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

News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn