French-Armenian songwriter and performer Charles Aznavour passed away on Monday 1 October at the age of 94.
The news of his death shook me.For me, he remained the sparkling star who cradled me on my loneliest nights. I grew up listening to his songs and everyone around me knew them one way or another. I was so shocked when, having just moved to St Andrews, a British friend of mine admitted to not having a clue who he was!
This “Entertainer of the Century”, as dubbed by CNN, marked his time. He toured the world, collaborating with stars like Frank Sinatra, Andrea Bocelli, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Julio Iglesias and many more.
He was such an iconic figure that a day of national mourning was decreed in Armenia and a national tribute was organised in his honour in France. He will now rest among the heroes of the Republic in the Invalides.
Shahnour Vaghinag Aznavourian, to give him his full name, was born into a family of Armenian artists, who introduced him to art early on. He dropped out of school at the age of nine and started performing in plays and nightclubs in Paris, adopting the stage name “Aznavour”.
He wrote his first song titled “J’ai Bu” in 1950 and opened for Edith Piaf in the early stages of his career. Since then, he had recorded more than 1,200 songs which have been interpreted in nine different languages.
Beyond his work as an activist, diplomat and incredibly successful musician, I always admired his passion for his art. An intense fire constantly shone in his eyes and emanated from his voice. He nurtured and maintained it until the very end, when the merciless blow of death divorced him from the public.
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Charles Aznavour devait être avec nous à Erevan aujourd'hui. Ce devait être un rendez-vous avec sa chère Arménie mais aussi avec la langue française. Il avait une passion pour elle, il a travaillé sur les mots toute sa vie. Il a fini par devenir un des plus grands ambassadeurs de la langue française dans le monde. Charles Aznavour continuera d’être le trait d’union entre la France et l’Arménie grâce à ce lieu de transmission et de culture.
The one redundant motif and the most striking element of his work was the overarching presence of nostalgia. His songs reminisced about a time long gone, a time his songs eternalised in their romance, beauty and grace. He always stood in a suit or a plain white shirt, a simple light shining down on him. He was always accompanied by an orchestra, but his voice and charisma always sufficed to blow away the hall.
He was often described as the French Frank Sinatra. He sang about love; multifaceted, desperate and harrowing. He shone a light of lucidity on an intense and conflicting feeling, which throws one into confusion and denial.
In “Et Pourtant”, he wrote:
I’ll withdraw without a tear, without crying
The secretive ties that tear apart my skin
Set me free from you so I can find rest
And yet… and yet
I’d walk towards other skies, towards foreign lands
To forget your cruel indifference
I’ll offer my hands full of love
And to the days, the nights, the life
Of my heart
Yet I only love you
Yet I only love you
His most legendary songs ponder on the human powerlessness in the face of fleeting time. In “Hier Encore”, he reflects on his youth:
I was twenty years old
I’ve wasted the time
Thinking I could make it stop
And in order to retain it
Or even get ahead of it
I did nothing but to run
And I ran out of breath
This insolence, desire for control, expectation for tomorrow and impertinence in the face of today, is also echoed in all our lives. It speaks to us. And that is the beauty of Aznavour’s art.
His texts were often informed by his own experience, but represented it in different ways. His rendering of the lives of young artists is a good example. While in “Je m’voyais deja”, he was an ambitious countryside boy dreaming of glitz and glamour, the “Greatest of the great dreamers”, in “La Bohème”, arguably his most popular composition, he put in words the reality of a deprived couple of artists surviving on slices of hope and torrents of passion:
…I tell you about a time
…That those less than 20 years old cannot know about
…At that time, Montmartre hung its lilacs
…right up to our windows, and even if our humble furnished room
…That served us as a lovenest didn’t look like much
…It was there that we knew each other
…Me, crying hunger, and you, posing in the nude
…La bohème, la bohème. That meant “one is happy”
…La bohème, la bohème. We only ate once every two days.
He also addressed very controversial subjects, always with emotional depth and sensitivity. In 1972, he released “Comme ils disent” or, in English, “What makes a man”. The self-composed and majestic tenor of his voice which then echoed on TV sets and in concert halls was that of a male cross-dresser counting his every day:
At three o’clock or so I meet
With friends to have a bite to eat
We love to empty out our hearts
With every subject from the arts
We love to pull apart someone
And spread some gossip just for fun
Or start a rumor
We let our hair down, so to speak
And mock ourselves with tongue-in-cheek
And inside humor
So many times we have to pay
For having fun and being gay
It’s not amusing
There’s always those that spoil our games
By finding fault and calling names
They draw attention to themselves
At the expense of someone else
In his songs, the accompaniment was always very sober, very simple. It did not eclipse the lyrics; it allowed them to exist and beautified them. They were always the main element. They danced, swung and spiralled into the hearts of many.
All his songs told a well-constructed, relatable, story, in which you could easily immerse yourself. Many children saw their late mother in “La Mamma”. Many fathers teared on the tunes of “A ma fille”.
I will now leave you with some verses from “A ma fille”, one of my favourite songs, which addresses the difficulties of letting your child “break loose from the cage” and build a life of its own.
I know that a day will come when you will reach that age
When you break loose of the cages, having found your way
I know a day will come, you will reach the blossom of age
And the daw of your life will rise
And alone with your mother, the day like the night
The summer like the winter will feel a little cold.
And he who knows nothing of the harm that is caused to us
He, who won’t have done anything for your maturing years
He, who will come to steal, which I am most afraid of,
A piece of our past, a piece of our happiness
This stranger without a name, without a face
Oh! How much I hate him
And yet if he is bound to make you happy
I will have no hateful thoughts towards him
But I will offer him my heart with your hand
I will do all this knowing that you love him
Simply because I love you
The day, when it comes.
With Aznavour gone, it feels as if a page has been turned, as if it is time to mourn: him and all that he represented.