Like Piaf, tragic Barbara is the true voice of France

How a Jewish singer, who as a child survived sexual abuse and the Nazi occupation, became a national legend


By Norman Lebrecht, December 15, 2011
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Barbara said she "wasn’t particularly proud of being Jewish, but seeing how others looked a me differently made me aggressive"

Barbara said she "wasn’t particularly proud of being Jewish, but seeing how others looked a me differently made me aggressive"

Her grave, at the suburban end of a Paris bus line, is never long unattended. A wooden box on the marble base is stuffed with notes from visiting fans. A student drops by in her lunch hour to play Mozart. "Barbara loved Mozart," she explains. At the funeral, in November 1997, thousands stood for hours beside the mound, singing: "Dis, quand reviendras-tu?" ("Tell me, when are you coming back?").

Barbara is, with Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens, one of the three Bs who rebuilt French chanson as a Maginot Line against the 1960s onslaught of Anglo-American pop. She was the first woman singer to perform her own material and her multi-million-selling song L'Aigle Noir (The Black Eagle) is still taught in French schools. Yet, outside of France, she is barely known.

Never raising her voice above conversation pitch, Barbara sang of a woman's most intimate concerns - love, death and solitude. Some of her songs became public landmarks. Göttingen was cited by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder as the start of Franco-German reconciliation; Sida mon amour attacked the scourge of Aids at a time when to mention the disease was taboo. With a permit from President Mitterand, Barbara would go out at night to prisons to hold the hands of dying men. She was France's Princess Diana. She was also, unflinchingly, Jewish.

Her story is, in many ways, a mirror of the struggles of French Jews in the 20th century, a saga of discrimination, persecution and the search for an identity in an ambiguous land. The more I engaged with Barbara for a BBC documentary that will be broadcast on Sunday, the more I understood the wary looks that stared out from my own family albums. "I wasn't ashamed or particularly proud of being Jewish," she wrote in a memoir, "but seeing how others looked at me differently made me aggressive."

She was born (as was my mother) within the sound of the steam and whistles of a Paris railway terminus, a rendezvous district for French exiles from German-occupied Alsace and Russian fugitives from revolution. Her father was Alsatian, her mother Moldavian, both Jewish. Born in June 1930, she was named Monique Andrée Serf.

The dominant figure in her childhood was "Granny" whose Russian name, Varvara, the girl assumed when her own became unbearable. At the fall of Paris in June 1940 the family went into hiding, scuttling from one precarious refuge to the next. At night, Barbara's father came to her bed. He did not just rape her. According to one testimony I heard, he mutilated the girl's breast, branding her for life. He may also have left her infertile. "If I had a child," she said, "I would not have to sing."

Snapshot

Born: June 1930 in Paris as Monique Andrée Serf. Took her stage name, Barbara, from her Russian grandmother
Early life: Went into hiding during the Nazi occupation. Father deserted the family after the war. She later wrote songs about how he had sexually abused her
Career: Studied briefly at the Paris Conservatoire, but dropped out and went to Brussels where she sang in bars and was noticed by Jacques Brel. Made her name during the ’50s and ’60s writing and performing emotional, poetic songs in the French chanson tradition. Became an iconic figure in France. Died in 1997 - thousands attended her funeral

Barbara buried herself in music, playing the piano, suffering repeated operations on an injured hand. After the war, her father abandoned the family. Barbara went to study at the Paris Conservatoire but dropped out, hitching a ride to Brussels, where she sang in bars and, somehow, made enough in tips to survive. Jacques Brel, alarmed at her fragility, took her to his Tunisian-Jewish agent, Charley Marouani, who with his brothers managed most of the stars. Charley, now 85, talks of Barbara as if she were his only artist - obsessively demanding but humanly rewarding in more ways than he can express. Every kindness she received was swiftly passed on. The penniless Egyptian-Jewish songwriter Georges Moustaki was told to write a duet, La Dame Brune, that he could take, with her, on tour. Another unknown, Francois Wertheimer, shared her 1973 album, Marienbad; when he walked out on her, she attempted suicide.

From L'Ecluse, a tiny club beside the Seine seating no more than 60, Barbara put out songs that defined the "Second Sex" more acutely than Simone de Beauvoir, and the national condition more frankly than André Malraux. When she sang Dis to an absent lover, it was more challenge than lament. In Göttingen, she declared that German children were no different from the ones in Paris. Nana Mouskouri, whose Greek family resisted the Nazi occupation, told me that Barbara's song gave her permission to perform for a German audience. "She understood," said Nana.

Other songs exposed her darkest moments. L'aigle noir tells of a black eagle that covers her in bed at night. Amours incestueuses explores sex within the family, and Nantes, perhaps the greatest of her creations, recounts a train journey to a nondescript town where she has been summoned to a loved one's death-bed. "Since the day he'd gone away/I'd always hoped, I'd often pray/That this scamp who'd disappeared/Would reappear in light of day." Only in the final couplet, with the cry "mon
pè… re!", do we realise that she is rushing to the death-bed of her father, the rapist, and arrives just too late.

A child psychiatrist who raced to Barbara's funeral on hearing the radio report of her death, told me that, in her experience, victims of parental abuse never fully recover. What Barbara achieved was a feat of self-healing through music that has few parallels. The tenor of her songs is always positive: "Wait," she promises, "my happiness will return".

Fans would attend her concerts alone, without a date, seeking solitude with Barbara. At the close she would sing to the audience: "My very greatest love affair - is you". Dressed in black, she commanded the biggest stages in Paris. Her perfectionism was legendary. President Mitterand, smitten, would phone up and ask her round to the Elysée Palace to watch a movie with him. When her death was announced, the nation stopped in its tracks.

Placing a stone on the family tomb in the Jewish section of the Bagneux cemetery, it struck me that no Jewish woman since Sarah Bernhardt had so dominated the French imagination, or defined the place of Jews in that land of plenty: quintessential, and ever marginal.

'Barbara, the Spirit of France' is broadcast on Radio 3, Sunday December 18 at 7.45pm

    Last updated: 7:22pm, December 15 2011