Jacques Brel

From Academic Kids

Jacques Brel (April 8, 1929October 9, 1978) was a Belgian French-speaking author-composer with such strong power of expression in his lyrics that many consider him a poet as well. Remembered in the anglophone world for the translations of his songs, he is also remembered in French-speaking countries as an actor and director. In 1969 he took the lead role in Mon oncle Benjamin. Le Far West, a comedy which he directed, co-wrote and appeared in, was nominated for a Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973.



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

In the early 1950s he relocated to Paris, writing music and singing in the city cabarets and music-halls, where on stage he delivered his songs with grand physical gestures. 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.

His themes are extremely diverse, exploring love (Je t'aime, Litanies pour un retour, Dulcinéa), 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 (Les bonbons, Le lion, Comment tuer l'amant de sa femme...) as in heart-breaking 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. He was a master poet. 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 of common use.

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' and 'Jacki', 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 and Les bourgeois (since his own command of the language was poor, these were translated by Ernst van Altena, renowned translator of French song).

His attitude towards the Flemish seemed contradictory: at times 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 anger at the flamingants (supporters of the Flemish movement). 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 as "Nazis durant les guerres et catholiques entre elles" ("Nazis during the wars and catholics in between"). Apparently to Brel all flamingants were far-right extremists (similar to the later Vlaams Blok). See this article (http://dossiers.lesoir.be/brel/brussel/A_03AF02.asp) (in French) from the Belgian paper Le Soir for further discussion.

Although France was Brel's "spiritual nation" and he expressed contradictory statements about his native Belgium, many overlook this matter as 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 appeared in the musical l'homme de la Mancha (Man of La Mancha) which he also directed, and appeared in films, though his film performances are not thought to be of quite the same caliber as his musical performances. 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.

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.

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris was an American musical revue of the art of Jacques Brel which has played around the world for years. Including definitive rhyming translations of his work into English, it was put together by Brel's friend Mort Shuman and debuted in 1968. The work is performed by two men and two women (originally Elly Stone, Mort Shuman, Shawn Elliott, and Alice Whitfield). In 1974, a movie of the show was made, featuring the original cast [1] (http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0121411/).

English translations of his songs have been recorded by David Bowie, Scott Walker, Terry Jacks, Alex Harvey, Jack Lukeman, Marc Almond, The Paper Chase and The Dresden Dolls.


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 16CD 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.

Studio albums

Live albums



As director

As actor

  • La Grande Peur de Monsieur Clément (dir Paul Diebens) (1956)
  • Les Risques du Métier (dir André Cayatte) (1967)
  • Mon Oncle Benjamin (dir Edouard Molinaro) (1969)
  • La Bande à Bonnot (dir Philippe Fourastié) (1969)
  • Les Assassins de l'Ordre (dir Marcel Carné) (1971)
  • Mont-Dragon (dir Jean Valère) (1971)
  • Franz (dir Jacques Brel) (1971)
  • L'Aventure, c'est l'Aventure (dir Claude Lelouch) (1972)
  • Le Bar de la Fourche (dir Alain Levent) (1972)
  • Le Far West (dir Jacques Brel) (1973)
  • L'Emmerdeur (dir Edouard Molinaro) (1973)

External links

de:Jacques Brel eo:Jacques BREL fr:Jacques Brel he:ז'ק ברל nl:Jacques Brel pl:Jacques Brel ru:Брель, Жак sv:Jacques Brel


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