By Boris Vian and Harold B. Berg
With Introduction by Gilles d'Aymery
(Swans - May 21, 2007) Perhaps one of the 20th century's most renowned antiwar song, Boris Vian's Le Déserteur has been translated in many languages, sung by famous singers under an assortment of small variations, and hummed countless times by masses of antiwar and peace activists over the decades, ever since it was first released in 1954. Swans published the song and its English translation on December 10, 2001, as we were outraged by the vengeful military attack against Afghanistan.
I am glad to have the opportunity to present to our readers and visitors, and indeed the world, the original music sheet (partition musicale in French) of this extraordinary song. Click on the tiny pics below and it will transport you to the real thing (in "grey scale," because the files are relatively big, 177KB and 149KB respectively -- be patient if you have a slow connection to the Internet).
Much has been written about this song. Among many stories (in English or in French) circulating within circles of aficionados is the legend that the last two verses of the song originally read que je serai en arme/et que je sais tirer ("that I'll be armed/and I know how to shoot"), but that it was changed to reflect the pacifist and pro-civilian character of the song -- Boris Vian always insisted that it was not an anti-militarist ballade. I appended that story at the end of the song.
In February 2007, I received an e-mail from Jim Rothschild, a music lover and amateur musician who lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and works from home where he specializes in hard to find, out of print, imports, and operates an online business selling music CDs. It read:
The song was actually co-written by Boris Vian and Harold Berg. (The story of how that happened is pretty interesting too.) Harold Berg was a good friend of mine. He died this past January. He left me his music royalties regarding this song. In addition, I have the original hand-written sheet music, written in his own hand with the lyrics from 1954. The last line of the song is indeed et qu'ils pourront tirer. So... I have also heard of the possible alternative ending, but the evidence seems to indicate that it was much more pacifistic all along.
I published Jim's letter and also appended it at the end of the song. Moreover, I began communicating with him. I expressed my keen interest in publishing the sheet on Swans, and asked him questions on how he had come into the possession of it. Jim answered that he would see what he could do.
A couple of weeks later he sent me the sheet in two bitmap digitalized pictures, and later on wrote me again to tell the story. In his words:
Here is the basic narrative.
Harold Berg was born in 1923 and grew up in West Philadelphia. He and his sister were childhood friends of my father. Harold served in France during WWII, fell in love with Paris, and decided to stay. He was fluent in French and even got a music degree there. In the mid 1950s he was making some extra money as a piano accompanist for a ballet company in Paris. Boris Vian was seeing a ballerina there (I don't remember her name). He approached Harold about helping him with the song. Harold helped mainly by putting Vian's ideas down on sheet music, most importantly arranging it, and he made a few minor changes to Vian's ideas.
Harold Berg did not want any credit for the song because Boris Vian had the words and most of the melody complete in his own mind. But Boris insisted that Harold be listed as a co-writer since he not only arranged it, but had added a few melodic ideas. Most of the records and published sheet music I have list them both as co-writers. (Oddly, the most famous American recording, which appears on a Peter, Paul and Mary album credits Peter Paul and Mary as the writers!) They worked on at least two other songs together. I have the handwritten sheet music with lyrics of two additional songs. I don't know if they were ever recorded. One is titled Mon Paris à Moi and the other is Chantez. I do not read French well, but it appears that "Chantez" may have an antiwar theme. One of the lines is "Chantez la fin de la guerre -- la fin des misères -- la fin de tout ça..."
Harold moved back to the U.S., I believe in the late 1950s. He retired to the south of France in the early 1980s and then back to Philadelphia in the '90s. Harold died on January 1, 2007.
I was born in 1962. My parents had bought a house on the same street as Harold's sister on her recommendation. So Harold knew me from birth. I am a musician too. I was given training, ironically, by a well known French jazz musician named Bernard Peiffer. So Harold and I discussed music frequently. My father and I often visited Harold and his sister in their apartment. Sadly, Harold was diagnosed with cancer in 2006. He told me one day at lunch that he wanted to leave me the royalties he still receives from "Le Déserteur."
I share the royalties with Boris Vian's widow, whom I regrettably have never met. Please make sure to state that this material is copy-written and should not be used or reproduced without permission.
So, except if a prior version of the song existed -- no music sheet has ever surfaced -- it would clearly indicate that the last two verses were indeed as written on the music sheet and that the story of the alteration is nothing more than a long-held urban legend. There is another reason for discounting the gun story. Boris Vian was inhabiting a world where sensitivity reigned. His non-violence permeated his creative work. Those of us who can feel in our fibers the sublime Boris Vian kept emanating instinctively know that he would have been incapable of shooting at the authorities. Like any conscientious objector to a war that was as abominable as the Iraq War is today, he would have quietly surrendered and accepted the consequences of his deeply-held principles. You cannot be against a war and shoot at the warriors and their defenders. Boris Vian was not armed.
This said, interestingly and worth noticing, I found two small discrepancies between the music sheet and the actual text of the song as it has been sung for so long:
1) The sheet reads: je ne suis pas sur terre pour tuer d'autres gens when the song reads: je ne suis pas sur terre pour tuer de pauvres gens.
2) In the second stanza, the music sheet reads:
Quand j'étais prisonnier
on m'a volé mon âme
on m'a volé ma femme
et tout mon cher passé.
But the song reads:
Quand j'étais prisonnier
on m'a volé ma femme
on m'a volé mon âme
et tout mon cher passé.
The two middle verses are inverted.
As said, multiple singers sung the lyrics with small variations. [French singer] Mouloudgi, who was the first to sing it in public in May 1954, began with:
Messieurs qu'on nomme grands
Je vous fais une lettre [...]
Monsieur le Président,
je vous fais une lettre [...]
The song has been translated in many languages -- 44 and counting. Only the Internationale has had more reverberations (and translations) around the world than Le Déserteur. Long after we all have come to dust this song will live and perdure within the imagination of further generations that strive for a world without war.
Finally, I am not a Vian expert, just a Vianophile -- and I am not alone. Search Google on Boris Vian. He was such a prolific creator that to put together all the works he wrote in his short life took 15 volumes, les Oeuvres complètes de Boris Vian, published by the Editions Fayard, an extraordinary compendium that any French-reading person should visit. Another Web site to peruse, amidst the million-plus sites that exist, is the Fond'action Boris Vian; the foundation dedicated to Boris Vian under the careful management of Ursula Vian Kübler, Boris Vian's second wife and widow, and Patrick Vian, the son from his first marriage to Michelle Léglise. With the 15 volumes published by the Editions Fayard and the Fond'action Boris Vian you will enter the world of Boris Vian, a world that I would not leave for whatever 30 golden coins with which "they" keep trying to buy my soul.
Here again, for your enjoyment and enlightenment, are the two pics of Le Déserteur music sheet:
Boris Vian (1920-1959), a French engineer by education, gifted with amazing talents, was at any one time a poet, a novelist, a musician, a jazz trumpeter, a singer, an actor; he also was a pacifist, an anti-power genius with une sensibilité à fleur de peau. He is remembered for tantalizing finesse, sensitivity, creativity, and originality. From L'Ecume des Jours and L'Arrache-cur, to L'Automne à Pékin, Boris Vian exemplifies humaneness and solidarity.