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Obituary: Barbara

Monique Serf (Barbara), singer and songwriter: born Paris 9 June 1930; died Paris (Neuilly) 25 November 1997.

She would start her first number sitting at a sinfully black grand piano. Arrayed all in black, with dead white face and hands, she attacked her first number, her left hand implacably hammering out the strange harmonies of the bass. Then a little-girl voice, barely audible, began to drift through the enigmatic lyric she had composed only for herself, and for her voice alone. For the second verse, accompanied by accordion, guitar or Didier Lockwood's violin, she would rise from her lakeside of keys and it was like a wraith from Giselle lingering over her mystic tomb, Gothic, romantic.

Barbara possessed remarkable breath control, for her voice seemed to float on a minimum of the air required by mortal men, and her lips hardly moved. Unless one knew the text by heart, as all the fans did, it was often difficult to catch the words: one sometimes felt, as when listening to the relentless mutterings of Francoise Sagan, that one needed a decoder.

But Barbara had been trained at the Conservatoire de Paris, where she had won two prizes for classical singing, and she could also declaim her words with true dramatic force and vocal power, as at the end of certain songs, when she would throw up her left arm, contorting it like a boa constrictor, then flinging back her head to expose a defenceless throat above which a square jaw supported the tireless mask of her exhaustion.

Despite her excellent training, Barbara found it difficult to get work. Perhaps in that post-war period people were looking for someone to make them forget the dark past, not to remind them of sadness, loneliness, heartbreak and death. So she was practically unknown for 15 years; working in a murky Brussels night-club before making obscure beginnings as "La Chanteuse de Minuit". She stayed there five years (1958-63) singing Brassens, Ferre, Brel, Ferrat, then the fin-de-siecle favourites whose sinister humour suited her style.

One of the composers of that period had been British, the bilingual Harry Fragson, a great favourite of the cafe concert, who wrote some famous chansons including the immortal "Reviens". Barbara was also attracted to the ditties of Leon Xanrof, who composed the equally immortal songs of Yvette Guibert, "Madame Arthur" and "Le Fiacre", as well as the more sentimental "Reve de Valse", all neatly interpreted by Barbara, though Guibert had been a diseuse rather than a chanteuse.

Barbara had begun trying her own hand at composition, and in 1963 gave a recital that revealed her to a much wider public, singing "Dis, quand viendras-tu?", "Chapeau bas" and "Le Temps du Lilas". She made her first appearances at the old Bobino and at that great shrine of the chanson (recently reopened after tactful refurbishing), the Olympia. She produced one of her most truly popular songs, "Ma plus belle histoire d'amour, c'est vous" which she would address at the end of every concert to a delirious audience, enraptured by the parting thought that they and only they were the ones she really loved. She was irresistible, and President Francois Mitterrand himself adopted her as his favourite singer: he would invite her to the Elysee dinners to sing for his guests and arranged for her to receive the grand reward of Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur.

Mitterrand was a moderate socialist, but Barbara had more extreme left- wing tendencies, which endeared her to the French Communist leader Georges Marchais and the Communist newspaper L'Humanite. Barbara often made appearances with Colette Magny, Jean Ferrat and other left-wing entertainers, and she supported campaigns for victims of Aids, of child slavery, racism, sexism, harsh immigration laws. The titles of her songs became more and more ominous, and often included the colour black which she called "a festival of colour".

Dedicated fans discussed her tall, emaciated figure and well-cut robes, saying "Black suits her so well." She became known as "La Dame en Noir" and sang sombre chansons like "La Dame brune", "Le Mal de vivre", "Les Amours incestueuses". Two of her songs, "La Louve" ("The She-Wolf") and "L'Aigle Noir" ("The Black Eagle"), fitted her own appearance on stage.

Photographed full face she often looked ambisexual, but in profile she became, with her hawk-like nose and bold jaw-line, heavily made-up eyes glittering in that chalk-white mask, like a black eagle or a prowling beast of prey. Her love affairs were unhappy ("Mes Hommes") and the passions of a femme fatale in despair were reflected in many dark hymns like "Le Soleil noir" ("Black Sun") inspired by Gerard de Nerval's sonnet "El Desdichado" ("The Ill-Fated"):

My one star is dead - and my lute's constellations

Bear the black sun of Melancholia.

She slowly dropped out of sight, with only occasional returns to the stage - I saw her in 1987 at the Chatelet, her last full public appearance in Paris, all in black, the entire audience in tears after being cheered up a little by her "Petit Bois de Saint-Amant", based on a classic Bach theme and interspersed by perky little quotes from a nursery rhyme. She was most heart-breaking when she tried to smile and be gay.

"La Grande Dame de la Chanson" has bequeathed to us a treasury of records and albums. Sales of her last album, Barbara, recorded in 1996 between bouts of asthma, are approaching one million.