born on 28/5/1903 in Decize, Bourgogne, France
died on 12/10/1961 in Paris, Île-de-France, France
Marguerite Monnot (28 May 1903 – 12 October 1961) was a French songwriter and composer best known for having written many of the songs performed by Édith Piaf ("Milord", "Hymne à l'amour") and for the music in the stage musical Irma La Douce.
A successful female composer
As a female composer of popular music in the first half of the twentieth century, Monnot was a pioneer in her field. Classically trained by her father and at the Paris Conservatory (her teachers included Nadia Boulanger, Vincent d’Indy, and Alfred Cortot), Monnot made the unusual switch to composing popular music after poor health ended her career as a concert pianist when she was eighteen. Soon after writing her first commercially successful song, "L'Étranger", in 1935, she met Édith Piaf, and in 1940 they became the first female songwriting team in France, remaining friends and collaborators throughout most of their lives.
Monnot worked with some of the best lyricists of her day, including Raymond Asso, Henri Contet, and Georges Moustaki, and she also knew and collaborated with musicians and writers like Charles Aznavour, Yves Montand, Boris Vian, and Marlene Dietrich, who gathered in Piaf's living room on a regular basis to play and sing. In 1955, she achieved major success with her setting of Alexandre Breffort's book Irma la Douce, which was translated into English and had long runs in London and on Broadway under the direction of Peter Brook. The original French version continues to enjoy revivals in France and a number of other countries today. She also wrote the music for several films and an operetta.
Her early years
Marguerite Monnot was born in Decize, Nièvre, a small city on the Loire River. Her father, Gabriel Monnot, who had lost his sight at the age of three, was a musician and composer of religious music. He was the organist at the Saint-Aré church in Decize and gave piano and harmonium lessons. Monnot's mother, Marie, also gave music lessons and was a teacher of French literature and a writer. Every evening, pupils and friends gathered in their home to play and sing, and the Monnots sometimes invited well-known musicians to join them. Marguerite thus grew up in an atmosphere of music. She rarely attended school: her mother taught her at home, she was tutored in music by her father, and she practiced piano several hours a day.
At the age of three, she composed her first little song, "Bluette". At three and a half, she accompanied a singer at a Paris performance of a Mozart berceuse, receiving a toy stuffed cat as compensation. In 1911, at the Salle des Agriculteurs in Paris, she played Liszt, Chopin, and Mozart and received her first press reviews. From twelve to fifteen years of age, she performed in a number of different cities, including Paris, where Camille Saint-Saëns is said to have remarked of her, "I have just heard the best pianist in the world." At age fifteen, she was sent to study in Paris. She had lessons from Vincent d’Indy in harmony and fugue, studied piano with Alfred Cortot, and learned harmony from Nadia Boulanger. The latter helped her to prepare for the Prix de Rome, although it is unclear whether she actually entered the competition formally, and taught her some composition techniques. She toured the capitals of Europe when she was sixteen, and accompanied the dancer Vincente Escuderro in Madrid. It was there that she became keenly interested in Spanish folklore. She was offered the opportunity to become an official musician at the Spanish royal court, but her parents sent her back to Paris instead for further study.
Her concert career was interrupted in 1921, on the eve of a United States tour, by a bout of ill health and what the French call "le trac", or an attack of nerves. Her diffidence and stage fright were to follow her throughout her career as a composer. She became desperately shy when she had to show Piaf a new song, even after years of collaboration. Almost every person who knew Monnot and who later wrote about her has drawn attention to her shyness and absent-mindedness.
Her second vocation, songwriting, was just a pastime at first. A fan of popular music on the radio in the early 1920s, including jazz and dance music, she began writing songs because a family friend encouraged her to write a waltz for a film based on a play by Tristan Bernard. This song, written with Bernard in 1931, was entitled "Ah! les mots d’amour!" and sung by Jane Marny. The lyricist Marc Hély then asked her to compose the music for "Viens dans mes bras", sung by Lucienne Boyer and published by Salabert. Her talent was quickly recognized, and she was encouraged to continue. She persevered, and in 1935, the song "L’Étranger" was born out of her collaboration with the journalist-lyricist Robert Malleron and the accordionist-composer Robert Juel, who co-authored the music. The song was awarded the Grand Prix de l'Académie Charles Cros that year.
The Piaf years
"L’Étranger" played a key role in Monnot's first encounter with Édith Piaf in 1936. Annette Lajon had sung the song originally, and Piaf wanted to acquire the rights to perform it. The publisher, Maurice Decruck, denied her request, however, because a singer had exclusive rights to a song for a six-month period. So Piaf learned it by heart and sang it at Le Gerny's, the nightclub where she was performing at the time. When Annette Lajon appeared in the audience at Gerny's one night, Piaf is said to have apologized to her for "stealing" her song. Lajon apparently accepted the apology graciously and introduced Piaf to its composer, Marguerite Monnot, who had accompanied her to the nightclub.
The same year, Monnot met the lyricist Raymond Asso, with whom she was to collaborate for many years. He was a former Foreign Legionnaire, and he cut a romantic and exotic figure with his cape and boots. The first of Asso's songs for which Monnot wrote the music was "Mon légionnaire", which was to become an international standard, published in seven languages. This song, together with another inspired by the same colonial theme, "Le fanion de la Légion", written in 1938, established Monnot and Asso as a successful songwriting team. This was the era of such songs as "Morocco coeurs brulées" and the films of Jean Gabin featuring soldiers in North Africa. Some years later, during a trip to Sidi Bel Abbes, Algeria, Monnot and Asso were awarded decorations by the Foreign Legion.
Monnot and Piaf became close friends and began collaborating on songs in the early 1940s. Many of these would become part of Piaf's repertoire for years to come. The two women were certainly the first successful female songwriting team of the era. Their songs were performed not only by Piaf, but by many of the most famous female singers of the day, including Damia, Mona Goya, and Line Viala. These include the songs from the film Montmartre-sur-Seine ("Tu es partout", "Un coin tout bleu", "Y’en a un de trop", "Où sont-ils mes petits copains?"), "Mon amour vient de finir" (Damia), and "C’était un jour de fête." Monnot devoted the next twenty-five years almost exclusively to writing extraordinarily successful songs for Piaf.
Monnot's friendship was extremely important in Piaf's life. In her biography, Piaf calls Monnot her best friend and the woman she most admired in the whole world. She also refers to her pride in having collaborated with Monnot. Piaf pays tribute to Monnot for encouraging her interest in classical music and in learning to play the piano.
During the war years, from 1939 to 1945, Monnot collaborated with Henri Contet, writing such songs as "Y’a pas de printemps", "Histoire de coeur", "Le ciel est fermé", and "Le brun et le blond". They also worked together on the songs for the film Etoile sans lumière, for Piaf, and "Ma môme, ma p’tite môme [or gosse]" for Yves Montand.
In those years, Piaf rehearsed a few songs by Monnot that were never recorded, including "Le chant du monde" (lyric by Asso), "Mon amour vient de finir", "Les rues du monde" and "Le diable est près de moi" (lyrics by Piaf), and "L’hôtel d’en face" (lyric by Gine Money). This was also the period when Piaf recorded a number of songs, as mentioned above, which were never released, such as the one with the intriguing title, "Je ne veux plus faire la vaisselle" ("I Don’t Want To Wash Dishes Any More).
During Piaf's tour of the stalags in Germany during the war, one of the famous Monnot-Asso songs, "Le fanion de la Légion", was banned because it had created such patriotic fervor in Parisian audiences. Meanwhile, Monnot remained in Paris, making occasional trips home to Decize to see her mother (her father had died in 1939) and bring provisions from the countryside back to Paris.
On 11 July 1950, Monnot married the singer Étienne Giannesini, whose stage name was Paul Péri. The couple had no children. They reportedly made many trips to Decize to visit Monnot's mother, and Monnot wrote songs for Péri, including the music for a detective film, "Les Pépées font la loi", in which Péri starred in 1954.
In the 1950s, Monnot also collaborated with a few new lyricists, including Michel Emer, Luiguy, Norbert Glanzberg, Philippe-Gérard, Florence Véran, and Hubert Giraud, and with the orchestra of Robert Chauvigny. She continued to write for Piaf with another songwriter, René Rouzaud, who had already composed for Damia, Georges Guétary, and Lys Gauty. They wrote the popular "La goualante du pauvre Jean" ("Poor John's Song/Complaint"), which, translated as "The Poor People of Paris" because of a confusion between "pauvre Jean" and "pauvre gens", became the first French song to hit number one on the American and British record charts. This song was sung not only by Piaf but by Yves Montand, Patachou, Line Renaud, and Maurice Chevalier, in addition to becoming a hit instrumental played by the Les Baxter Orchestra. Other songs of this era were "Les amants de Venise", written with Jacques Plante, and a few songs composed in collaboration with Piaf ("Dany", "La p’tite Marie", and "Un grand amour qui s’achève").
Irma La Douce and beyond
Irma La Douce was the first French musical since Offenbach's operettas to enjoy success all over the world. It opened on 12 November 1956, at the Théâtre Gramont in Paris, where it ran for four years. The book and lyrics were by Alexandre Breffort; it was directed by René Dupuy and starred Colette Renard and Miche Roux. A year and a half into the Paris run, the show opened in London. It was directed by Peter Brook and starred Elizabeth Seal and Keith Michell. Eventually the English-language Irma went on to become even more popular than the original French one. The musical opened on 17 July 1958, at the Lyric Theatre in London's West End, where it ran for 1,512 performances. The show opened in New York on Broadway at the Plymouth Theater on 29 September 1960, and ran for 524 performances. It had the unprecedented distinction of playing simultaneously in France, the UK, the US, Canada, South Africa, Australia, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Brazil and Argentina. It was recorded under the Sony label and starred Elizabeth Seal and Keith Michell, who had both been part of the London cast. In 1963, Billy Wilder directed the movie version (with some of Monnot's music as background), starring Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon. The film definitely suffered from the failure to include the original songs.
Shortly after the success of Irma, Disney Studios reportedly asked Monnot to come to Hollywood and compose for American films, but she refused to leave her settled life in France. From then on, her career in film music was relatively limited. She collaborated regularly with Marcel Blistène, including writing some songs for the film Les amants de demain in 1959. (She had already worked with him on the film Etoile sans lumière in 1946.) She composed other songs for Péri, a singer of "realistic" songs, such as "Encore un verre" and "Ma rue et moi", which have been all but forgotten. She also composed the music for Méphisto and Le sentier de la guerre, written by Claude Nougaro.
Generally speaking, Monnot had difficulty separating herself from Piaf's world and composing for others. Although her songs were also sung by such well-known singers as Damia, Josephine Baker, Suzy Solidor, and Yves Montand, the successful ones were few and far between. "Ma môme, ma p’tite môme [or gosse]" (sung by Damia and Yves Montand) and the songs from "Irma" were the exception. She did write two fairly successful songs during the 1950s with women lyricists, however. She collaborated with Claude Délècluse and Michelle Senlis on "C’est à Hamburg" (1955), an even better song called "Les amants d’un jour" (1956), and then "Comme moi" (1957). These songs were a synthesis between the first years of the Monnot-Piaf collaboration and the post-war song, between the time of the legionnaires and the end of the dream of colonialism. In 1957, Monnot met the lyricist Michel Rivgauche, with whom she was to write "Salle d’attente", "Fais comme si", "Tant qu’il y aura des jours" and "Les blouses blanches", at Piaf's apartment .
Almost all of her friends and acquaintances during her adult life describe Monnot as absent-minded, with an enigmatic smile and a dreamy expression. She was quite a scatter-brain, as reported by many of her associates. Monnot attached little value to money, although she was quite unhappy if she felt she did not have enough. She remained relatively poor until the success of "Irma la Douce". She never argued over her contracts, and she often forgot to make her declarations to the Société des Auteurs, an omission that deprived her of a considerable amount in royalties. She did not seem to be a strong woman, yet she was able to make her way in the jungle of the popular music business. She made the choice of popular music over classical, and was even referred to as "the aristocrat of popular song".
As many of Piaf's biographers tell it, the friendship between the singer and Monnot suffered a serious setback, if not a death blow, after Piaf met the composer Charles Dumont in the late 1950s. Dumont composed what was to be one of Piaf's greatest signature tunes, "Je ne regrette rien", whereupon Piaf took 11 of Monnot's songs out of her repertoire for her upcoming performance at the Olympia to make room for more Dumont songs.
Monnot became ill with symptoms of appendicitis during her last year of life, 1961. She seems to have had a premonition that her illness was life-threatening, yet she failed to follow medical advice and have the operation she needed. Her deep sadness in the last months of her life reveals itself in the following excerpt from a letter to her friend, Madame Niaudet: "It means nothing to get old, if you are always surrounded by your loved ones. But how horrible it is to be alone most of the time. I have a tremendous need for rest, especially mentally and emotionally. How terrible it is to have been born too sensitive! Will I soon find the calm I so badly need? There are times when I just despair. Alone in my room, the radio! All those notes! All those minutes, at the end of which lies death and, before the final end, the death of the heart, the love life. It's dreadful, this emptiness inside me."
On 12 October 1961, at the age of 58, Marguerite Monnot died in a Paris hospital from a ruptured appendix and the resulting peritonitis. She was buried with her father and mother in the cemetery of her hometown. Her death devastated Piaf -who used to call her "La Guite"- as well as Monnot's many friends and colleagues, who paid glowing tribute to her and her music. In 1963, the city of Decize renamed the street where she had lived (rue des Écoles) "rue Marguerite Monnot". It also unveiled a commemorative plaque on the façade of the house where she was born. In 1989, the nursery school in the center of town was also named after her. In 1991, on the thirtieth anniversary of her death, a Mass, concert, and exhibition were held in Decize in her memory. But her true memorial is to be found in her œuvre: the beautiful songs she wrote.
- David Bret The Piaf Legend, 1988 Piaf: A Passionate Life JR Books, 2007