Brel, Jacques (1929–1978)

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BREL, JACQUES (1929–1978)


Belgian singer-songwriter.

Jacques Brel was born on 8 April 1929 in Brussels, into a bourgeois family. After elementary school, he was enrolled in the renowned Saint-Louis School. He was not a stellar student, but he took advantage of that time to do theater. As a young Belgian Catholic, he spent his spare time with a mob of scouts who nicknamed him "Phoque hilarant" (hilarious seal).

In 1946, Brel joined the Franche Cordée, a mixed philanthropic movement of Catholic youth. He organized concerts and theatrical performances, which led him to discover his taste for singing in public. His future wife, Miche, was also a member of this group. They were married on 1 June 1950 and had three children: Chantal (1951), France (1953), and Isabelle (1958).

In 1953 Brel seriously considered leaving the family cardboard business. Passionate about music, he frequented such local Brussels clubs as Le Grenier de la Rose Noire (The attic of the black rose). Brel's first record was a 78 rpm with two tracks, "La foire" and "Il y a." It was thanks to this record that Brel met Jacques Canetti, the director of the Parisian cabaret Les Trois Baudets (The three donkeys). He encouraged Brel to start a career in Paris and offered him a recording contract with Philips. Brel became one of the noted singers at the "music haunts" of the Left Bank. Starting in 1956 he toured Europe and North Africa; in 1959 he starred at the Bobino theater in Paris. It was then that he wrote such great classics as: "La valse à mille temps" and "Ne me quitte pas." Tours and recitals around the world multiplied.

In 1966 Brel left the stage. He turned to movies (notably in 1967 with André Cayatte) and became a producer (Far West, 1972). He also produced many musical theater shows, such as L'homme de La Mancha (Man of la Mancha) attheThéâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels in 1968. In 1974 he set sail aboard his sailboat L'Askoy and settled down two years later on the island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia. He recorded his final record in 1977 and died the following year, on 9 October, of lung cancer.

Jacques Brel's lifework is both one of the best representations of French songwriting—along with that of Georges Braessens (1921–1981) or Jean Ferrat (b. 1930) and that of a poet with whom many generations could identify. His songs express the melancholy or enraged voice of the unloved: they are the echoes of a universe devoid of pleasure or grandeur, transcended by the lyricism of the artist. His accompaniment was often brilliant, and he mastered not only the language of tenderness ("Madeleine") but also the opposite ("Les flamingants"). In addition, it is essentially thanks to him that the accent and imagination of a French-speaking man from Brussels were heard on French stages.

See alsoPopular Culture.


Primary Sources

Brel, Jacques, and the Fondation internationale Jacques Brel. Tout Brel. Paris, 2001. Complete works.

Secondary Sources

Clouzet, Jean, and Angela Clouzet. Jacques Brel. Paris, 2003.

Todd, Olivier. Jacques Brel: Une Vie. Paris, 2003.

Vandromme, Pol. Jacques Brel: L'exil du Far West. Paris, 1998.

Paul Aron

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Brel, Jacques (1929–1978)

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