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Léo Ferré in the mid-70's.
24 August 1916|
|Died||14 July 1993
Castellina in Chianti, Italy
|Labels||Le Chant du Monde
La Mémoire et la Mer
Léo Ferré (24 August 1916 – 14 July 1993) was a Franco-Monegasque poet, composer, singer and musician who mixed love and melancholy with moral anarchy, lyricism with slang, rhyming verse with prose monologues. He moved from music-hall to orchestral music, breaking free from the traditional song structure during the 1970s, inventing his own musical territory, powerfully dramatic and unique. He also set to music several poems by the French poètes maudits, such as François Villon, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud, as well as French poets from the 20th century like Guillaume Apollinaire and Louis Aragon.
He took a central place in the French song world and is a prominent figure in this domain. He was involved in anarchism and worked with Radio Libertaire, an anarchist free radio broadcasting in Paris and around France. Along with Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel, he is considered one of the greatest composers and writers of French songs.
Life and career 
Son of Joseph Ferré, staff manager at Monte-Carlo Casino, and Marie Scotto, an Italian dressmaker, he had a sister, Lucienne, two years older.
Léo Ferré had an early interest in music. At the age of seven, he joined the choir of the Monaco Cathedral and discovered polyphony by singing pieces of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Tomás Luis de Victoria. His uncle, former violinist and secretary at the Casino, used to bring him to performances and rehearsals that took place at the Monte Carlo Opera. Léo Ferré listened to such musicians as bass singer Feodor Chaliapin, discovered Beethoven under the baton of Arturo Toscanini (Coriolanus), was deeply moved by the Fifth Symphony. But it is the sweet presence of composer Maurice Ravel during L'Enfant et les Sortilèges rehearsals that impressed him the most.
At nine years old he entered at Saint-Charles College of Bordighera, run by the Brothers of the Christian Schools in Italy. He remained there for eight long years. He wrote about this lonely and caged childhood in an autofiction (Benoît Misère, 1970). There he deepened his musical knowledge and played the cornet within the college's wind ensemble. At fourteen, he composed a three-voice mass and a melody on the poem Soleils couchants (Sunsets) by Paul Verlaine.
Back in Monaco to prepare his degree, he became a freelance music critic for Le Petit Niçois newspaper, which allowed him to approach prestigious conductors such as Antal Dorati and Dimitri Mitropoulos. At that time he discovered with enthusiasm Daphnis et Chloé and Piano Concerto for the Left Hand by Ravel, under the direction of Paul Paray, and Boléro and Pavane pour une infante défunte, directed by the composer himself.
He graduated from high school at Monaco. But his father didn't allow him to go to the Conservatory of Music.
Early years 
In 1935, he came to Paris to study law. Not interested at all in political and social euphoria around him (huge electoral winning of the Popular Front, an alliance of left-wing movements, general strike (more than 1,5 million workers) in May–June 1936, resulting in the negotiation of the Matignon agreements, one of the cornerstone of social rights in France), he perfected his piano technique all by himself and read a lot. After graduating from Sciences Po (École Libre des Sciences Politiques at that time), he returned to Monaco in 1939 before being mobilized the following year. During World War II he was assigned to the infantry and led a group of Algerian "tirailleurs". His vocation as a composer got stronger after his demobilization. In 1940, for his sister's wedding, he wrote an Ave Maria for organ and cello.
He went on stage for the first time on February 26, 1941, at the Théâtre des Beaux-Arts of Monte-Carlo, under the nickname Forlane (after Italian furlana folk dance's name). His first personal texts probably date from this year. At the end of a Charles Trénet show in Montpellier, he met the star, who listened to three of his songs and advised him not to sing himself and simply write for others.
Struggling debuts in Paris 
At the end of the summer of 1946 Léo Ferré moved to Paris. He immediately got a three-month appointment with the cabaret Le Boeuf sur le Toit, where he accompanied himself (and sometimes other singers) on the piano. He became friends with comedian and writer Jean-Roger Caussimon, after he asked him if he could set his poem À la Seine into music. Caussimon became his favourite lyricist and together they made several songs especially liked by the audience, such as Monsieur William (1950), Le Temps du Tango (1958) or Comme à Ostende (1960) and Ne Chantez pas la Mort (1972).
In April 1947, Ferré agreed to tour in Martinique, which turned out to be disastrous. Completely broke, it took six months before he was able to return. By then, he was already forgotten by everybody in the city and had to start from scratch. This period was psychologically and financially difficult for him. For seven years he had to settle for random and episodic commitments in the "song cellars": Les Assassins, Les Trois Mailletz, Le Café de l'Écluse, Le Trou, le Quod Libet, or Milord I'Arsouille, the last three being successively directed by his friend Francis Claude, with whom he co-wrote several songs, including famous La Vie d'artiste (1950), echoing his recent break up with Odette.
He ended up getting a dark reputation, though his songs were performed by Renée Lebas, Édith Piaf, Henri Salvador, Yvette Giraud and Les Frères Jacques. But it was with the singer Catherine Sauvage he would find his most loyal, passionate and persuasive ambassador.
During this period he got in touch with exiled Spanish anarchists. This fed his romantic imagination about Spain (such songs as Le Bateau Espagnol and Flamenco de Paris come from this inspiration) and his hatred of Franco (he wrote in 1964 Franco la muerte, a higly offensive song against the dictator, and only sang in Spain after Franco's death in 1975).
His meeting in 1950 with Madeleine Rabereau gave new impetus to his life and career. He made her his muse and it affected some artistic choices (staging and organization of singing tours, essentially). The same year he recorded at least fourteen songs, accompanying himself on the piano, on behalf of the label Le Chant du Monde, with whom he signed a three-year contract. Most of these songs were released on 78s.
Ferré also wrote and composed a radio drama named De Sac et de Cordes, broadcast in 1951. He gave the narrator's part to the famous comedian Jean Gabin and blended together his songs with some orchestral music of his own, which gave him the opportunity to conduct for the first time a symphony orchestra and a choir, those of the Radiodiffusion Française (French Radio Broadcasting).
Since the end of 1947 Ferré had produced and hosted on Paris Inter station several cycles of programs devoted to classical music. In Musique Byzantine (1953–54), he expanded his topics on aesthetics, such as tonality necessity, exotic melody, opera (the "song of rich people"), boredom, originality or "marshmallow music", and asserted with controversial sharpness his anti-modern ideas, mocking at the same time musical enslavement by the new music industry and the intellectualist decay embodied in his point of view by the avant-garde praise for new techniques and processes, especially within the booming serialism. A subsequent radio show project on instruments did not materialize, and Léo Ferré stopped working at the radio.
In 1952, in order to submit Verdi examination at La Scala in Milan, he wrote the libretto and music of an opera named La Vie d'artiste (same title as the song). It transposed his past years' experience in a kind of a black comedy but Ferré didn't seemed to like it much, finally abandoning it for other projects.
Early 1953, after having been rejected by Yves Montand, his song Paris Canaille (written and composed by Ferré but sung by Catherine Sauvage), became a major hit. Professional and financial difficulties suddenly ended. Many performers who ignored him until then came to him now he had shown his strangeness could be bankable. Instead of writing right down another popular song in that up-tempo joyful style, he devoted himself to compose a dream-like oratorio on La Chanson du Mal-Aimé (The Song of the Poorly-Loved), a long poem by Guillaume Apollinaire about the visionnary wandering of a sad lover who can't forget the woman he loved and lost. Ferré turned the monologue into four singing parts, each one for a different voice type. The piece was created under the baton of the composer in 1954 at the Monte-Carlo Opera. After several unsuccessful attempts to bring it to the stage in Paris, Ferré would record an album in 1957 with French Radio Broadcasting orchestra.
From 1953 to 1958 Ferré was under contract with Odeon label. His first album contained such classics as Mr. William, Le Pont Mirabeau (poem by Apollinaire), La Chambre and Paris canaille. Since then, his fame grew slowly with such successes as Le Piano du pauvre (1954), Le Guinche or Pauvre Rutebeuf (a 13th-century French poem, modernized by Ferré, later sung by Joan Baez). Alongside nighclubs in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, he began to sing in larger venues such as l'Olympia (opening act of Josephine Baker in 1954, featured act in March 1955) or Bobino music-hall theatre (featured act in January 1958). During these years Ferré met musicians who would become his friends and accompany him for a while, together or individually, on stage or for recording sessions: guitarist Barthélémy Rosso, accordionist Jean Cardon, pianist and arranger Jean-Michel Defaye and blind pianist Paul Castanier.
In 1956, the surrealists André Breton and Benjamin Péret publicly hailed his poetic talents. Ferré and Breton became very good friends until Ferré asked him to write the preface to Poète... vos papiers !, his first book of poetry published. Breton didn't like the content and refused. Ferré wrote a preface himself, wherein he attacked surrealists' automatism writing which was in his point of view a way of hiding lack of talent. He also criticized contemporary regimentation of collective abstraction in the arts, which turned out to be a new aesthetics academicism. Ferré asserted poetry wasn't meant to stay inside books but had to go outside, in real everyday life, meaning into people's ears, through the powerful vehicle of music. Poetry was meant to be listened to. Surrealists remaining faithful to Breton killed the singer-songwriter off in their literrary magazine, and the two men never talked to each other again. Later, Ferré would work with poet Louis Aragon, past friend of Breton, excommunicated by him as well.
The same year Ferré wrote and composed La Nuit (The Night), a ballet with sung sections commissioned by choreographer Roland Petit. It was a violent flop and Ferré abandonned for many years his musical ambitions in favor of writing.
In 1957, Léo Ferré was the first singer to devote an entire LP to a poet, using Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal first publication century celebration as a starting point for what he called his "poetic crusade", a will to shatter distinctions between poetry and song and to counteract the poor lyricists of his time. After Baudelaire he set many poems into music from Louis Aragon in 1958, Paul Verlaine in 1959, then from Arthur Rimbaud between 1961 and 1963. This intensive work led him logically to devote an entire recital to the poètes maudits and others in 1966.
In 1959, Ferré acquired the island of his dreams, near Saint-Malo in Brittany. This was the beginning of a passionate love for the Atlantic Ocean, which inspired many songs and the long poem Guesclin (1962), subsequently entitled La Mémoire et la Mer (The Memory and the Sea).
In 1960, Léo Ferré joined prosperous Eddie Barclay's label. He used this new exposure to vituperate society, the rise of consumerism, militarism and French Army torture (during the Algerian War of Independence), authoritarian power of Charles de Gaulle, stuffy bourgeoisie ... This outspokenness was regularly banned from the radio, but eventually reached a larger audience since Ferré, backed by favorites such as Paname, Jolie môme (1960), and to a lesser extent L'Affiche rouge (The Red Poster) (1961), finally received critical and public consecration in his triumphant performance at the Alhambra-Maurice Chevalier theater in 1961. In that wake, his album Les Chansons d'Aragon, dedicated to Louis Aragon's poems was a landmark, and would rapidly become an evergreen classic in French song culture.
From 1960 to 1970, Léo Ferré worked with arranger Jean-Michel Defaye, whose classical skills and taste accorded well to Ferré musical sensivity. They maintained a steady pace of creation, realizing almost an album a year, sometimes more.
Ferré used to sing each year in a major Parisian music-hall theater, for two to six weeks, continuing to say out loud what some thought to themselves and others found outrageous. He slightly toured in country towns or in other countries (Belgium excepted), but he went to Canada for the first time in 1963. He would return there regularly until the end of his life. He wasn't invited much on television and voluntarily stayed aside from show-business world.
From 1963 to 1968, he lived surrounded by many animals in a 16th-century castle, named Pechrigal, in the department of Lot. He wrote a lot, without trying to publish anything; songs, short essays and long poems in a wide range of stylistics. He devoted himself to deepen his passion for typography, by installing professional equipment and publishing himself his wife's diary, that depicted their life. During this period, Léo Ferré had developed a very special relationship with a chimp named Pépée, but he failed to act with her as his master and the monkey became increasingly unlivable, angry, destructive. This isolated the couple, whose relationship deteriorated.
In 1967, Barclay executives censored the song À une chanteuse morte (To a Dead Singer). Ferré sued his label, he lose. Same year, he devoted a double album to Charles Baudelaire, for the poet's death centenary.
In March 1968, Léo Ferré did not return at home after a gig, taking back his freedom, despite threats from his wife. In his absence, Pepee suffered a fall and refused to be approached. Eventually, Madeleine asked a hunter neighbour to put the chimpanzee out of its misery by shooting it. Leo's requiem to the primate would be his song, Pepee. The singer, who died in 1993, blamed his wife for Pepee's death and they divorced.
After he had mocked French youth (Épique époque [Epic Time] in 1964, Le Palladium and Les Romantiques [The Romantics] in 1966), and he had reviled in the same time population inaction and submission in a right-minded France (Ils ont voté [They voted], La Grève [The Strike], 1967), Léo Ferré finally put his last hopes for change into youth (Salut, beatnik ! [Hi, beatnik!], 1967). On May 10, first night of the barricades in the Latin Quarter of Paris, Léo Ferré sung at the Mutualité for the French Anarchist Federation, as he used to every year since 1948. He performed that night for the first time the song Les Anarchistes, which would become a kind of an hymn for his young audience. Then Ferré returned directly to the South of France, to meet his new companion, without taking part in any of the protests of May.
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Excludes numerous compilations.
Studio albums 
Live Albums 
- 1955: Récital Léo Ferré à l'Olympia
- 1958: Léo Ferré à Bobino
- 1961: Récital à l'Alhambra'
- 1969: Récital en public à Bobino 1969 (2×LP)
- 1973: Seul en scène (Olympia 72) (2×LP)
- 1984: Léo Ferré au Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (3×LP)
- 2006: Léo Ferré au Théâtre libertaire de Paris (1986, 1988, 1990) (Box set)
Posthumous releases 
- 1998: La Vie d'artiste: les années Le Chant du Monde 1947-1953 (2×CD)
- 2000: Métamec
- 2000: Le Temps des roses rouges
- 2001: Sur la scène (Lausanne 73, live) (2×CD)
- 2001: Un chien à Montreux (Montreux 73, maxi CD, live)
- 2004: De sacs et de cordes
- 2004: Maudits soient-ils ! (2×CD)
- 2006: La Mauvaise Graine
- 2008: Les Fleurs du mal (suite et fin)
See also 
- Léo Ferré Official site
- Vinyl discography (French)
- Recording of the unique interview with Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel, 6 January 1969 (French)
- Pays-Âges de Léo Ferré a gallery of places and people in Ferré's life (French)