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Léo Ferré

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Léo Ferré
Ferré in 1973
Ferré in 1973
Background information
Born(1916-08-24)24 August 1916
Died14 July 1993(1993-07-14) (aged 76)
Castellina in Chianti, Italy
GenresChanson, expressionist, classical, spoken word, pop
Occupation(s)Musician, singer-songwriter, composer, conductor
Instrument(s)Piano, vocals
Years active1946–1991
LabelsLe Chant du Monde, Odeon, Barclay, CBS, RCA, EPM, La Mémoire et la Mer

Léo Ferré (24 August 1916 – 14 July 1993) was a French-born Monégasque poet and composer, and a dynamic and controversial live performer. He released some forty albums over this period, composing the music and the majority of the lyrics. He released many hit singles, particularly between 1960 and the mid-1970s. Some of his songs have become classics of the French chanson repertoire, including "Avec le temps", "C'est extra", "Jolie Môme" and "Paris-Canaille".

Early life[edit]

Ferré was the son of Joseph Ferré, French staff manager at Monte Carlo Casino, and Marie Scotto, a Monégasque dressmaker of Italian descent from Piedmont;[1] he had a sister, Lucienne, two years older.

Ferré had an early interest in music. At age seven, he joined the choir of the Monaco Cathedral and discovered polyphony through singing pieces by 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 at the Monte Carlo Opera. Ferré listened to such musicians as bass singer Feodor Chaliapin, discovered Beethoven under the baton of Arturo Toscanini (Coriolanus), and was deeply moved by the Fifth Symphony. But it was the sweet presence of composer Maurice Ravel during L'Enfant et les Sortilèges rehearsals that impressed him the most.[2]

At age nine, Ferré entered Saint-Charles College of Bordighera, run by the Brothers of the Christian Schools in Italy. He remained there for eight long years of severe discipline and boredom.[3] He wrote about this lonely and caged childhood in an autofiction (Benoît Misère, 1970). He graduated from high school in Monaco, but his father did not let him attend the Conservatory of Music.[3]


In 1945, while still a "farmer" and a Jack-of-all-trades at Radio Monte-Carlo, Ferré met Edith Piaf, who encouraged him to try his luck in Paris.[3]

In April 1947, Ferré agreed to tour in Martinique, which turned out to be disastrous.[3] From the end of 1947 Ferré 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, and originality or "marshmallow music".[4]

In 1952, to submit Verdi examination at La Scala in Milan, he wrote the libretto and music of an opera called La Vie d'artiste (same title as the song). It transposed his past years' experience into a kind of a black comedy but Ferré did not seem to like it much, finally abandoning it for other projects.[5] He began to sing in larger venues such as l'Olympia, as the opening act of Josephine Baker in 1954.[3] In 1956, Ferré wrote and composed La Nuit (The Night), a ballet with sung sections commissioned by choreographer Roland Petit. It was a violent flop.[3]

From 1960 to 1970, Ferré worked with arranger Jean-Michel Defaye, whose classical skills and taste accorded well with Ferré's musical sensitivity. They maintained a steady pace of creation, recording almost an album a year, sometimes more. This artistic output, including the way Ferré would write for symphonic orchestras after 1970, would have an influence in the English-speaking world over such singer-songwriters as Scott Walker,[6] Martin Newell[7] and Benjamin Clementine.[8]

In March 1968, Ferré did not return home after a gig. In his absence, Ferré's chimpanzee Pépée suffered a fall and refused to be approached. Eventually, Madeleine asked a hunter neighbour to put the chimpanzee out of its misery. Ferré's requiem for the primate would be his eponymous song "Pépée". The singer blamed his wife for Pépée's death and they would divorce after endless procedures.[9][10]

In 1969, Ferré settled in Tuscany, in Italy. The huge success of "C'est extra", an erotic ballad, greatly expanded his audience, especially among the French youth, who recognized in the poet the "prophet" of his own rebellion.[3] Backed by this new energy, Ferré began to smash traditional song structures to explore spoken word and long monologues. With very precise work on the voice (rhythm, speech) and rhetorical writing derived from the prose of poet Arthur Rimbaud, Ferré ritualized his speaking in an incantatory and dramatic fashion.[11]

In 1975 Ferré conducted successively Orchestra of the Institut des Hautes Études Musicales in Montreux, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Liège, and the Pasdeloup Orchestra at the Palais des congrès de Paris. It was a perilous challenge for Ferré, who conducted the orchestra and sang at the same time. He mixed Ravel and Beethoven with his own compositions and reversed the placement of the orchestra. 140 musicians and choir singers were on stage. This was an unprecedented performance, breaking free from conventions and blending separated worlds. Concerts were sold out for five weeks, but critics from the classical music field rejected this hybrid show.[3]

From 1976 to 1979 he toured less. He drifted from his violently declamatory expression of revolt to avoid being typecast.[12]

In 1976, Ferré signed with CBS Records International. From then until the end of his career the majority of his recordings would be made with the Milan-based RAI National Symphony Orchestra under his conducting.[13] CBS soon dropped Ferré, whose commercial potential was estimated too low (his new aesthetics of symphonic down-tempo being against the current of all musical trends, it was complicated to put the artist on the radio and reduced the possibility of a hit). Being dropped by the "professionals", and disgusted for good with being "a merchandise for producers",[14] Ferré refused to accept French song prizes.[15] He also refused the proposal to enter the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (at the highest grade) and to support President of France François Mitterrand in his reelection campaign in exchange for leading and conducting of a first-class symphonic orchestra. He refused being guest of honor in the Victoires de la musique (Music's Victories),[16] annual French award ceremony recognizing the best musical artists of the year. Ferré used to say: "The only honor for an artist is not getting any".[17]

Léo Ferré died at his home in July 1993 at the age of 76. He was buried at the Monaco Cemetery.[18]


Studio albums[edit]

Live albums[edit]

  • 1955: Récital Léo Ferré à l'Olympia
  • 1958: Léo Ferré à Bobino
  • 1961: Récital Léo Ferré à l'Alhambra
  • 1963: Flash ! Alhambra – A.B.C.
  • 1969: Récital 1969 en public à Bobino (2×LP)
  • 1973: Seul en scène (Olympia 1972) (2×LP)
  • 1984: Léo Ferré au Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (3×LP)
  • 1988: Léo Ferré en public au TLP Déjazet

Posthumous releases[edit]

Boxed sets, compilations, and rarities[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Vassal, Jacques (2013). Léo Ferré, la voix sans maître. Paris: Le Cherche midi. p. 17. ISBN 978-2-7491-2833-7.
  2. ^ Interview with Michel Lancelot, La Mémoire courte (Europe 1), 1969.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h "Léo Ferré". RFI Musique. November 2000. Archived from the original on 2 December 2013. Retrieved 28 November 2013.
  4. ^ Léo Ferré, "La musique souvent me prend... comme l'amour", La Mémoire et la mer, 1999, p. 91.
  5. ^ Quentin Dupont, "Vous savez qui je suis, maintenant?", La Mémoire et la mer, 2003, p. 421.
  6. ^ Young, Rob (2013). Scott: The Collection 1967–1970, Universal.
  7. ^ Newell's musician Louis Philippe says on his website they went for the Léo Ferré treatment in the string arrangements of a song such as "Arcadian Boys", from The Off-White Album (1995), since Ferré is one of Newell's favourite singers.
  8. ^ Godwin, Richard (6 December 2013). "Benjamin Clementine: the future sound of London". London Evening Standard.
  9. ^ Samuel, Henry (24 May 2013). "Tyrannical chimp ruins childhood". The Age.
  10. ^ "Dangerous Exotic Pets: Primates". Humane Society.
  11. ^ Céline Chabot-Canet, Léo Ferré : Une voix et un phrasé emblématiques, L'Harmattan, 2008.
  12. ^ "I think the revolt is no longer appropriate. Revolt is a way of getting into the City. This is a tribal virtue (...)." "Technique de l'exil" ("The Exile Technique"), in La Mauvaise graine, Édition N° 1, 1993.
  13. ^ For contractual reasons, the orchestra would be named Orchestre symphonique de Milan on record sleeves.
  14. ^ Interview with La Nouvelle République du Centre-Ouest newspaper, 5 June 1979.
  15. ^ Interview with Jean-Louis Foulquier, Pollen (France Inter), 1987.
  16. ^ Robert Belleret, Léo Ferré, une vie d'artiste: ninth part, chapter "Je te donne ces vers...", Actes Sud, 1996.
  17. ^ Interview Pierre Bouteiller, France 3, August 1984.
  18. ^ "Visite funéraire de Monaco". Amis et Passionés du Père-Lachaise. Retrieved 26 December 2015.

External links[edit]