Song of the Week 35: Göttingen – Barbara

Gottingen Barbara

Guten Tag, Bonjour,

Can a song really change the world?

This week´s SOTW takes us back to 1967, where we´ll meet a French Jewish woman who united two countries with her song, Göttingen.

Fifty years ago yesterday, January 22nd, 1963, 18 years after the end of the second World War, a post-war reconciliation treaty was signed between France & Germany. But for some, a simple song had more to do with thawing relations between the two nations.

Born Monique Serf in Paris in 1930. She was the second child of a Jewish fur salesman. Her family were constantly on the move during the German occupation, fleeing from the Nazis.

After the war ended, a neighbourhood professor of music heard her sing and decided to help her develop her talents. She was taught to play piano and given vocal lessons, and eventually enroled at Ecole Supérieure de Musique in Paris. Money was tight, so she began to sing at La Fontaine des Quatre Saisons, a popular cabaret, performing under her Russian grandmother´s name, Varvara.

She was deeply scarred by her family´s plight during the war, and she experienced inner feelings of emptiness, which showed up in her songs and her appearance.

Barbara autobiography

In her interrupted autobiography (which was assembled from notes found in her house) she claimed that she was sexually abused by her father when she was ten while her family was in hiding. Her father later left the family never to return.

From 1950 to 1952, she ran away from home, following her father´s desertion. She lived in Brussels and became part of a thriving artistic community, performing songs by Edith Piaf, Juliette Gréco and Germaine Montéro. Her career however, was evolving very slowly, and she found it difficult to make a living during this time.

Jacques Brel photo from wikipedia

She returned to Paris, and met Jacques Brel, who would remain her lifelong friend. She would go on to record several of his songs. She also met Georges Brassens, and many of his songs became part of her act and would make up her first album. She was beginning to build up a fan base among young students in the latin quarter where she played small shows.  In 1957 she returned to Brussels to record her album.

Bobino Music Hall

She got her first real break in 1961 when she was asked to perform at the elite Bobino Music Hall in Montparnasse. She gave a haunting performance dressed in a long black robe. The Parisian critics however were notoriously strict however, and they wrote that her stage presence was too stiff and formal and lacked naturalness. Bloody critics! She would be return there in 1967 in triumph.

She continued to play the small clubs, but two years later at the Théâtre des Capucines, she would win over the hearts and minds of both audience and critics with a captivating and powerful performance of new material she had written herself. She begn to grow in popularity from that point onwards, and signed a recording contract with Philips Records in 1964.

In the 60s the wounds from World War II were still raw. The French were still bitter over their treatment while the Germans were still coming to terms with both their total defeat and how their civilised country had been responsible for one of the great crimes of history.

In 1964 Barbara was invited by the head of the Jungen Theater in Göttingen to perform. Her first instint was to refuse the offer, due to her Jewish background, but without really knowing why, the next day, she decided to accept.

The single performance turned into eight shows, and while there she unexpectedly fell in love with the city and its people, and wrote a simple version of what would become Göttingen. She would complete the song in Paris when she returned.

This was a woman who knew suffering and had empathy for the suffering of others. Her generosity of spirit was reciprocated by the German audience, who took her into their hearts at the theatre and later throughout the country.

They would make the song a hit in Germany. A street was named after her in Göttingen and the city granted her a Medal of Honour with the following reference: The song is a “quiet, emphatic plea for understanding…” and it “made an important contribution to Franco-German reconciliation”.

Allee Barbara a street in France

In France she was also a star. Streets were named after her, she had her own stamp. When she died in 1997, a quarter of a million people turned up for her funeral.

It was a time of change. Only a few days previous the French war-time Leader in Exile, and now President of a free France had addressed the “youth of Germany” in their own language, which for many was a turning point in relations, but music much more than politics has the power to melt hearts.

The song was dedicated to the children of Paris and Göttingen, wishing for an end to the bloodshed and hatred that the two cities had suffered.

Here´s what British music critic Norman Lebrecht  had to say about her:

“Soft, silky and confidential, her voice never rages like Piaf’s nor goes Gitane-blue like Jacques Brel’s, her patron. Her songs stroke the brow and disturb the unconscious. Like Mahler and Freud, she quotes a hint of nursery rhyme to evoke innocence and its corruption. Yet she is never harsh or cruel. Her greatest love – “ma plus belle histoire d’amour,” she would assure adoring audiences – “c’est vous,” her voice breaking on the last monosyllable. For Barbara, music was the element that bonds the lonely to the whole.”

Damn critics! 🙂

One person in the audience when she sang was future German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and he made this speech at the 40th anniversary of the Treaty of Reconciliation:

“I was a doctoral student in Goettingen when she came to sing. It went to our hearts, the start of a wonderful friendship between our countries.”

Below are the lyrics in French and English.  Here´s the German version of the song, with the German lyrics.

Until next time. Peace. Paix. Frieden. Paz. Pace. Mир. Síochána. 和平. 平和. 평화. ειρήνη. barış. פרידן. سلام


Of course, it’s not la Seine

It’s not Vincennes’ wood,

But it is pretty anyway

In Göttingen, in Göttingen.

No quays, and no old tunes

moaning and dragging on

But love still blossoms here

In Göttingen, in Göttingen.

They know better that us, I think,

The history of the kings of France

Herman, Peter, Helga and Hans,

In Göttingen.

Don’t get offended,

But the tales of our childhood,

“Once upon a time” start

In Göttingen.

Of course, we have la Seine

And our Vincennes’ wood,

But God, the roses are beautiful

In Göttingen, in Göttingen.

We have our pale mornings,

The grey soul of Verlaine,

Them, they are melancholy itself

In Göttingen, in Göttingen.

When they don’t have anything to say,

They stay here and smile to us

But we understand them anyway

The blond children of Göttingen.

Too bad for those who are stunned

May the others forgive me,

But children are the same,

In Paris or in Göttingen.

May never come back

The time of blood and hatred

Because there are people I love

In Göttingen, in Göttingen.

When would ring the alarm

If we had to take up arms again

My heart would shed a tear

For Göttingen, for Göttingen.

But still, it is pretty

In Göttingen, in Göttingen.

et en français…

Bien sûr, ce n’est pas la Seine,

Ce n’est pas le bois de Vincennes,

Mais c’est bien joli tout de même,

A Göttingen, à Göttingen.

Pas de quais et pas de rengaines

Qui se lamentent et qui se traînent,

Mais l’amour y fleurit quand même,

A Göttingen, à Göttingen.

Ils savent mieux que nous, je pense,

L’histoire de nos rois de France,

Herman, Peter, Helga et Hans,

A Göttingen.

Et que personne ne s’offense,

Mais les contes de notre enfance,

“Il était une fois” commence

A Göttingen.

Bien sûr nous, nous avons la Seine

Et puis notre bois de Vincennes,

Mais Dieu que les roses sont belles

A Göttingen, à Göttingen.

Nous, nous avons nos matins blêmes

Et l’âme grise de Verlaine,

Eux c’est la mélancolie même,

A Göttingen, à Göttingen.

Quand ils ne savent rien nous dire,

Ils restent là à nous sourire

Mais nous les comprenons quand même,

Les enfants blonds de Göttingen.

Et tant pis pour ceux qui s’étonnent

Et que les autres me pardonnent,

Mais les enfants ce sont les mêmes,

A Paris ou à Göttingen.

O faites que jamais ne revienne

Le temps du sang et de la haine

Car il y a des gens que j’aime,

A Göttingen, à Göttingen.

Et lorsque sonnerait l’alarme,

S’il fallait reprendre les armes,

Mon cœur verserait une larme

Pour Göttingen, pour Göttingen.

Mais c’est bien joli tout de même,

A Göttingen, à Göttingen.

Et lorsque sonnerait l’alarme,

S’il fallait reprendre les armes,

Mon cœur verserait une larme

Pour Göttingen, pour Göttingen.

Au revoir, Auf  Wiedersehen, Goodbye

17 thoughts on “Song of the Week 35: Göttingen – Barbara

    1. Wonderful stuff Max. Thanks for sharing. You´re a great example for Franco-German relations! 🙂 I´ll stick it into google translate and have a read of it. And say hi to Claudia for me!

      1. Thanks Padraig, I forgot to mention that this text was unfortunately only available in French but hopefully Google Translation won’t mess up too much with it.
        You did a fantastic job here in English, again I’m chuffed and very pleased to read about this song, about the franco-german relations, in English.

  1. I heard this song on the radio yesterday and have been hunting down the German version since. The context and lyrics put the understated musical approach into a class of their own. I am deeply moved. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Pour votre information, la photo de Jacques Brel, photo d’une peinture, n’est pas libre de droit: elle fait l’objet d’un copyright. Son utilisation ici est donc abusive. J’informerai le titulaire des droits d’ici 2 semaines.

    For your information, the picture of Jacques Brel is not copyright free. I will inform the author within 2 weeks to collect payment if picture remain ont this site.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s