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Obituary: Catherine Sauvage

"SHE bites her public" was George Brassens' early tribute to the mordant talent of a great chanson singer, Catherine Sauvage. She preferred to be known not as a chanteuse (with its overtones of British music-hall comic parlance "shantoose") but as an interprete - which for her meant much more than mere "interpreter".

This was a professional title she well deserved, for she did not just sing the words of her lyrics, she injected them with a special personal force and bathed them in a halo of private emotional reference that made even the most familiar refrains resound with a new magic. She learnt this interpretative technique from American masters of the art like Anita O'Day, Mel Torme and Ella Fitzgerald. Her only real rival in post-war Paris was the sublime Juliette Greco.

Sauvage respected words - and what words! She did not choose just any old lyric. She used the best songs of real poets - Louis Aragon, Bertolt Brecht, Jacques Prevert, Lorca, Laforgue, Robert Desnos, Audiberti and Serge Gainsbourg, whom she discovered. Nor did she neglect those of the past - Villon, Jarry, Hugo, Baudelaire, Nerval. She possessed impeccable literary taste. It was a refreshment to the soul sick of monotonous repetitious pop and rap to hear her singing her heart out with those great masters of the singing word.

Her unique range of voice could also thrill with a sudden harsh, metallic, scornful intonation or with a velvety gravity that signalled her fine intelligence, reassuring yet untamed - Brassens also compared her to a prowling panther, or to a waif in black, with short-cropped hair, whose pleading hands begged for the coins of our comprehension, gladly given. "True anger, just rage have always been expressed best in fighting songs - how could Catherine Sauvage have won this profound knowledge of unleashed anger?" wrote Marguerite Duras after first hearing her sing in Saint- Germain-des-Pres.

This revolutionary of the true chanson (that is always a cry of protest against imbecile life) came of a respectable and cultivated family in Nancy who during the occupation moved south to Annecy. Here Sauvage acted and sang in her lycee's theatrical productions.

It was a terrible, tragic, pitiless time, during which many of her friends and teachers were arrested, tortured and murdered by the Nazis. At the Liberation, those who eventually managed to return from the concentration camps left indelible impressions upon Sauvage, the roots of her future protests.

It was in Lausanne that she cut her first tracks, before setting out with them to Paris and the night-clubs of Saint-Germain-des-Pres. Her startlingly aggressive repertoire at that period of wild hedonism at once set her apart with revolutionary songs like Aragon's "Han Coolie". Her love songs were always so sad, and her luminous brown eyes would fill with the pain of unshed tears as she sang the one song she took from Georges Brassens, "Il n'y a pas d'amour heureux" ("There is no happy love . . .") with a superb text by Aragon, who told her: "Your voice is the voice of your eyes."

Edith Piaf kept a wary eye on her as a rising rival, and attempted to advise her to adopt another, less threatening tack, but Sauvage rejected her advances, declaring: "She helps men, not women - with whom it is another story . . . And then the things she sings - I could never perform that kind of lyric, all about dyeing my hair blond if you asked me to . . ." And: "Piaf is a singer of her own kind of reality in three verses - I meet him, I love him, he leaves me. Nothing at all to do with my kind of song."

In fact, Sauvage's intelligence and wide culture made her prefer the company of painters, writers and actors, one of whom, Pierre Brasseur, became her companion until his death in 1972.

However, it was another singer, also an "interpreter" of songs, the great Leo Ferre, who was to have the most decisive influence on Sauvage's career. She worked with him in cabaret and took on several of his best militant anarchising songs, making a fine punchy hit in 1953 with his "Paris Canaille" ("Scum of Paris"), a violent and funny song Ferre could not do full justice to himself.

Sauvage not only gave fierce, vibrant conviction to Ferre's songs like "Y en a marre" ("Fed Up to the Back Teeth"). She also supported his anarchist stance. She would later remark, when Ferre died: "When they all started raving about Dylan, Joan Baez and `the protest song' we had to laugh . . ."

She always remained far to the left, and defiantly non- cooperative with official sources. She was banned by French radio and television for having signed the Manifesto of 121 intellectuals against war in Algeria. She performed Boris Vian's adaptation of Brecht's Nana's Lied and other Brecht-Weil classics.

In 1968, during the summer of student rebellions, she supported their struggles singing for them at the Bobino. Her interpretations of The Threepenny Opera songs were deliciously, diabolically wicked. Her devotion to Brecht led her to act in his Caucasian Chalk Circle (1966-67) and Mother Courage (1969).

Another progressive playwright she admired, Friedrich Durrenmatt, cast her in his musical satire Frank Cinq (Frank the Fifth). I saw this performance, and some years later was asked by Durrenmatt to translate the play into English. It had only one production in Britain, at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff - an ignominious flop. We had no equal to Catherine Sauvage.

She was taken up again by the ORTF in their radio "trial club" emissions in which she sang many of her own musical settings of contemporary and classical poetry. She was the first singer to record Leo Ferre's last heart-breaking success, "Avec le temps" in 1970. In 1974, she made Chants et poemes de la Resistance with Sylvia Monfort and Marcel Mouloudji. But she gradually retired from the public scene, her intelligence and beauty swept away by wave after wave of senseless musical junk and what the French still call "le yeye" - fake Beatling.

With accompanists like Darry Cowl, Jacques Loussier and the great Michel Legrand, she made records that won the Prix du Disque in 1954, 1958 and 1961. She cut what she thought be her final disc in 1992, an anthology of her favourite Prevert numbers. But in 1997, she made a double CD, Catherine Sauvage chante les poetes, which gives the essence of her style and her fine artistry. It tells us how she changed the whole art of the French chanson.

James Kirkup

Jeannine Saunier (Catherine Sauvage), singer and actress: born Nancy, France 29 March 1929; died Bry-sur-Marne, France 20 March 1998.