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Jacques Brel

Jacques Brel (April 8, 1929 - October 9, 1978) was a Belgian author-composer with such a strong power of expression in his lyrics that many consider him a poet as well. He also had some minor activity as an actor and director. He was born in Schaerbeek, Belgium, a small city north of Brussels.

In the early 1950s he went to Paris, writing music and singing in the city cabarets and music-halls, where on stage he expressed his songs with grand physical gestures. By 1956 he was touring Europe and he recorded the song Quand on n'a que l'amour that brought him his first major recognition. He appeared in a show with Maurice Chevalier and Michel Legrand.

He composed and recorded his songs almost exclusively in French, but he occasionally included parts in Flemish as in Marieke, although he had many grievances towards Flemish. He wrote a harsh song, Les F..., full of insults towards Flanders, its inhabitants and most of all their language. It is argued however that his hostility was only to certain ultra-nationalists (such as the Vlaams Blok today) who are equally hated by most Flemish people (as his song says, "you dirty Flanders but Flanders judges you"). However, a similar song, Les Flamandes, is considered comic and only incidentally associated to the Flemish who serve as a mere pretext to vilify humanity in general.

Although France was Brel's "spiritual nation" and he expressed contradictory statments about his native Belgium, many overlook this matter as some of his best compositions pay tribute to Belgium, like Le plat pays or Il neige sur Liège.

His themes are extremely diverse, exploring love (Je t'aime, Litanies pour un retour, Dulcinéa), society (Les singes, Les bourgeois, Jaurès) and spiritual concerns (Le bon Dieu, Dites, si c'était vrai, Fernand). His work is not limited to one style. He was as proficient in funny compositions (Les bonbons, Le lion, Comment tuer l'amant de sa femme...) as in heart-breaking ones (Voir un ami pleurer, Fils de..., Jojo).

Brel's acute perception made him an innovative and creative painter of daily life with rare poetic ease. He was a master poet. His intelligent use of words was striking and simple, exhibiting a very visual and meaningful vocabulary. Few of his peers are considered to match his skill in fitting as much novelty and meaning in a sentence from a few words of common use.

Brel had also a bright sense of metaphor, as in Je suis un soir d'été where the narrator is a summer's evening telling what he observes as he falls on a city. Although regarded a master with lyrics, his musical themes were of the first standard, and also here he was not limited to one style. He composed both rhythmic, lively and captivating tunes (L'aventure, Rosa, Au printemps) as well as sad and solemn songs. (La quête, J'en appelle, Pourquoi faut-il que les hommes s'ennuient?)

He is widely recognized in French-speaking countries as one of the best French-language composers of all time.

He played in the musical l'homme de la Mancha that he also directed, and appeared in films, though his film performances are not thought to be of quite the same caliber as his musical performances. For twenty years he was a major star gaining recognition beyong French audiences. In 1973 he retreated to French Polynesia, remaining there until 1977 when he returned to Paris and recorded his well-received final album.

Brel died of lung cancer and was buried in the Altuona Cemetery, Altuona, Hiva-Oa, Iles Marquises, French Polynesia only a few yards away from painter Paul Gauguin.

JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS was an American musical revue of the art of Jacques Brel. It has played around the world for years.

Songs include:

Acting roles in film include: