Amsterdam" at a BBC session with John Peel (not released until 2000 on Bowie at the Beeb) (Dave Van Ronk also recorded this song, earlier, on Van Ronk). Bowie also sang a translation of Brel's called "My Death", during his Ziggy Stardust era. A very popular number on his concerts, it was never recorded in studio, even though it appears on two live albums: Live Santa Monica '72 and Ziggy Stardust - The Motion Picture.

Marc Almond already from his early albums with Marc and the Mambas onwards performed Brel songs, and he released his successful "Jacques" album containing solely Brel songs in 1989. Almond nearly always plays at least one Brel song during live concerts.

Notable faithful German translations have been made by Didier Caesar of the duo Stéphane & Didier. Dieter Kaiser, a Belgian-German singer, who performs internationally in public concerts with the French-German professional guitarist, Stéphane Bazire, as Stéphane & Didier, has translated 27 of Brel's songs and has gathered them in a booklet. He also issued 1 CD in German and 1 in French with various chansons of Brel. Klaus Hoffmannis another important German interpreter of Brel. Also the Austrian actor Michael Heltau, who was asked by Brel himself to record his songs, using the translation of Werner Schneyder.

[edit] Discography

Assembling a comprehensive Jacques Brel discography is difficult, because his recordings have been released in so many different permutations, in different countries and different formats. Furthermore, releases of Brel's recordings are sometimes known by different titles.

This discography is restricted to Brel's original albums, as collected and reissued on 23 September 2003 in the sixteen CD box set of his work Boîte à Bonbons; plus the additional album Chansons ou Versions Inédites de Jeunesse, which was released for the first time as part of this box set. The titles ascribed to each album are the titles used in the box set.

[edit] Studio albums

[edit] Live albums

[edit] Rarities

  • Chansons ou Versions Inédites de Jeunesse (2003)
  • Bonjour Brel - Paul Ide 1975 - songs of J.Brel illustrated by Folon,Carcan,Landuyt,Mara,Rondas et Somville- Letters of André Delvaux,Arthur Gélin.Editions de la Palme,Bruxelles.

[edit] See also

[edit] Filmography

[edit] As director

[edit] As actor

[edit] Appears in

  • Stellet Licht/Silent Light (dir Carlos Reygadas) (2007)

[edit] References

[edit] External links

NAME Brel, Jacques Romain Georges
SHORT DESCRIPTION A Belgian singer-songwriter
DATE OF BIRTH 8 April 1929
PLACE OF BIRTH Schaarbeek, Belgium
DATE OF DEATH 9 October 1978 (aged 49)
PLACE OF DEATH Bobigny, France

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