A Few Degrees of Edith Piaf
December 8, 2009 at 2:49 PM
To refer to Edith Piaf (1915-1963) as merely a singer is to do her a huge injustice. Even before I knew her name I knew her sound: tragic, not beautiful in the traditional sense but with a perfect inflection that was intensely expressive and unique. She seemed to inhabit the world of her songs, capturing in mere moments an entire universe of time, place, and condition. To hear her sing was to hear the sounds of a mid-century Paris still reeling from the atrocities of a world war and acknowledging heartbreaking losses - but doing so with pride, resilience, determination, and even hope for the future.
Having missed the film “La Vie en Rose” while it was in theaters, where it garnered fabulous reviews, especially for the actress Marion Cotillard, I recently viewed it on DVD. My knowledge of Piaf’s life story was minimal – I knew only that she was referred to as the “little sparrow” and that she had emerged from a difficult childhood – and I found the film, and her story, mesmerizing.
It was also surprising. I was not aware of a severe traffic accident in which she was badly injured and left dependent on narcotics and alcohol, each of which probably contributed to an early death. I was also unaware of her relationship with the renowned French boxer Marcel Cerdan, who was regarded as the love of her life and who tragically died in an airplane crash over the Azores, en route from France to New York City to reunite with her.
I don’t recall exactly when I first heard Piaf’s voice, but it was most likely during one of my earliest trips to France; the first of which was when I was eighteen and auditioned to study with the majestic Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux. This was all thanks to the enormous generosity of Leon Barzin, the Belgian-American conductor who became a wonderful supporter and mentor to me and who personally knew many internationally-prominent musicians. We first spent a day or two in Paris with his wife before taking a train to Brussels for my audition, and I was enraptured by the sights and sounds of that beautiful city.
Some years later, a few months following Grumiaux’ premature death at age 65, I visited with his widow Amanda for a couple of days. This was an intensely sad experience that included my practicing in the studio in which he had taught me and also practiced. During our talks I asked her which violinist he had admired most and the answer surprised me: the French violinist Ginette Neveu (1919-1949). Among the few recordings of Neveu, whose adult career took place mostly in the throes of World War II and shortly thereafter, is one of the Violin Concerto by Johannes Brahms. Taken from a live performance, it is remarkable for its intensity and passion; she throws caution to the wind in favor of a very visceral interpretation. I was surprised that Grumiaux, whose masterly playing was expressive and always refined, admired her over some of the other violinists of the era. Madame also delicately revealed that Neveu was a hermaphrodite. This, too, was stunning to learn - although photographs of her reveal a rather mannish face and build - and I felt quite sorry for her tragic life but also understood how she threw her emotions into her music. Playing music well can be an extremely cathartic experience and, undoubtedly, her triumphs as a violinist helped to balance out the personal compromises brought on by her condition. (In her day, gender reassignment was still very rare - although it was being done experimentally in Germany - and it appears that her parents chose to raise her as a female and to cope as well as possible.)
Edith Piaf wrote in her autobiography (The Wheel of Fortune) that "I would have traveled thousands of miles to hear the great Ginette Neveu..." In addition to this declared admiration for Neveu, the two are forever linked by the enormous tragedy of an airliner going down in the Azores on October 27, 1949, as Neveu died alongside Piaf’s lover Cerdan in the crash.
In viewing “La Vie en Rose” I learned that the beloved popular singer and songwriter Charles Aznavour was also in the car crash that so severely injured Piaf in 1951, shortly after she had “discovered” him and introduced his music to French and American audiences. This abruptly reminded me of my own first arrival into Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport: while waiting to retrieve our bags from the carousel, Barzin spied Aznavour waiting as well, and we walked over together to greet him with admiration.
©Stephanie Chase, 2009. All Rights Reserved.