Singular Voices: Charles Aznavour

Wednesday, October 19, 2016 - 12:00 AM

1956, Paris, Charles Aznavour, singer, in the street (Frank Horvat)

A couple of months ago I initiated an occasional series of articles called Singular Voices with a rumination on the specialness of Barbra Streisand. Another remarkable singer, Charles Aznavour, returned to New York on Oct. 15 for a concert before some 3,000 people in the Theater at Madison Garden. This was the first of a five-city tour, including Boston, with Montréal (Oct. 21), Miami (Oct. 25) and Hollywood (Oct. 28) still to come.

Charles Aznavour was born in Paris in 1924. His original name was Shahnour Varinag Aznavourian. He is part of a significant Armenian community in France, many of whom arrived as refugees following the genocide (by the Turks, according to Armenians) at the start of the 20th century. 

In his New York performance, he immediately addressed the fact that he is 92 years old. “Here I am, back in New York with the same broken voice, same broken English.”  He added, “at my age, you can’t see very well, you can’t hear very well and you can’t remember the words to the songs even if you wrote them.” Aznavour said he has written some 1,400 songs. He used a teleprompter to be certain of some lyrics but wryly noted that prompting of performers goes back at least to the time of Shakespeare, “who had to remember all of those words!” He began the concert with “Sa jeunesse,” a song about youth.

Aznavour is a compact man, still fit and possessed of a dancer’s grace. He wore a black suit and black shirt, unbuttoned at the collar. When he doffed his jacket we saw red suspenders and, when he danced quite nimbly, we saw bright red socks. In a concert lasting one hour and 36 minutes, he only sat for one four-minute song. He drank water sparingly, remarking “Sometimes even a Frenchman drinks water.”

I can tell you that Aznavour used what he called his broken voice with remarkable expressivity. He knew the songs more than well enough that there almost never seemed to be any slavish reliance on prompting. After he sang for a while the voice warmed and, despite some rough spots, he created a show that was deeply moving because he not only summoned a range of human emotions embedded in the beautiful lyrics he wrote, but tailored his sound to convey those emotions.

His band was tight, with a conductor on keyboard, guitarist, bass player, pianist (on a Steinway), a drummer, and an accordionist whose sound is the talisman of the type of French music he performs. There were two female back-up singers. My only cavil is that the drums were too amplified, creating an imbalance in the musical ensemble and often drowning out Aznavour in the softer passages he sang. When I checked my decibel meter, the average was 87, higher than the sweet spot of 70 Barbra Streisand maintained.

Aznavour has been performing in public since 1931. He was dancing as a small boy and, by age 15, was singing in the nightclubs of Montparnasse. He has appeared in large shows before big crowds, as well as theater, café-concerts, television and more than 80 films. He writes and sings in eight languages and, in his New York concert, sang (sometimes in the same song) in French, EnglishSpanish and Italian. He told the audience, “All the critics are dead; I am still alive!”

Aznavour is a leading exponent of the French tradition of chanson, which dates back to at least the 13th century. Courtly troubadours sang songs of love whose lyrics were quite conscious of the beauty of language and not simply what the words meant. Chanson (song) evolved through the centuries and, around 1880, the chanson réaliste emerged that addressed the concerns of the working classes around the same time that social realism entered theater, fiction and, soon thereafter, cinema. The most famous singer in this style was Édith Piaf (1915-1963) who lived a short, tempestuous life with no regrets. Aznavour captured this in his song "La Bohème".

In 1947, Aznavour was hired by Piaf to tour North America. He shares with her a direct approach to the lyric, in which words not only have meaning but sounds that can be used to communicate the feelings of not only of the person “in” the song (if there is one) but those of the singer himself. So when Aznavour sings about a particular woman, the lyrics speak of the feelings of the man in the song as well as the emotions of this singer at the moment he sings it.

Where Aznavour is different and, I believe, unique, is that he takes the style of chanson, with its love of expressive words, and applies it to languages apart from French. At his concert, he spoke of his 1972 song, “What Makes a Man an Man.” Having never seen him perform it, I did not realize that it was an ahead-of-its-time narrative of the life of a lonely gay man. Aznavour, who is heterosexual, recounted how he was banned from performing the song in many places because of its frankness on a topic that was almost never discussed publicly. He said that the only place he was encouraged to perform it was on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Watch this 1995 performance from Carnegie Hall and note how Aznavour acts the song with his eyes and hands and phrases the lyrics as a poetically melancholy monologue.

Sometimes an Aznavour song will have the same melody but use words with different meanings in different languages. Such is the case with my favorite: What is "She" in English becomes the French "Tous les visages de l’amour". In it he addresses a woman as toi and describes her as all the faces of love. The lyric becomes very different in English, but equally compelling, as he talks about a woman as “she” rather than talking to her. Listen to "She" and read the lyrics in English to discover how this changes the feeling of a song in which the music remains so enthralling.

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Comments [3]

Dorothea Anastasio from New Rochelle, NY

Thank you so much for the article. I've been an Aznavour fan since his days on The Tonight Show. Mr Aznavour came to my college (a NYS college) to give a concert in the late 60's, which I found unbelievable - small musical ensemble, small theater, perfect ambiance for his style of "chanson", with a reception afterwards at which we met him. I'll never forget it! I hadn't seen him in person again until his concert at City Center about 10 yrs ago, and what a different atmosphere. I've owned his LP's and CD's in English and French and cried the first time I heard "What Makes a Man". His lyrics have always been so meaningful, which is what makes him and that style of singing unique.

Oct. 22 2016 02:26 PM
Ed Wlody from Staten Island, New York

Nice review - my wife and I had front row seats and his aura never abated.
One major faux pas - perhaps he just went to the concert not being an Aznavour aficionado, and did not catch Aznavour, as he was introducing the backup entourage, mention his daughter Katia Aznavour, who always sings "Je Voyage" with him. Almost all of the 3,000 who were there knew that, I'm sure!

Oct. 20 2016 10:48 AM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

Nice article. He really knew how to get emotions across, whether in Italian, French, English, etc.

Oct. 19 2016 07:03 AM

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