Book Review: La Vie en Rose: the singers and the songs of 20th century Paris by Pierre Delanoe

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It's hard to define precisely what constitutes the appeal of the French chanson , or what it is that distinguishes the style of singing made famous by such alluring and flamboyant chansonniers as Edith Piaf, Yves Montand, Maurice Chevalier, Georges Brassens, Charles Trenet and Jacques Brel. Why should so many of their songs - "La Mer", "La Vie en Rose", Montand's rendition of "Les Feuilles Mortes", Brel's "Quand on n'a que l'amour", for instance - continue to be sold and sung long after they were first released?

What are the common ingredients of these songs? Is it their poetic content? Expression of love in its myriad manifestations? The douceur de vivre so many of them impart? The idealised, eternal Paris evoked in songs such as "Pigalle", "Sous le ciel de Paris" or "Saint-Germain-des-Pres"?

All of these, yet perhaps the real clue to the endurance of the chansonnier tradition lies in the flexibility of the French language itself: its ability to embrace philosophic abstraction on the one hand and nostalgic sensuality on the other. It is a particular synthesis of text, music and interpretation that owes much to the style and influence of Aristide Bruant, Mistinguette and the cafe-concert, and which dates back through Revolutionary anthems such as the "Marseillaise" and "Ca ira" to its roots in the troubadour and trouvere songs of the 12th and 13th centuries.

Not all of these singers export well. While Brel, Piaf, Chevalier and Trenet have all had admirers outside France, others - such as the politically engage, anarchic poetes maudits, Leo Ferre and Jean Ferrat, the former Comedie Francaise actor Serge Reggiani, or the inimitable and wonderful Georges Brassens - have never really found a market outside the francophone world.

The author of this book has written the lyrics for many a well-known song (such as Gilbert Becaud's "Et maintenant") and is ideally placed to explore the mystique of the chanson. His text, however, is hurried, full of platitudes and often translates into English with unintentionally bizarre humour, for example: "Prosper is another gay blade, after his guttersnipe fashion!"

The book is an example of what is known in the trade as an "integrated" or "packaged" book, intended for the "co-edition" market: a product that it is usually stylishly (though in this case, garishly) designed and in which the text is generally subsidiary to the illustrations, to which it serves as extended captions. There are 250 such illustrations included here, mostly photographs of the artistes in performance. On the other hand, it is thanks to the economies achieved in this way that the "package" - CD included - constitutes such good value.

Thames & Hudson, pounds 19.50 including CD

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