“La Vie en Rose” literally means “A Life In Pink”. Piaf wrote the lyrics in 1946 to a melody by Louise Guglielmi. Piaf’s producer at the time tried to convince her to drop the song from her shows, as he considered it unsuitable for her public’s tastes. Luckily for us she ignored his advice, and the song went on to become not only her most recorded, but also won a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998.
A news article in the UK Telegraph refers to a letter Piaf wrote at the same time as she wrote the lyrics to this song:
A passionate love letter written by French singer Edith Piaf to a younger Greek actor has sold at auction in Athens
In the letter to Dimitris Horn, a stage and film actor also known as Takis Horn and six years her junior, Piaf confesses: “I am capable of giving everything up for you.”
The Greek auction house Petros Vergos said the handwritten letter and envelope, dated in 1946, along with a telegramme also sent that year and a theatre programme from a performance she gave in Greece were sold for almost £1,500 to a private collector at a sale in an Athens hotel.
The auction was delayed for a month because of riots in the Greek capital and cities across the country. Piaf, known as “the little sparrow”, met Horn in Athens in 1946, the year she released her most famous song La vie en rose. In her letter, dated Sept 20, 1946, and a telegramme sent two months later, Piaf urged Horn to visit her in Paris or London.
“I want to live everything with you … I know I could make you happy. I also know I understand you completely,” she wrote.
“I know I am capable of giving everything up for you.”
Horn, who had a long-standing romance with a popular Greek actress and married twice before his death in 1998, never spoke publicly about his acquaintance with Piaf.
Piaf died of cancer in 1963, aged 47.
Perhaps it would be unwise to attempt to draw direct parallels between the song and the love-letter. But I find that the letter confirms many of my instincts about performing the song: the narrator is clearly the throes of deepest love and passion, but at the same time the sweetness is just made a little too sweet, as if the awareness has already dawned, that this dream can not last. Perhaps, just perhaps, the roses are just a little bit too pink to be real?
When he takes me in his arms, and speaks soft words of love, I see the world in roses.
It starts as an almost post-coital reverie, fragrances and sensations and colours float in the air and the mind’s eye. The textures are delicate and almost balletic. When I play, I feel as if I am choreographing movements for an exquisite en pointe ballerina. I have to create an uncluttered but atmospherically lit stage for the voice – my ballerina – to weave the lace of magic and intoxication. The singer and pianist explore the outlines of the chords and trace the melody like lovers exploring nuance, shape and texture.
The “lighting” changes for the middle section:
I thought that love was just a word, they sang about in songs I’d heard.
More sober now, the storyteller remembers a time before this delicious discovery, a time of cynicism and loneliness. The music is more conversational and it reminds me of a laid-back opera recitative: a few well-chosen chords frame the almost spoken reflections of the singer. For a moment the romantic girl has her feet firmly planted on the ground. This moment of sober reflection seems to prompt a feeling of someone trying to grab onto something in case it slips their grasp.
The passion expressed in the song seems to be expressed more intensely, and the imagery is almost desperately clinging on to the vision of this perfect love:
When you press me to your heart, I’m in a world apart. A World where roses bloom. And when you speak Angels sing from above.
The piano part builds up to a climax with repeated chords that feel undeniably erotic to play. There is however a sense of denial in the way the song unfurls. When I play those last two pages, I feel it is as if she is desperate for this rosy-romance to last. As if she already knows that it will evaporate. Or that it already has? This person seems to be setting the bar just too high for this romance. No relationship can provide – in reality – this vision which she has conjured, surely?
Yet, the beauty of that vision, and and the yearning, are simply so touching, so beautiful and so inescapable. In the heart of each listener is the place where the broken dreams and the seeds of new hope share the same incubator. And it is in that sacred space that we meet our audience. At that point in the song, my little ballerina for whom I have been conjuring rose-coloured stage-lighting, and the little French Sparrow writing to her Greek lover that she is capable of giving everything up for him, seem to have floated up in the air and become one and the same.
Give your heart and soul to me
and life will always be
La vie en rose