Obituary: Leo Ferre

James Kirkup
Sunday 18 July 1993 23:02

Leo Ferre, composer, poet and singer: born Monte Carlo 24 August 1916; married (one son, two daughters); died Castellina vi Chianti, Tuscany 14 July 1993.

IT WAS just another of life's little ironies that Leo Ferre, France's favourite amateur anarchist, should have died on that country's national day, 14 July. Perhaps that is why his family kept the news a secret until the early hours of Saturday. It would have been incongruous to announce such a passing amid the pomp and circumstance of military parades and patriotic fanfares, when President Mitterrand was giving the Legion d'Honneur and the ceremonial accolade to General Morillon on his return from an ethnic conflict that Ferre, the pacifist chansonnier and political rebel, had vehemently denounced.

For this flamboyant follower of Kropotkin acknowledged the authority of no government, whether sacred or secular. Ferre had ardently supported the anarchists' struggle against Franco in the Spanish Civil War and had composed immortal songs of passionate protest that are today among the most beloved classics in the art of the chanson. Ferre's name is forever enshrined in that musical pantheon (and in another sanctuary of celebrity, Le Petit Larousse en couleurs) as the lyric equal of Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens, Yves Montand and Edith Piaf.

Like many rebels, Ferre came of a highly respectable bourgeois family. His father was the director of personnel at the Casino in Monte Carlo, and his mother was a native Monegasque. Leo was given a strict Christian upbringing at the Ecole des Freres des Ecoles Chretiennes, and at the College Saint-Charles in Bordighera. Already insubordinate, he ran away and took his baccalaureat in Rome, after which he enrolled in the Faculty of Law in Paris, and later in the Ecole Libre de Sciences Politiques. He embraced enthusiastically the intellectual life of Paris.

But he had long since become fascinated by music. As a child he had taught himself in secret to play the piano, and by the time he arrived in Paris he had begun composing songs. His professional musical career began as an announcer and pianist at Radio Monte Carlo. There he had his first broadcast successes in songs like 'La Chambre', 'L'Inconnue de Londres' and 'La Chanson du scaphandrier' ('The Deepsea Diver's Son').

In all, Ferre was to compose and interpret more than 350 songs, for most of which he was also the lyric-writer or parolier. Even more important, in my view, were his deeply sympathetic settings of great poems by Villon, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Apollinaire and Aragon. His instinctive feeling of brotherhood with these outcast poets and their universal language of love, death and despair was only equalled by the extraordinary power of his settings and the splendour of his interpretations.

During the Second World War, he married and returned to Monaco for the duration. But with the Liberation, he was back in Paris, where he made his debut as a singer at cabarets frequented by Jean Cocteau, Andre Breton and the Surrealists: Le Boeuf sur le toit, Quolibet, Assassins and the apache dives of the Rue de Lappe in Montmartre. It was in such surroundings that he met important influences in his musical and emotional life - Louis Aragon and his wife Elsa Triolet, Jacques Prevert, the composer Joseph Kosma, Helene Martin, who set to music and sang the noble, anguished verses of Jean Genet's Le Condamne a mort, and above all Juliette Greco. In a long interview on television she described how Ferre cast a potent musical and sexual spell over his listeners, the way he seemed to bring his breath from the very depths of his being, his dramatic shifts of tone from searing anarchist contempt for society, the church, the armed forces and the hypocrisy of government to tender, frank love songs. Ferre presented Greco with two songs that she made famous - his 'Jolie mome' and 'Paris canaille'. It was Ferre's anarchist black shirts and trousers that made her adopt permanently her own sombre garb.

Once or twice I watched Ferre performing on television, and he was a remarkably telegenic subject, especially in later years, when he presented a symphony in black and white - black clothes, white face, black eyes and eyebrows and that permanently combative mane of white hair that at times, in profile, gave him a strange resemblance to the Abbe Liszt (though without all those alarming warts). In the Seventies and Eighties that I saw him live, at the Bobino in Montparnasse and the Dejazet at Place de la Republique, where he appeared in 1986 to great acclaim.

One really had to see him on stage in order to appreciate to the full the incredible radiance of his soul, his powerful personality putting over often controversial songs and non-conformist ideas with implacable ferocity. There was bravura in his wide-legged stance, his defiant head, his harsh and sometimes off-key notes suddenly cutting through a simple, limpid melody. And when he sang his signature tune, 'Avec le temps . . . tout s'en va . . .' ('With time, it all goes, goes away'), he too would slowly go away, leave the stage and his spellbound audience reduced to utter silence, and often in tears. Ferre's lyrics were full of simple words, usually quite 'unpoetic'. Yet they became poetry in his performances. Popular songs often have this innocent poetic quality, uninsistent, modest, yet capable of stirring our emotions in a way that only the greatest poets can do. Ferre, like all good poets, wrote for his own voice, and he loved words as much as music, so the final effect of his singing was magical in its unforced intensity. Yet it was in his settings of great literature that he moved me most. Few popular singers have ever had that power to make a fundamentally non-literary audience hang on every word of a poem by Baudelaire or Rimbaud or Apollinaire, so that at the end of the show they went straight to bookshops instead of to


Ferre seemed to add another dimension to Villon when he performed his Testament phonographe, and to Verlaine and Rimbaud as can be heard on the disc in which Ferre celebrates the curious passion that bound those two poets together for a while. I have heard Francisco Montaner transforming the stanzas of Lorca in the same way, and Mikis Theodorakis bringing new insights into the poems of Odysseus Elytis and Yannis Ritsos. In Britain, the only comparable feat I can think of is that of the divine Cleo Laine and her songs from Shakespeare. But other Europeans seem to have an inborn understanding of their countries' poetic heritage, and respond when it is set to music as Ferre did.

Ferre was a poet in his own right, and is the only contemporary poet represented with two volumes in the Pierre Seghers series Poetes d'aujourd'hui which contains all the greatest names. Ferre published several books: Poete - vos papiers] in two volumes from Gallimard along with two collections for children. He published a large selection of his poems, Testament phonographe, in Italy, where he made his home after becoming disillusioned with France. And Dominique Lacout wrote a splendid biography of him in 1991.

When Leo Ferre's death was finally announced, French radio and all the television channels began running interviews and old programmes. Songs like 'Ni Dieu ni Maitre' ('Neither God nor Master'), 'La Damnation', 'La Solitude' and many of his settings of the great poets came pouring out of the radio and television stations, until it began to feel like a day of national mourning such as France has not known since the death of Yves Montand. And always, that haunting tune to a haunting lyric:

With time . . . it all goes . . . goes away . . .

And you feel white-haired like a broken old horse

And you feel frozen in some chance resting-place.

Untranslatable. Yet unforgettable. Fortunately, the CD catalogues carry pages of his discs, so that unique voice and that proud mind will always be here, accompanying us on life's way. In Monte Carlo, he lies not far from the grave of his old stage partner at l'Olympia Josephine Baker.

(Photograph omitted)

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