Art & Voice ii

The Art and the Voice

ÉDITH PIAF (1915-63)

My presentation to Bray Arts on 05 November 2018 to mark the 55th anniversary of her death

George Fleeton

PIAF’s voice would come to represent France to the French, yet it also reached out and touched listeners worldwide, whether or not they spoke or understood her language.

HER voice, with its frequent vocal abandon - she was never taught how to sing - her breathing, her phrasing and her pausing were instinctive, and took those who listened to the edge of their seats, as her songs created the kind of urgency and impact of which there have been too few  notable exponents ever since, even in France.

SHE gave a voice to le petit peuple by popularising their argot and the slang of the east end of Paris, and she turned its ‘bottom of the social pile’ existence into the raw materials of her song book, writing about a hundred songs herself.

THE street urchin from Belleville would go on to sing in the biggest concert halls in the world, such as Carnegie in New York and the Olympia in Paris.

SHE was the ultimate interpreter of chansons réalistes, the gritty stories of street prostitutes and of downtrodden women whose men desert them and whose raw, desperate love is never requited: songs as slices of life from the lower depths, about the undoing of dreams of romantic love and their disappointing outcomes, and about resilience as the only response to life’s woes.

HER life - and her time for her voice, in concerts and in recording studios - was short and wayward, intense and passionate, the first half of which, until the late 1930s, was a hand-to-mouth existence, distanced from parents who were never there for her, involved with all classes of men most of whom exploited and abused her in every sense of those words.

HER many, often sensational love affairs, her marriages, addictions, chronic health problems, her car crashes and endless personal disappointments  all more than complicated her enduring contribution as song writer and singer.

YET she was the scrappy street singer who made her way out of the slums - away from the outcasts and the dangerous classes of Belleville and other peripheries of Paris - by way of working class dives, then disreputable music halls and later the better class cabarets,  and she did it entirely by means of the raw strength-in-depth and innate musical intelligence  of her unprecedented voice, with its gritty articulation, projection, diction,  vocal purity and her ‘I don’t give a damn’ response to pain, rejection and adversity.

FROM age 20, in 1935, until her death, her appeal grew exponentially, through her recordings and her ten tours of the U.S.

THAT appeal never waned, at home or abroad and, as her voice darkened with the colours of pain, personal failures and setbacks, her vibrato (tiny, imperceptible variations in pitch) became more velvety, guttural Rs became her style, and everyday tragedies in the lyrics began to dominate the few lighter numbers she sometimes chose to sing.

IN all those respects, she is so close to her two greatest contemporaries in world music, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas, all three of them gone too soon.

PIAF’s performance art was simple, sober and subtle, never a word out of place, never a false stance or gesture; and it was her defiance and her vulnerability, her versions of the light and shade textures of her unconventional life, that we absorb and take away with us to savour.

IT is precisely that complex, self-destructive chiar-oscuro pattern of her life and her art that we meet head-on when we listen to and absorb her voice-in-performance.

IN retrospect, and taken together as an oeuvre or  an opus - her total output, her scores of songs, her métier as a contemporary poet-musician, a troubadour taking her message from the streets to cabarets to recording studios to music and concert halls -  all of this allowed her to depict, and to lay bare before us, an entire destiny - from impoverished beginnings to the melodrama of performance (with some personal solace taken  along the way) to a tragic dénouement in the reimagined narratives of her songs -  a destiny whose final curtain, on 10 October  1963, became her own, at age 47.

SHE remains, 55 years later, the foremost interpreter of chanson réaliste, that particular and very French song tradition’s gold standard.

HER major contribution to French culture is therefore both enigmatic and alluring and we can still find ourselves attracted to and moved by Piaf’s art and voice, without knowing why, without needing to examine its appeal too closely, without trespassing on its unique mystique.

The following recordings were used to illustrate the presentation:

La foule   1957   Cabral/Rivgauche

L’accordéoniste   1940   Emer

L’hymne à l’amour 1949 Monnot/Piaf

La vie en rose   1945   Louiguy/Monnot/Piaf

Milord   1959 Monnot/Moustaki

Mon Dieu   1960   Dumont/Vaucaire

Mon manège à moi 1958 Glanzberg/Constantin

Les trois cloches   1939   Gilles

Non, je ne regrette rien 1960 Dumont/Vaucaire