The tangled legacy of Jacques Brel

He was the most popular French language singer ever, but an auction of his papers has exposed the acrimony left behind after his death

The 30th anniversary of the death of the greatest popular singer in the French language has generated an avalanche of tributes this week – and an unseemly legal row. Sotheby's Paris will today auction 94 objects which once belonged to the Belgian singer, song-writer and actor Jacques Brel, including a fountain pen, pipe, and manuscripts of his best-known songs.

The hand-written texts of classic Brel numbers, such as "Amsterdam" and "Mathilde", have been on display since Saturday at Sotheby's Paris auction house. The lyrics, scribbled in school exercise books, are jumbled with fascinating, corrections and second thoughts by Brel.

Fascinating – but also frustrating because, for legal reasons, the texts have been partially obscured by sheets of paper or photographs.

Sotheby's has been asked to sell the memorabilia on behalf of 30 nephews and nieces of Brel's deceased mistress, Sylvie Rivet. Brel's widow, Miche, and his three daughters, who lost a long legal battle to block the sale, own all the publication rights of his songs. They have declined permission to Sotheby's to display the manuscripts in full, either at the auction house or in the catalogue.

The singer's family has several times attempted to buy up the entire collection of 94 guitars, discs, photographs, posters and manuscripts. The massed ranks of nephews and nieces of Brel's mistress have refused to sell. They expect to make far more money – up to €500,000 (£390,000) – from the auction, the first ever held in France for the belongings of a popular singer.

"It's odious and mean," the singer's daughter, France Brel, said yesterday. "We have tried all kinds of ways to stop the sale."

Brel, who died 30 years ago tomorrow at the age of 49, would doubtless have found the row amusing – or possibly the subject for a song. Several of his best-known song-poems, delivered in his gritty, breathless, anxious voice, are satires on the material obsessions of the middle classes.

The refrain of one celebrated song, "Jojo", is: "Les bourgeois c'est comme les cochons. Plus ça devient vieux plus ca devient bête." (The bourgeois are like pigs. The older they get, the more stupid they become."

Apart from the manuscripts, the most telling lot in today's auction is a giant poster from a Brel appearance at the Carnegie Hall in New York in the 1960s.

Brel, who left Belgium as a young man to escape the disapproval of his wealthy, bourgeois family, is the most popular "dead" singer in the French language. He still sells more than 200,000 albums a year, significantly more than Edith Piaf. Many of his foreign fans – many of his French fans – assume he is French.

His wry, tortured songs were written not to be sung but to be performed. He delivered them with such pained and profound emotion that he, famously, ended each concert dripping with sweat.

The 30th anniversary of his early death, from cancer, has been marked in France and Belgium with a cascade of albums, books and television and radio programmes.

Brel left his family in 1960 and spent the next decade – the decade of his greatest success – living in a villa at Roquebrune Cap-Martin on the French Mediterranean coast with Sylvie Rivet, the former press officer of his record company. It was during this period that Brel wrote many of his best-loved songs, including "Amsterdam", "Mathilde", "Jacky" and "Les Bonbons".

Brel has often been described as a poet as well as a singer songwriter. On the evidence of the manuscripts in the Sotheby's auction, his songs did start as poems, written in cheap spiral-bound exercise books, and worked on again and again. The music was added later.

When Mme Rivet died six years ago, she left her collection of Brel possessions to her nephews and nieces. A first attempt to auction the collection was blocked in 2003 by Brel's wife and daughters, Chantal, France and Isabelle. They claimed – successfully at the time – that the memorabilia and manuscripts could not be sold separately from the copyright to Brel's work, which was left to his family.

Similar attempts to block the sale in recent weeks have failed.

"All that is going to be sold is bits of paper," France Brel, director of the family publishing company, Editions Brel, said yesterday. "They are manuscripts written by Jacques but nothing can be done with them, because we have the sole copyright."

She added: "Jacques lived for a few years with a woman whose first name was Sylvie, who always insisted that she had nothing belonging to him. When she died, with no children of her own, 30 nephews and nieces all wanted a slice of the cake."

The single most costly lot in today's auction is expected to be a large spiral notebook, containing the manuscript of the songs "Amsterdam", "les Timides", "Jacky", "Cheval" and "L'Age Idiot", written in 1964. This is predicted to fetch up to €70,000.

"Amsterdam", one of Brel's most celebrated songs, is a bleak anthem to the miserable lives of sailors and others in the grimy Dutch port, not the tourist-thronged streets of the picturesque city nearby. Brel said he wanted to create a "sea-song which resembled a Bruegel painting".

Love/hate relationship: Brel and Belgium

Belgium this week commemorates the 30th anniversary of the death of one of its few famous sons, but a new documentary exposes Jacques Brel's love-hate relationship with what he called " le plat pays" (the flat country). Brel could move audiences to tears with his heart-rending ode to the low skies and melancholy beauty of the Belgian landscape, while being booed off stage for his savage caricatures of Belgians in his lyrics.

Newly-released archive interviews for the film J'aime les Belges portray a man both obsessed by exposing the small-mindedness and the "nothingness" of his compatriots while also embracing their "madness". Born in French-speaking Brussels but raised by Flemish-speaking parents, Brel never fully felt at home in either language group – a sentiment increasingly echoed by many modern Belgians.

"We have been conquered by everyone, we speak neither pure French nor Dutch, we are nothing," Brel said in an interview in the 1970s.

"He went from hero to outcast for a while after he released 'Les Flamandes'," says France Brel, his daughter and the director of the documentary, referring to a song that depicts Flemish women as immodest, coarse and full-figured.

Vanessa Mock

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
voicesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmWhat makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes hobby look 'dysfunctional'
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 6 Teacher required - Cardiff

£100 - £110 per day + Travel Scheme and Free Professional Training: Randstad E...

HR Advisor - Camden / Kentish Town, North London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - Camden / Ken...

Year 5 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Year 5 class teacher vacan...

SEN Learning Support Assistant

£50 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an SEN Learning Supp...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week