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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Suite dreams: the JW Marriott in Venice
travelChic new hotels in 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect