It’s Jacques Brel’s birthday today. He would have been 91. He has such a hold on me that he was the first person I thought of featuring when I decided to restart Morning Music. But I thought it better to look elsewhere. Then I noticed it was his birthday and I figured it was okay to talk about him.
Brel was quite a successful actor, starring in a number of films. And that’s what really sets him apart as a singer. His songs aren’t really better than those of his peers. But when he performs, it seems like you are living through the story with him. And this is why you don’t really need a translation to appreciate his work.
I am featuring the song that I most associate with Brel: Mathilde. This is probably because the song speaks to me and my history. It is about a man whose ex-lover returns to him. He knows it will turn out poorly but can’t help himself. The song implies that this is not a new thing. She has returned before and he took her back then.
Mathilde is not present for most of the song. Through most of the song, he talks to his mother, his friends, even himself. He works his way from vaguely asking for people to stop him to admitting there is no stopping him to finally welcoming Mathilde with joy.
The refrain is, “Mathilde est revenue.” It means roughly, “Mathilde is returned.” Also repeated is, “Maudite Mathilde, puisque te v’là.” Roughly: “Cursed Mathilde, since you are here.” The second line is sung very differently at the end of the song than it is at the beginning — indicative of the singer’s emotional journey through the song.
It’s all very familiar. And it shows the wisdom of embracing your mistakes if you know you will make them.