Jacques Brel



Jacques Brel (April 8, 1929 – October 9, 1978) was a respected Belgian French-speaking singer and author-composer, considered by many as a poet as well, given the power of his lyrics. Known in the anglophone world for the translations of his songs, he is also remembered in French-speaking countries as an actor and director.

Brel was born in Schaarbeek, Belgium, a district of Brussels, but lived most 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 Brels spoke French, they were of Flemish descent, with some of the family originating from Zandvoorde, near Ieper. Brel's father was co-owner of a cardboard factory and Brel started his professional life at that firm, apparently destined to follow in his father's footsteps. He showed an interest in culture as well, having joined the Catholic-humanist youth organisation Franche Cordée, where he did some singing and acting. At Franche Cordée he met Thérèse Michielsen ('Miche'). They married in 1950.

In the early 1950s Brel achieved some minor success in Belgium singing self penned songs. A 78rpm record (La foire/Il y a) was released as a result. From 1954 Brel seriously pursued an international singing career. He quit his job and relocated to Paris, writing music and singing in the city's cabarets and music-halls, where on stage he delivered his songs with great physicality. 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 relocated to Brussels. He and his family led separate lives from then on. 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 to match his skill in fitting as much novelty and meaning in a sentence from a few words in common usage.

Brel also 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 levels of 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 'Jef', 'La chanson de Jacky' and 'Amsterdam' evaded easy sentimentality, and he was not shy about portraying the unsavoury side of this lifestyle.

He 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 (Rosa), Les Bourgeois (De Burgerij) and Les paumés du petit matin (De Nuttelozen van de Nacht). Since his own command of the language was poor, these were translated by Ernst van Altena, renowned translator of French song.

"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

His attitude towards the Flemish was marked by a love of Flanders and the Flemish countryside (as evidenced in songs like 'Le Plat Pays', 'Marieke', 'Une Ostendaise' and 'Mon Pere Disait'), but a marked dislike of Flemish nationalism: he declared himself Flemish and presented himself to the world as a Flemish singer, 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 Belgiens, 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" ("Nazis during the wars and Catholics in between"). 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.

As an actor he gained fame playing opposite Claude Jade in the film My uncle Benjamin.

He starred in the musical l'homme de la Mancha (Man of La Mancha) which he also translated and directed, and appeared in films, though his film performances are not thought to be of quite the same caliber as his musical performances. In 1969 he took the lead role 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.

For twenty years he was a major star gaining recognition beyond French audiences. In 1973 he retreated to French Polynesia, remaining there until 1977 when he returned to Paris and recorded his well-received final album.

A heavy smoker, Brel died of lung cancer and was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Atuona, Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia only a few yards away from painter Paul Gauguin.

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.

English translations of his songs have been recorded by many artists, including Joan Baez, Theodore Bikel, The Bolshoi, David Bowie, Scott Walker, The Divine Comedy, Terry Jacks, Alex Harvey, Jack Lukeman, Marc Almond, Momus, Neil Diamond, John Denver, The Paper Chase, Tom Robinson, Judy Collins, Frank Sinatra, Dusty Springfield, Shirley Horn, James Dean Bradfield, Yuri Buenaventura and The Dresden Dolls. Marlene Dietrich recorded "Ne Me Quitte Pas" in German (Bitte geh nicht fort). Overall, there have been noted translations of this standard in at least 15 different languages. Nina Simone, Natacha Atlas, and Sting recorded "Ne Me Quitte Pas" in French.

With the exception of the Eric Blau-Mort Shuman translations used in "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris," the English translations of Brel's songs often strip them of their brilliance and magical lyricism. For example, "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." Barb Jungr recorded a new English translation by Des de Moor as 'Don't Leave Me Now', which is much nearer to the original. Nevertheless it is Rod McKuen’s English translation that is most performed.

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

For the sake of conciseness and clarity, this discography is currently 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.

* In the comic strip Asterix, Brel is referenced in the original French version of the adventure Asterix in Belgium. When Asterix, Obelix and Chief Vitalstatistix walk through the flat Belgian landscape, the Belgian chieftain answers that "dans ce plat pays qui est le mien les seules montagnes sont des oppidums". ("in my flat country the only mountains we have are called 'oppidums'" (an 'oppidum' is Latin for village.) This is a reference to Brel's song "Le Plat Pays" (The Flat Country) in which he sings that in his flat country the only things as high as mountains are churches. In other languages this remark has not been translated in a way to reference Brel.

* In 2002, Brel Bar Restaurant opened in Ashton Lane in the West End of Glasgow. It offers Belgian food and drink, and some Jacques Brel memorabilia can be seen on the walls. Unfortunately, the sound of Brel is rarely heard.

* In 2005 Brel was voted to the 7th place of De Grootste Belg (Dutch for "The Greatest Belgian"), a Flemish television program on the VRT. In the same year he was considered the greatest Belgian by the audience of the Le plus grand belge (French for the "The Greatest Belgian"), a Walloon television show of the RTBF. In both programs the audience could vote by using the website, sending an SMS or using the telephone. In total several hundred thousands votes were cast.

* Brel was a pilot. He first got his Private Pilot Licence in 1964, bought a Gardian Horizon, later changed it for a Wassmer 40; and then stepped forward in 1969 by taking - successfully - his IFR qualification at Les Ailes flight school in Geneva, Switzerland. He pursued his formation until he was qualified copilot on Lear 25. During his late years in the Marquises (French Polynesia), he flew a small bimotor and served the population as a taxi-plane. Brel was also a sailor.

* One of the stations of the Brussels metro was named in his honour. Jacques Brel metro station on Line 1B.Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, with no Front-Cover Texts, and with no Back-Cover Texts.
Virtual Magic is a human knowledge database blog. Text Based On Information From Wikipedia, Under The GNU Free Documentation License. Copyright (c) 2007 Virtual Magic. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License".

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