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On the Art of Yvette Guilbert

By Stanley V. Makower

IN a few days Yvette Guilbert will be here once more, and all
London will be flocking to Leicester Square to secure seats at
the Empire Theatre. The chief cities of Europe and America
through which the French singer has now passed in triumphal
procession have subscribed to an almost unparalleled success with
a truly rare enthusiasm. One obscure town in Europe* is said
to have sprung into notoriety owing to an obstinate refusal to
recognise a genius to which the whole civilised world has done
honour. But this, the sole exhibition of hostility with which
the great artist has met in her wide travels, has only served to
enhance her reputation.

The extraordinary wave of enthusiasm that greets Yvette
Guilbert when she is here is only another proof that London is
the most cosmopolitan city in the world. We are constantly
having evidence of this, not the least striking being that last year
a play by a German author † was being acted at three different
London theatres at the same time in French, German, and Italian.
Nevertheless it is singular that a genius essentially French, though


* Napoli—on the western coast of Italy. † Suderrmann’s ” Die Heimath.”

                        By Stanley V. Makower 61

in no sense a type of France, exercised in a department of art
peculiar to one side of Paris, should win unanimous applause from
every class of London society.

The crisis which the drama has reached in England and in
France is in some respects the same, but there is a point at which
the parallel ceases. In both countries the drama is corrupt, but
France with characteristic precocity is the first to teach the lesson.
It has said the last word about the drama of this generation in
providing the glorious impossibility of a Sarah Bernhardt. It is
on the great actress that has fallen the task of showing that drama
written and conceived from outside has reached its culminating
point in the latest manuscript plays from the pen of Victorien
Sardou. No one with a personality less splendid could have
proved that the history of the drama during this century has been
almost exclusively the history of an art entirely alien to that which
made Shakespeare a writer of plays. In England we have no
personality great enough to sum up the whole situation, and the
consequence is that we are still at the mercy of those who line the
pavement of the Haymarket with gold to witness ” Trilby,” or
who pour with equal profusion to the doors of the St. James’ theatre
to see Mr. Alexander in ” The Prisoner of Zenda.” And all the
conscientious endeavours of Mr. Pinero and Mr. H. A. Jones fail
to stem the tide, for the very simple reason that they are neither
of them great men.

It is to Norway then that we have to look for the future welfare
of the drama, and whilst Henrik Ibsen has given a fresh impulse
to the literary minds of France and England, an impulse which
has as yet had insufficient time to translate itself to any appreciable
extent into the dramatic literature of these countries, there is a
temporary transference of the popular interest in England from
the Stage to the Music Hall, in France from the Stage to the


                        62 On the Art of Yvette Guilbert

Cabaret or the Café Chantant. But there is a wide difference
between the Music Hall and the Cabaret. The history of both
is still to be written, but it will be found that the circumstances,
the traditions or the art displayed in each are different, and, more
important than all, the literary value and artistic significance of
each are different. In England the text of the songs sung is
written by illiterate people, the artistic part lies in the performer,
and even then the performer is quite unconscious of his art. In
France the songs written for the Cabaret are mostly written, as
we shall see later on, by men of culture, of University education,
and though there is perhaps on the whole less ability to be found
in the ranks of the French than in those of the English performers,
each performer in France knows that he is engaged in an artistic
pursuit requiring talent of a special kind.

Yvette Guilbert constitutes the one brilliant exception to the
general statement, advanced with some hesitation through want of
sufficient knowledge, that we have more individual ability on the
Music Hall Stage than the French have in the Café Chantant.
But the weight of Yvette Guilbert’s individuality goes far to
counterbalance the deficiency if there is one. It is an individuality
so marked, so rare, that it almost constitutes by its own force a
development by itself, independent of a place in the history of its
art, in the same way that the strength of Chopin’s individuality
makes it almost impossible to put him into relation with other
composers of music. Curiously enough we find that during the
life-time of Chopin there was the same tendency to call him
” modern,” ” new-fangled ” and so forth, that we observe in those
critics who have used the word fin-de-siècle in connection with
Yvette Guilbert. In both cases the epithets are idle. It is the
misfortune which attends all histrionic art that it cannot be handed
down to posterity, but if it were possible to preserve something of


                        By Stanley V. Makower 63

the art of Yvette Guilbert, we should want to preserve the beauty
which she conceives internally, the look of inward imagination
that comes from her eyes, whilst the simplicity of her dress, the
almost conventional quality of her gestures, and the long black
gloves, which she adopted at the beginning of her career and has
never abandoned, are at the most evidence of an unerring taste and
of a distinguished simplicity.

There is then nothing essentially contemporary in Yvette
Guilbert, nor indeed is there anything contemporary in the form
of the art, which her instinct has guided her to select for the dis-
play of her genius, for it is a compromise between the dramatic
and lyrical form which has its parallel in early classical times.
Nothing could equal the obtuseness of more than one English
critic who has advised Yvette Guilbert to forsake this quasi-lyrical
form for the drama—advice which goes conclusively to prove that
such critics misunderstand the nature of her genius from beginning
to end. Moreover, if we examine the qualities which constitute
Sarah Bernhardt the greatest living actress, we find at once that
they are of an entirety different order from those possessed by
Yvette Guilbert. It is indeed by setting the two side by side
that we are enabled to grasp more clearly the character of the
genius which has secured for each a unique position in her art.
Sarah Bernhardt has a personality—a personality so strong that
she has succeeded in reducing the drama to a formula by which
that personality can be expressed. It is the extraordinary power
of that personality that makes her a great actress, and perhaps the
predominant characteristics of it are pictorial and musical. She
cannot avoid looking and sounding beautiful. Only once do I
remember the reality of the situation to have asserted itself over a
superb pose, and then the result was destructive. In the last act
of ” Fédora,” in which the heroine dies in her lover’s arms, there


                        64 On the Art of Yvette Guilbert

is a moment when the magnificent harmony of her movements is
merged in the realism of a dying woman’s agony. The tiny lace
handkerchief (an exquisite symbol of her art), which has accom-
panied her through two and a half acts of frenzy, is flung to the
ground, and with it she seems to abandon the last artifice of a
great artist ; but this death, unlike most of her deaths, is unlovely
—it is as revolting as would be the actual death of a person on
the stage ; it is outside the domain of art. From this we see that,
the moment Sarah Bernhardt forsakes her personality and falls into
a realism, she ceases to be an artist. On the other hand, in
Yvette Guilbert personality can never be detected, and her realism,
as will be seen later on, is never naked or unlovely. You can have
no idea of what she is like off the stage from seeing her on the
stage. With unerring instinct she moves very little when she is
singing, and with an unflinching courage which makes us marvel,
she has never been tempted to employ the dress or ” make-up ” of
any character from the beginning of her career until to-day. She
pins herself to no personality, but stands completely unfettered,
illustrating in the abstract, by a method of intense conception, a
number of fundamental truths of humanity in a song which does
not take her five minutes to sing. When she is singing Béranger’s
“Ma Grand’mère,” she makes no attempt at looking and speaking
like any individual old grandmother whom one can picture to
oneself. It is true that she wears a white cap and sits in an arm-
chair, but that is only for her own purposes, as, so far as the
audience is concerned, the incongruousness of her youthful face
and dress and the white cap only serves to dissociate the mind
more than ever from any single character. She gives the impres-
sion of infirmity in her voice, and in the last verse you can almost
see the mist of age creep over her eyes as she waves her hand
feebly in front of her. No impersonation of an individual grand-


                        By Stanley V. Makower 65

mother could give us such an impression of all grandmotherhood
as Yvette Guilbert manages to convey by the subtle variety of
tone and manner in which she sings the refrain :

Combien je regrette
    Mon bras si dodu
Ma jambe bien faite
    Et le temps perdu.

After this, to talk of the drama as an appropriate field for the
display of her powers is surely irrelevant, for, in its present condi-
tion, it could do nothing but corrupt and reduce to a minimum those
powers of lyrical intensity which are the keynote of her success.
Luckily for us there is no chance of her forsaking her present
form, for she well knows the nature of her talent. And it is
sufficient answer to the ignorant, who look upon the drama as a
higher form of art, that eminent teachers of Schumann’s songs
take their pupils to hear Yvette Guilbert, in order that they may
learn the value of words in singing.

It is worth noticing here that Yvette Guilbert has to suffer
largely from that class of people who admire and misunderstand.
This is a penalty that all public people have to pay, and its
effect is not really far-reaching ; but the nature of the misunder-
standing in the case of Yvette Guilbert is a singular one. It
creates an impression in the mind of the uninitiate that the charm
of Yvette Guilbert is that of a very pretty, very wicked, sparkling
little soubrette. Such impression is conveyed by remarks which
everybody has heard, such as, ” She sings the most indecent songs
with the most absurd innocence.” Young men tell it you with a
perplexed look in their eyes which at once conveys the impression
that the point of the songs is that they are all that Mrs. Grundy
loathes. It is almost needless to say that it is usually people who


                        66 On the Art of Yvette Guilbert

do not understand the French who speak like this. Moreover, it
is little short of fatuous to suppose that a few indecent sentences
delivered naïvely will account for the spell which Yvette Guilbert
throws over her audience. Obviously such an effect is produced
by something far more rare and fundamental—the possession of
an individuality without parallel. Indeed, the obscene with her is
clearly a mere accident in her art a thing so entirely outside
herself that she can treat it with the utmost indifference, with
even a frank gaiety that is inborn, which no amount of study or
pose could ever produce—an almost unique cleanness of soul,
“under which vice itself loses half its evil by losing all its gross-
ness.” The novelty of method, the total lack of sensuality were
what took the French by storm ; for, wearied by a host of singers
whose individuality never raised them above the grossness and
sordidness of the bête bumaine, they had never yet dreamed of a
treatment of another kind—a treatment that again seems to
remind us of the classics more than of anything contemporary.

Yvette Guilbert is lucky in having poets of no mean order to
write for her. Prominent among these is Aristide Bruant, a
well-known literary figure of Paris, who was presented to the
“Société des Gens de Lettres ” in 1892 by Francois Coppée as
” the descendant in a direct line of our Villon,” in a speech full
of genuine enthusiasm. An excellent review of his chief work,
” Dans la Rue,” a collection of songs, many of which are inter-
preted by Yvette Guilbert (e. g., “A la Villette,” “A Menil-
montant,” “A Saint Lazare,” &c.), was published in 1892,
curiously enough in an English provincial newspaper, in which
the writer points out very clearly the distinction between Bruant’s
treatment and that of other literary men, who have dealt with the
criminal classes. I cannot do better than quote an extract :


                        By Stanley V. Makower 67

” This book is about the life of the criminal classes in Paris. It is
the first successful attempt that has been made to do them from inside,
to make them talk in their own persons. The way in which they
have been dealt with hitherto in literature is exemplified by ” Les
Misérables,” with its long digression on the troisième dessous. They
have been described, criticised, explained ; they have not expressed
themselves. But here we have them discussing one another and giving
utterance to their own feelings. The treatment of their language is
similar to the treatment of their life. In other books it has been
introduced as a curiosity patiently studied by the writer ; Hugo and
Balzac, for instance, discuss it at some length ; they point out its
picturesqueness ; they call it expressive, terrible ; and when their
characters use it their speeches are printed in italics. In “Dans la
Rue ” it is employed quite naturally, as if it were the only language ;
there is no glossary, no foot-notes ; and the result is that though half
the words have to be guessed, the effect produced is far more real and

Here at once, then, we have the clue to the terrible nature of
the songs in which Yvette Guilbert achieves her greatest triumphs.
They are songs full of argot, which has a different significance
to our slang, for it has traditions of a peculiar kind, and its history
is unique in the history of languages. It takes us back to the
fifteenth century, to the organisation of a licensed society of
beggars—Truands et Gueux—a great national school of beggary,
which became the nursery of all the vice and crime of Paris,
which had its Cour des Miracles, and its own especial language in
which the uninitiate were instructed on their admission to the
fraternity. It was not until the middle of the seventeenth cen-
tury that this great guild was dissolved, the reason for its lasting
so long being that the clergy resorted freely to it, when they


* The Cambridge Observer, Vol. I., No. 14.

                        68 On the Art of Yvette Guilbert

wished to rehabilitate a failing credit by the performance of
miracles. Members of the fraternity would simulate diseases for
years, until they were well known as lepers, paralytics, or epi-
leptics, and when a religious procession passed in the street they
would, by previous arrangement with the clergy, stagger up to
the shrine, and rise healed, to the delight of the populace.

The argot of Bruant is not, of course, the pure argot of the
fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. On the dissolution of the
Guild of Beggars in 1656, the argot of the streets began to make
its way into the older language, and the confusion was still further
increased by the publication of songs and novels in which a mixed
argot was freely introduced, so that the purity of the original
language of the Gueux is gone. But the seeds of the old tongue
are still to be found in many of the French songs of to-day, and it
is to this we must look for an explanation of the hideous character
of many of the songs which Yvette Guilbert sings. We must
remember that she is singing a language, the traditions of which
are associated with the criminal classes, a language of vice and
blood, poor in relation to the number of objects denoted, but
rising in vocabulary when we want words to express drunkenness,
assault, profligacy. In a small dictionary of French argot we
find in the introduction the following table of words :

    To denote “Eating” 10 words.
     “Drinking” 20 ,,
     ,, “Drunkenness” 40 ,,
    ,, “Money” 60 ,,
    ,, “Prostitute” 80 ,,

And the only word which is used to mean an honest man is
the contemptuous simple, while the horror of the language is here
and there redeemed by such touches of fancy as fée to mean a
young girl.


                        By Stanley V. Makower 69

Enough has now been said to show conclusively that there is
far deeper reason for the use of obscene words in these songs than
the idle desire to raise a smile on the face of the young man who
has an insatiable thirst for what is depraved, and who spends most
of his time retailing dubious after-dinner stories to his friends.

Beside Aristide Bruant stands Jules Jouy, whose work Yvette
Guilbert interprets with perhaps even greater success, and
examples of which we have heard in “La Soularde” and “Mor-
phinée”—both very remarkable, but “La Soularde” the more
successful of the two, owing to its far greater simplicity. Indeed,
in this song, the art of Yvette Guilbert is exhibited in its perfec-
tion, and here the history of how it came to be written throws an
interesting light on the success that it has achieved.

It was Yvette Guilbert herself who suggested the idea of
a woman half crazy with drink lurching along the street with
madness and disease in her eyes. Jouy wrote the song and gave
it to her, saying, ” I have written a masterpiece, but I don’t
know whether you will make anything of it.” Then Yvette
Guilbert took it and studied it with all that power of intensi-
fication which is her peculiar gift. She decided the character of
the melody that was to be used, by constant recourse to the piano
to try different effects. Finally, when the song was sung Zola
was wild with enthusiasm, and the whole of Paris rang with
applause. Certainly the song is admirably written. There is
a truth in its simplicity, a directness of purpose, a perfect know-
ledge of the requirements of the art, but no one from reading
the poem could dream of the extraordinary thing which Yvette
Guilbert would create from it. She threw into it all her imagin-
ation, and out of the bare words sprang a beauty which baffled
every one. When it was sung in London the audience were
taken by storm, and yet not one half of them could understand


                        70 On the Art of Yvette Guilbert

the meaning of the words. At the end of the verse which
describes the people throwing cabbages and rubbish at the
drunken woman as she lurches along, Yvette Guilbert throws her
head back and breaks the final syllable of the refrain ” La
Soularde ” (the arde in Soularde) into a cry of two notes. It
would scarcely be too much to call this the greatest moment
that has ever been brought off in executory art. It takes your
breath away. The whole scene rushes on the mind with a force
that is overwhelming. You positively see the drunken woman
with dishevelled hair and bloodshot eyes reeling down the street,
pursued by a jeering crowd—but in the meanwhile Yvette
Guilbert, in modern evening dress, is standing comparatively still
on the stage with that background representing a Mauresque
palace which has become a traditional drop-scene at the Empire
Theatre. The reality of the picture that she creates then is not
the lettered realism that is conveyed by any external method, like
that for example of Mr. Tree, when he is made up to look exactly
like a Russian spy, an Italian cut throat, or a Jewish pianist; nor
is it the realism of Sarah Bernhardt when she dies in ” Fédora ; “
but the spiritual realism of a thing deeply conceived, deeply felt,
and translating itself to the audience without any delusion of
accessories. It is conveyed in the quality of the voice, in the
marvellous narrative of the eyes ; and these are so inimitable that
we are not surprised at the incapacity of a Cissy Loftus to give
us a more fundamental notion of Yvette Guilbert than could
be given by any one who would put on a pair of long black
gloves. It is not possible that she should suggest her prototype
any more than a stuffed animal suggests a living one. The best
proof of this is, that if you hear the accomplished little mimic
before you have heard Yvette Guilbert, you get an absolutely
false and ineffectual impression of what the French singer is like ;


                        By Stanley V. Makower 71

if you hear her afterwards, the impression made on you by
her prototype is so strong that you cannot stop yourself from
filling up in your mind the big gaps in the imitation, and you
come away thinking of Yvette Guilbert, and yet feeling per-
plexed, cheated, dissatisfied. You have wanted the suggestion of
a mind—you have been given the suggestion of a body, and even
that a very imperfect one, because of the distinction of physique
in Yvette Guilbert. This is obvious enough when we look at a
photograph of her, which all the cunning of M. Reutlinger is
unable to conjure into anything approaching a likeness ; and of
the three hundred pictures which have been painted by different
artists of the singer, no single one gives any complete idea of the
original, though many have caught a trait here and there, and
suggested it powerfully enough. In fact, there is nothing suffi-
ciently photographic about Yvette Guilbert to lend itself to
imitation of any sort ; and when Miss Cissy Loftus tries to
imitate Yvette Guilbert, she is like a child trying to make
a drawing after Velasquez. The effect that Yvette Guilbert
produces is far removed from that produced by any external
realism. If we were to see a person imitate accurately a drunken
woman—so accurately, in fact, that, were it not for the stage, we
should be unable to guess that she was acting, we should feel
much the same physical disgust that is aroused in us when we see
a drunken woman reeling down a street. We should be no more
edified than by the ingenuity of the man who exhibited a picture
with a real face peering through the canvas. But when Yvette
Guilbert is telling you about a drunken woman, though you
shudder, it is not with disgust—for the thing is transfigured by
her into something different. You see the scene, but you see it
in a new light, with something of the light which goes to make
the genius of the performer, and which she has such a rare power


                        72 On the Art of Yvette Guilbert

of communicating. When she steps outside the characters of the
scene, crying out against the profanity of ridicule and raising
a plea for the woman to pass unmolested, she conveys by her voice
a suggestion of that universal humanity which binds the world
together. The subtlety of this is indescribable. It reaches its
climax again in the refrain “La Soularde,” sung this time in
a way which makes us feel at one moment both the infinite pity
of the spectator and the crushing weariness of the woman. It is
just this poetry of vision which robs these songs of all their
horror, for it is in the beautifying of the terrible that lies
the supremacy of her art.

If we think over this song, it seems to provide us in its success
with a complete logical understanding of the proportion which
words, scenery, and music ought to bear to each other. However
strange it may sound, it seems to teach us that the Elizabethans
were right when they acted Shakespeare before a placard an-
nouncing the nature of the scenery, that Henrik Ibsen is the
only man who has realised the conditions of the modern drama,
and made a splendid endeavour to cut them from under him, that
the foundations of the work of Richard Wagner are false. It is
just possible that had the great musician heard Yvette Guilbert
sing this song, he would never have said that music is a MEANS
(in large capitals) and not an END (in large capitals), for he
would have been bound to recognise the perfect unity of this
song, and he would then have realised what a limitation he was
setting by his assertion, on the art in which he excelled. He
would not have been alone among the foremost musicians of the
time in admiring Yvette Guilbert, and when he came to examine
the notes in ” La Soularde,” he would have seen that they are
scarcely music at all, but a consumately skilful arrangement in the
nature of a compromise between talking and singing. We can


                        By Stanley V. Makower 73

trace the truth of this down to a single note, in which it is
manifestly exemplified, and which is here quoted.

Here in this passage the final note is scarcely articulated at all ;
it is at all events a mere talking sound and expresses no musical
value. Again in the following extract the musical accent should
fall on the first note of the second bar but the necessity of the words
throws it in recitation upon the second note to which the word
” mort ” is sung, and the departure from the regular movement
of the rhythm produces its effect directly. The music and the
words have come into conflict, and the words rise triumphant from
the encounter.

And when this is sung the correctness and inevitability of the
sacrifice of the music to the words is immediately felt. The
secret of the perfectness of the relation between words and music
has already been alluded to. It lies in the fact that Yvette
Guilbert plays with the words at the piano until she finds a
suitable medium for the expression and then the scheme is worked
into an accompaniment. Thus by subordinating the material to
the requirements of the executant a perfect unity is obtained.
Wagner too imagined that he was subordinating his music to his
words, but it is clear that where he achieves his greatest triumphs
in music he is actually untramelled by his text, and it is fortunate
for us that he was unconscious of the fact that he was constantly


                        74 On the Art of Yvette Guilbert

sinning gloriously against his favourite theories or we should never
have had “Tristan and Isolde” but should have been left to puzzle
and lift our eyebrows over more enigmas as incomprehensible as
the recitatifs in ” Die Niebelungen.”

Besides ” La Soularde,” perhaps the most famous of M. Jouy’s
songs is ” La Pierreuse,” which is a great favourite with French
audiences,* but which Yvette Guilbert does not sing in London
as it would be almost impossible to sing it without the sympathy
of an audience which understands and can appreciate what is
at stake. In Paris there is a breathless silence while this song
is being sung. The sublime horror of it takes hold of every
one, and never has a deeper thrill been sent in so few words
through a vast assembly of people. The stillness that it com-
mands is magical, the applause at the close frantic. This is the
story of a woman who makes her living by wandering about the
fortifications of Paris in wait for men whom she entices up to
one of the entrenchments. Then she softly calls for her lover
who is posted at a short distance and he steals up and murders
the victim—throwing his corpse into the entrenchment after he
has robbed it of all the money and valuables he can find on it.
The cry of the woman ” pi-ouit ” is the refrain of the song,
followed by the sound of blows and the thud of the body as it falls.
In the last verse the woman who is telling her own tale explains
why she wears mourning. It is for the lover who was caught and
guillotined. And then she describes his execution in the early
morning. She sees him let out at the dawn. There is the faint
cry of ” pi-ouit” sent by a brother thief in the distance to cheer


* A pierreuse or femme de terrain is strictly a woman who wanders in and out of the stone-heaps that lie round houses which are in course of building.

                        By Stanley V. Makower 75

him as he goes and then, before he has time to answer, he is cast
upon the block. Deibler lets the knife drop—and the head and
trunk fall into the box of bran.

As Yvette Guilbert sings this song she transplants you to the
scenes she is describing. And when she whispers the cry of
the brother thief sounding faintly as it travels across the sleeping
city of Paris in the early dawn “pi…i…i…oui…i…i…t ” to
the man who is just on the point of being guillotined, the effect
is astounding. As in the refrain “La Soularde,” she contrives in
this cry of ” pi-ouit ” to show you and make you feel through her
poetry of vision the whole scene. She gathers up into one over-
whelming moment the misery of the woman who is watching in
the distance, the speechlessness of the figure that is conducted to
execution, and the human compassion of the comrade who whistles
the old refrain as he sees his friend borne out to die. You get in
this cry the whole feeling of what a great brotherhood in crime
means. There is in it a ring of reckless despair. ” Your turn
to-day, mine to-morrow: pi-ouit.” It seems a lot to get out of the
two syllables, but hear Yvette Guilbert whisper them and she
makes you feel all that and more. She manipulates the last stanza
with consummate skill. How the voice sinks as she begins to
think of the scene :

    Oui, c’est 1’autre jour à 1’aurore
    Qu’on m’a rogné mon gigolo.

Then the choke of horror with which she says,

    C’te fois-ci, c’est pas rigolo.

She watches the priest talking to him at the doorway. You see
the terror in her eyes, and when she closes the song with
the sound of the body falling into the box and the brutal

The Yellow Book—Vol. IX. E


                        76 On the Art of Yvette Guilbert

    Ç’a s’fait très-vit’!

it is almost impossible to believe that the simple figure that retires
from the stage has only told you about it and that it is a sham. A
remarkable feature of this song is the extraordinarily vivid effect of
physical violence which Yvette Guilbert conveys by the use of
sounds—which cannot be spelt. She really manufactures a language
of her own which no one could talk but which every one under-
stands. The same gift enables her to extract an extraordinary
value out of a cough or such ejaculations as la! la! ha! ha! (a
fact which again points to the lyrical quality of her genius) which
often sum up in a vein of gentle criticism what has gone before.
The delicacy of the impression is indescribable. We get it in “Ça
fait plaisir,” and “Les nouveaux mariés.” (Xanrof).

In “La Pierreuse ” more even than in “La Soularde” we see
the power of Yvette Guilbert to make the terrible beautiful.
Nothing could well be more horrible than the whole story, and
yet even the shocking brutality of the thing is merged in the
completeness of her vision. It leaves you aghast, bereft of all
powers of moral criticism. You are taken so far down below the
surface of the incidents recorded, so deeply into the roots of
humanity that the sense of relation between the characters in the
song and those of well behaved people is entirely lost, and you
come away with an insight into the criminal classes which no
amount of statistics and blue books could ever give you. As
in “La Soularde” the music of “La Pierreuse” is entirely
subordinated to the words, the intervals between the notes very
often representing little more than the inflection of the voice in

Enough has been said for it to be easily recognised that the
men who write these songs are of no ordinary capacity, and their


                        By Stanley V. Makower 77

position in the literary and artistic world of Paris is one of distinc-
tion. But Yvette Guilbert has popularised their work, she has
made it intelligible to the mass of French people, and she has even
carried it all over the world with phenomenal success, and the
peculiar excellence of the workmanship is in many cases not obvious
to the uninitiate until the song is actually sung. No one who was
a stranger to the intricacies of the métier could possibly guess from
the text of ” La Soularde ” what it really means when it is sung.
It is so simple as you read it that you are apt to raise your eye-
brows in inquiry and ask where the point of it all lies. The
story of ” La Pierreuse ” makes its significance more apparent, and
in M. Sémiane s ” Mon Gosse,” which requires especial attention,
it would be difficult not to see that the writer is a poet apart from
anything else.

Perhaps the text of this song is finer than any which Yvette
Guilbert has sung. A mother talks to the child in her womb, and
bids it not hurry into the world where all is misery and crime.
Rich people can have children but poor people have no right to
bring them into the world. ” The offspring of love,” she goes on,
” have tender hearts. Some vile woman will tear yours to pieces.
Then you will be food for the cannon and will putrefy on the
field of battle.” She ends with a prayer for forgiveness and begs
the child, if ever it raises its hand against society, to spare to curse
the mother whose fault it all is. It is truly astonishing to see this
set forth with almost Shakespearian simplicity in a language which
English people are always accustomed to associate with something
ornate. There is not a superfluous word and there is a noticeable
appropriateness in the platitude :—

    Mais, là, vrai quand on manqu’ de pain
    On n’devrait pas s’créer d’famille.


                        78 On the Art of Yvette Guilbert

which we should hardly expect to see in a French poem. Few
people would have had the courage, almost the audacity, to be so
simple, but the effect of these words in the mouth of the unfortu-
nate woman who speaks them is perfectly appropriate. And the
refrain, ” Pauv gosse,” (poor urchin—although it is impossible to
get a word in English quite as soft as “gosse “) could not be sur-
passed. It brings you down with a blow at the end of each
stanza. The last stanza should be quoted to be appreciated :

    Pardonne! . . . . lorsqu’il me poussa,
    Au villag’ , sur un banc de pierre,
    J’aurais dû songer à tout çà
    Mais j’savais pas c’que j’allais faire.
    Et si jamais tu montres 1’poing
    A notre société féroce,
    Moi, ta mère, oh! ne m’maudis point
    Mon gosse!

Here look again at the effect of

    J’aurais dû songer à tout çà.

Who but a poet could have expressed a great thing in a line so
commonplace, so simple ? Obviously the poem makes a deep im-
pression on us when we read it—but when Yvette Guilbert
interprets it, it defies description. The note of weariness which
she throws into it, the maddened hatred of life which pours forth
as she says

    Mais, vois-tu, la vie est atroce

the whole of maternity weeping in the two words ” Pauv’ gosse,”
these must be heard to be felt. It is almost impossible to talk
about them without belittling them, and perhaps the best tribute to
their greatness is to be silent.


                        By Stanley V. Makower 79

We cannot however dismiss the song without noticing the
music which has been written with infinite skill by M. Paul Hucks,
and the key to the success of which is to be found in the use of
the following chord :

This is resolved into the major for the refrain ” Pauv’ gosse,”
but look how the important word of each verse falls on this chord.
Thus in the first verse, “on lui (à la vie) rend tout” Again “
“t’auras faim toi ; ” again ” ton coeur pleurera ; ” and in the last
verse ” moi, ta mère oh ! ne m’maudis point.” From this we see
that the musician has realised the sentiment of the song admirably
in throwing the weight of the balance into the minor key. The
notes for the voice are as usual quite simple, and the substructure
of the accompaniment is contained in a modulation in less than six
chords, but the invention of the chord above quoted is the creation
of a peculiar mind. We can single it out almost as we can single
out certain notes in Chopin and say “That is Chopin—no one
else could have done that.” And it is clear that no substitute could
ever produce such a telling effect.

The songs described above form but a very small portion of a
very large repertoire which Yvette Guilbert is always extending
by the study of new productions. Infinitely delightful are her
renderings of the songs of Xanrof and others in which she displays
the lighter side of her talent, a vein of broad and yet delicate
humour and a taste that is unimpeachable. When you hear her


                        80 On the Art of Yvette Guilbert

sing ” Les demoiselles de pensionnat,” you realise how impossible
it is for her to be vulgar. The treatment is so frank and direct
that before you have time to collect your thoughts you are laugh-
ing with the performer at the demoiselles. She has the knack of
getting her audience on her side before she has said two words.
Who will forget the charming intimacy that she established be-
tween herself and the London public rather more than a year ago
when she stood in front of the stage and announced ” Linger
Longer Loo ” with a distinct emphasis on the last syllable of
Longer ? The audience of the Empire stroked itself all over, and
took with the most friendly courtesy and enthusiasm the compli-
ment which Yvcttc Guilbert elected to pay them by burlesquing
the popular song of the hour. This excellent bit of foolery
never tailed to put the whole house in a boisterous good humour,
and though her burlesques cannot be put on a level with her
greatest achievements, yet they exhibit a humour and a delicate
fancy that makes it difficult to forget them. They show again
that she has an extraordinary feeling for the value of words. Her
burlesques of the American songs are full of a fun that is robust,
incisive, spontaneous, and her French version of the English “Di,
Di,” illustrates the creative nature of her genius. Out of the
rather colourless, commonplace English text she makes a thing
that sparkles and dances with fun, with at least one masterly phrase
in it :

    Ne fais pas ça:
    Ça m’fait du mal,
    Ca froissera
    Mon idéal

But the numerous songs of which she has written both the text
and the music afford abundant proof that she is never at a loss
for an idea, and indeed in many of her great successes she has


                        By Stanley V. Makower 81

suggested the idea of the songs herself, as in Jule Jouy’s ” La
Soularde,” which was discussed in detail in the early part of this

To attempt to describe the appearance of Yvette Guilbert would
be folly when even the art of M. Steinlen has failed to give us
more than a very imperfect idea of what she is like. Indeed, as
might be expected, her physique is as rare as her qualities as an
artist. Her face bears in it the irregularities of genius, and more-
over it never seems to look the same twice running. It has in it
something insaisissable, something which evades the precision of
mental as well as actual portraiture. Perhaps this is owing to the
remarkable imagination in the eyes, which in Yvette Guilbert
more than in anybody else give the key to the individuality.
There is in those eyes a great melancholy ; not the morbid
melancholy of a creature unable to struggle with the world—
but a look borrowed from the whole of nature, something of the
look of infinite sadness which shines from the eyes of Botticelli’s
Prima Vera : and in that look lies a wisdom which makes us

Mr. Walter Pater in his study of Dionysus points out the tinge
of melancholy in the god’s face in that point in his evolution
when he passes from the joyous spirit of the country, with its
rivers and rich imagery of grape and wine, to the town the abode
of human misery and woe. He traces from this the growth of
Greek tragedy.

Such is the look that steals into the eyes of Yvette Guilbert
when she leaves the rose gardens of her villa on the Seine, to come
and sing in the heart of Paris of the joys and sorrows, the laughter
and the tears that are born in the great French city.

MLA citation:

Makower, Stanley V. “On the Art of Yvette Guilbert.” The Yellow Book, vol. 9, April 1896, pp. 60-81. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.