Anna Marly

'Troubadour of the Resistance'
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The Independent Online

Anna Betoulinsky (Anna Marly), singer, songwriter and composer: born Petrograd, Russia 30 October 1917; married 1939 Baron van Doorn (marriage dissolved), 1947 George Smiernow (died 2000); died Lazy Mountain, Alaska 15 February 2006.

Anna Marly, the "Troubadour of the Resistance", wrote more than 300 songs, but is best known for her "The Song of the Partisans", composed in London during the Second World War.

"Like so many others," Marly recalled in a 1998 interview, "I had fled Paris when the Nazis occupied the city. In London, I was eagerly following the progress of the war by reading newspapers. One day I read about the partisans in the former Soviet Union where I was born. I was so impressed by how the Russians were defending their country against the onslaught of the German army."

She then picked up her guitar, she told The Daily Star newspaper in New York State where she then lived, and wrote "The March of the Partisans": "I sang this song at a private party one night and everyone was just astonished and moved. It was just what the French needed to encourage them to resist the enemy that was occupying their country."

"The March of the Partisans" became "Guerilla Song" (for the BBC) and then "The Song of the Partisans".

Anna Marly was born Anna Betoulinsky in Petrograd (St Petersburg) in 1917. Her mother was a radiant Greek beauty, her father one of those Russian aristocrats murdered by the Bolsheviks. She and her mother and baby sister escaped to the very select Russian colony established in Menton.

She showed early artistic and musical talent, and her gifts were encouraged in that kindly environment that recalls still the early novels of Vladimir Nabokov. At the age of 13 she was presented with a guitar, which she learnt to play with feeling and invention. She was taught by Prokofiev. By 16, she was dancing in the Ballets Russes in Paris. In 1935, as Anna Marly, she appeared in the celebrated Parisian nightspot Shéhérazade, the paradise of the European jeunesse dorée.

With the outbreak of war, however, she and her new husband, a Dutch aristocrat, became refugees, and in 1941, via Spain and Portugal, they made their way to London. It was the Russian word partisanski in a report of the German attack on Smolensk which inspired her to write a song based on the word's attractive rhythm, creating a sombre, haunted elegy with the rhythm of a slow funeral march.

"The March of the Partisans" has an unusual metrical form, in lines of 11 syllables with a three-syllable "cadence" at the end of each verse. As "Guerilla Song", it became a hit on BBC radio. The English words were provided by Louba Krassine, daughter of the Russian ambassador in London, at whose house it was sung for the first time by Marly to her guitar accompaniment. It was all a thoroughly Russian work of art, in spirit and in inspiration.

However, the novelists Joseph Kessel and Maurice Druon, both exiled in London and enraptured by the song, declared that it must at once be translated into French for the French resistance radio. Apparently many people had a hand in the affair - none of them practising poets, but all dominated by the fixed ideas of Druon, who later claimed he was the sole author of the French text.

At the time, Anna Marly mildly complained that nothing of her own original version remained except the word corbeaux ("crows" - a metaphor for Nazi bomber planes) in the phrase "Friends, do you not hear the dark flight of the crows across the plain . . .?" This image is further expanded in her text:

From one forest to another, the road follows a precipice.
High, high above, the crescent moon hurriedly passes.
We shall go down there where the crows never fly
And the Beast can discover no passage . . .

"Le Chant des Partisans", as it now was, became, in all its inaccuracy, the signature tune of the Free French Radio in London.

At the same time, Marly also wrote "La Complainte d'un Partisan" with words by her friend Emmanuel d'Astier de Vigérie, a song later made internationally famous (as "The Partisan") by Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen. But somehow her first "Partisan" song - soon well known on both sides of the Channel as "Le Chant de la Libération" - seems to have been stolen from her by time, though it was often re-recorded, notably by Germaine Sablon (1945) and Yves Montand (1955). Claude Berri's 1997 thriller Lucie Aubrac, meanwhile, about underground resistance in Lyons, uses "Le Chant des Partisans" as its ominous background music.

Anna Marly moved with her second, Russian, husband to Argentina, and then the United States, writing an autobiography, Mémoires, published in 2000. After his death that year she settled in Alaska.

In the 2000 Paris celebrations honouring the memory and execution of Jean Moulin, on the 60th anniversary of General Charles de Gaulle's 18 June rallying call to all the French, Marly, still of a Russian sprightliness at the age of 83, sang "Le Chant des Partisans" with an undefeated voice, accompanied by the massed choirs of the French army.

James Kirkup

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