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Ne Me Quitte Pas

Song: Ne Me Quitte Pas

Songwriter: Jacques Brel

Singer: Jacques Brel

English Version: If You Go Away recorded by Scott Walker and others

Don’t let the language barrier blind you: the Belgian singer Jacques Brel was one of the greatest songwriters of the Twentieth Century. In France he ranks in the same league as the Beatles, and justifiably so. His songwriting, and his performances are deeply influenced by the rich cultural traditions of the French language and continental European culture. Brel’s songwriting is a heady mix of Baudelaire, smoky cabaret, gypsy café music, seductive serenading, and high melodrama. His influence on English-speaking artists like David Bowie cannot be underestimated. If you haven’t already done so, I urge you to check out Jacques Brel: the web is full of translations of his mesmerising lyrics, and Scott Walker has recorded some wonderful English versions of his songs.

Ne Me Quitte Pas is a fine example of Jacques Brel’s songwriting: an aching, pleading love song, swinging from bleak desperation to fantastical flights of optimism and back again.

The structure of the song is quite simple, though it doesn’t really break down to verse-and-chorus as such: three claustrophobic, despairing verses are interrupted by two lyrical voyages of doomed hope; but each of the five stanzas returns to the same repeated, imploring “Ne me quitte pas” (“Don’t leave me”).

The melancholy sections gain much of their character from a peculiarly uninspiring melody. A very simple motif of a rising and falling second (which appears with the first “Ne Me Quitte Pas”) is repeated as we slowly descend a minor scale; bear in mind that melodies more typically rise to an emotional high point before ebbing away. This combination of a minor scale, a descending line and the tedious repetition of a near monotone motif produces a very constricted and depressing effect. In Brel’s own recording of the song he is as much actor as singer, at times sounding close to tears, and drawing out the title phrase to melodramatic effect: “Ne … me .. quit - te……pas”.

This would all be a bit too much if not for the relief of the highly uplifting intervening sections. Here, our unrequited lover bursts into a vision of the future that is not so much unrealistic as surreal. Brel shows his pedigree in the brilliant line:

Moi je t’offrirai
Des perles de pluie
Venues de pays
Où il ne pleut pas

(Me, I would offer you
Drops of rain
Which come from a country
Where it does not rain)

-my translation

This stunning image is just one example of how Brel’s background in the French literary tradition allow him to conjure up imagery which is as foreign to the anglophone as the French language itself.

This song also gives me the opportunity to point out one of the great benefits of writing songs in a minor key. There are various versions of the minor key: the natural minor (or Aeolian mode), the harmonic minor (with a sharpened leading note), and the melodic minor (which has different versions for ascending and descending the scale). This gives us the possibility, without modulation, of using a richer harmonic palette and more chromatic scales than would be possible in a major scale.) For example Brel uses the bright ascending version of the melodic minor to start the more positive sections of Ne Me Quitte Pas. He modulates briefly once at the melodic and emotional high-point (“Où l’amour sera roi”), which produce tightly chromatic consecutive semitones, just prior to falling back into his begging “ne me quitte pas”.

The song ends even more bitterly than it began:

Laisse moi devenir
L’ombre de ton ombre
L’ombre de ta main
L’ombre de ton chien
Mais ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas

(Let me become
The shadow of your shadow
The shadow of your hand
The shadow of your dog
But don’t leave me
Don’t leave me
Don’t leave me
Don’t leave me.)


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