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The career of Léo Ferré: a Bourdieusian analysis

La carrière de Léo Ferré : une analyse bourdieusienne
Peter Hawkins
p. 55-67


This article attempts a retrospective of the prolific, forty-seven year career of Léo Ferré, French anarchist singer-songwriter, poet and composer, some ten years after his death in 1993. The approach used, inspired by the cultural sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, applies the notions of the field of cultural production, symbolic capital and symbolic violence to analyse Ferré’s artistic production, identified as intervening in three main fields: popular chanson, classical music and poetry. Five principal stages in his career are identified as those of bohemian poverty, cult status as a cabaret singer, established stardom, post-1968 experimentation and the return to classical composition after 1973. This approach leaves out of account, however, Ferré’s widely-publicized political views, which are reviewed separately: his anarchism was a personal creed, not a programme of political action, and his views were in practice broadly left-wing and sympathetic to the French Communist Party. The article concludes that the Bourdieusian methodology shows some limitations as it leaves out of account the political dimension of his work and tends to obscure the posthumous influence of Ferré and the significance of his attempts to fuse the three separate fields identified earlier.

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1Ten years have passed since the death of Léo Ferré (1916-1993) and this provides a customary opportunity for a retrospective of his work. This is not an easy task, however: an extraordinarily prolific artist, he doesn’t fit comfortably into any received category of cultural production. He is probably best known as a singer-songwriter in the chanson tradition of the French music hall in the years after the Liberation of France in 1945; and as a famous and controversial left-wing icon in France for most of the latter half of the twentieth century. This familiar view corresponds neither to the way he saw himself, however, nor to the diversity of his artistic output. His ambition was to be recognised as a poet and as a serious composer of classical music, and beyond that to operate a decisive fusion of these prestigious forms of high culture with the popular form of chanson which made him famous. How can one do justice to such a long career and to such a complex and ambitious project? The approach of Pierre Bourdieu, as outlined in essays such as those collected by Randall Johnson in The Field of Cultural Production (Bourdieu 1993b) or in volumes such as Les Règles de l’Art (Bourdieu 1993a) offers a coherent model for the articulation of diverse forms of cultural production within their social context. It is interesting to see how this methodology might be mapped onto the long and tumultuous career of Ferré, and the ways in which it allows us to see it in persepctive. In the process we may also identify some limitations of the approach, whilst looking critically at the conclusions to which it may lead us.

The Bourdieusian approach

2I shall begin with a brief summary of Bourdieu’s ‘toolbox’ of concepts (Bourdieu 1993a, 249-291): this will necessarily be a little schematic, but may help those unfamiliar with his work (Johnson 1993). The first is the notion of the ‘field of cultural production’ which can be seen as a dynamic model of the established positions in a particular genre of artistic creation at a given point in time, conceived as analogous to the economic market-place. Within this ‘field’ the holders of the established dominant positions, according to the conventions or what Bourdieu calls the ‘habitus’ which govern it, inflict upon any work which threatens to disrupt it what Bourdieu calls ‘symbolic violence’ designed to protect the established positions. This can take the form of negative reviews, exclusion from public forums, disqualification from membership of artistic organisations, etc. Individual creators invest their energy and reputation, called their ‘cultural capital’, in the field, with the intention of increasing the ‘symbolic value’ of their work. This ‘symbolic value’ may also be translated into financial reward, but not necessarily so. Although the model is an economic one, that of the market-place, Bourdieu sees the field of cultural production as an autonomous set of dynamic relations, only indirectly linked to economic forces.

3I have prepared a tabular analysis of Ferré’s artistic career using these terms of reference. For the purpose of this I have begun elsewhere by dividing Ferré’s career into five broad chronological periods, which each correspond to a particular status and position which he occupied in French culture, his level of success and recognition (Hawkins 2000, 104-18). These provide the vertical axis of the chart. The horizontal axis is made up of the three main ‘fields’ in which Ferré invested his ‘cultural capital’: popular chanson, classical music and poetry. With reference to this table, I shall comment on the various stages in Ferré’s career in relation to each of the fields, noting as we go along the ways in which Ferré attempts to fuse them together in interesting ways, and his degree of success in doing this.

Explanatory commentary on the adjacent table: 1946-53

4In his early years as a practising artist, Ferré struggled to achieve recognition, and lived in bohemian poverty (Belleret 1996: 206). He was the victim of several instances of ‘symbolic violence’: the most striking of these was the rejection of his oratorio setting of Apollinaire’s poem ‘La Chanson du Mal-Aimé’ by the music committee of the state radio broadcasting monopoly, the ORTF (Ferré 1972a; Belleret 1996: 296). His performances of his song material were largely restricted to Parisian Left-Bank night clubs: his rather timid performing style at the piano was not yet suited to larger auditoria. He invested his energy in musical settings of lyrics by contemporary poets such as René Baër, author of ‘La Chanson du Scaphandrier’ and ‘La Chambre’ (Belleret 1996, 128-30), or Jean-Roger Caussimon, author of ‘Monsieur William’ (Belleret, 1996: 131), which were among his most popular early songs: it was as if he was at this time less confident of his own poetic material. He eventually managed first to publish, then to record these songs for the ‘classical’ label Le Chant du Monde (Ferré, 1993b), first on 78 rpm singles and then in an early LP album in 1953.

The carreer of Léo Ferré: a tabular representation

The carreer of Léo Ferré: a tabular representation


5Recognition was slow to come, but it eventually did, in the form of a recording contract with the major firm Odéon. It took until he was 38 years old in 1954 for his first major classical composition, an oratorio setting of Apollinaire’s La Chanson du Mal-Aimé, to be given its first performance in his home city of Monte Carlo, and to be subsequently recorded in 1956 (Ferré 1993c). This fusion of modernist poetry and classical orchestration was quickly followed by a more radical combination: an album of popular musical settings of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (Ferré 1993c). In the meantime, Ferré’s own poetry was recognised and published by La Table Ronde in the collection Poète…vos papiers! (Ferré 1956) Even so, Ferré had to endure further examples of ‘symbolic violence’: the refusal of his friend and mentor André Breton to write a preface for this volume of poems (Belleret 1996, 244-53) and the critical massacre of his multimedia music and dance spectacle La Nuit, devised in collaboration with Roland Petit (Belleret 1996, 257-63). He did achieve some recognition of his symbolic value in the popular music field, however, with his first, tentative performances at the prestigious Parisian music hall L’Olympia (Ferré 1993c).


6As a rising star, he was signed up in 1960 by the Barclay label, who were then building a roster of the most prestigious artists in the chanson field. This was the prelude to a period of broad popular success, consecrated by many hit songs and ‘top of the bill’ appearances at the Olympia, Bobino and Alhambra music halls. He was at last able to reap some reward for the investment of his ‘cultural capital’ over the previous 14 years, in financial as well as symbolic terms. Not all his material was so well received, however: songs such as ‘Thank you Satan’ and ‘Les Temps difficiles’ were banned from the state-controlled media: ‘symbolic violence’ directed at the provocative moral and political content of their lyrics. His classical music ambitions seemed to take a back seat at this point: a lot of his energy in the next few years was directed at the links between poetry and popular music. In the early 1960s he produced a series of albums of popular settings of poems: firstly those of the ex-Surrealist and politically committed poet Louis Aragon (Ferré 1961), but also of the ‘canon’ of modernist poetry constituted by Verlaine, Rimbaud (Ferré 1964) and Baudelaire (Ferré 1967). Apart from the intention of making these prestigious texts available to a wide audience in a popular audio format, Ferré seemed to be making comparable claims for his own poetic lyrics: his texts were the first song lyrics to be published in the Seghers ‘Poètes d’aujourd’hui’ series, (Estienne 1962) and he was invited to preface a popular volume of Verlaine’s poetry (Verlaine 1962).


7The violent break-up of his second marriage in 1968 (Belleret 1996: 429-43) was the prelude to a renewal of his style and his audience. In the autobiographical text Et basta! he qualified the period of 1968-73 as ‘non-stop’ (Ferré 1973a, 1993a: 402-4) to suggest the hectic pace of change and artistic innovation of what has to be seen as the peak of his career. This opens with an interesting ‘re-positioning’ of his work in the field of popular music, probably under the influence of Anglo-American rock music, such as the group The Moody Blues (Ferré 1993a: 338). He began to declaim poetic texts against a musical accompaniment rather than singing them, and to experiment with the radically different musical style of progressive jazz-rock, in collaboration with the group Zoo (Ferré 1970, 1972a). This, combined with the fallout from the political upheaval of May 1968, led to a complete renewal of his audience: his anarchism and revolt appealed to a new generation of radical students. This had its negative side, however: he was regularly attacked and verbally abused during this period by various left-wing groups who accused him of opportunism and hypocrisy (Belleret 1996: 535-40; Raemackers 2002). This violence was sometimes rather more than symbolic, and it was one of his reasons for choosing to live in exile in Italy. An unexpected development at this time was his return to classical composition with the re-recording of his oratorio La Chanson du Mal-Aimé (Ferré 1972b). He began to arrange his songs for full symphony orchestra, and this culminated in the album Il n’y a plus rien (Ferré: 1973b) which brought together popular chanson and a classical orchestral style.


8From this point on, as soon as he was able to free himself from his contract with Barclay in 1974, Ferré was in a position to produce his own albums and record them using the Symphony Orchestra of Milan. His ambitions as a classical composer and conductor were foregrounded, and although he achieved considerable public recognition through invitations to conduct various provincial and foreign orchestras, he was never accorded the consecration of the Parisian musical establishment. He insisted on fusing together his own more popular work and that of classical composers, on breaking conventions by singing and conducting at the same time, by rejecting the high-culture avant-garde of experimental music (Belleret 1996: 586-602). He oversaw the printing and publication of his own poetic texts, which often no longer corresponded to performed song lyrics (Ferré 1980); at the same time he accumulated an extended repertoire of popular settings of established poets like Villon, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud and Apollinaire, which surfaced in his albums in the 1980s, including a full orchestral setting of Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre (Ferré 1981, 1986). One of his last Parisian concerts was devoted entirely to his settings of poems, Léo Ferré chante les poètes, and this was captured in the new media format of the concert video (Ferré 1990b). He no longer seemed interested in popular hit songs, but acquired a considerable following of admirers and imitators in the subsequent generation of singer-songwriters: notably Bernard Lavilliers, Renaud, Jacques Higelin, William Sheller, Alain Souchon and Francis Lalanne. His cultural capital was such that he could afford to exercise complete freedom in his work, and he used this to blur still further the distinctions between popular chanson, classical music and poetry. He maintained his popular appeal even so by regular, tireless solo touring, with occasional Parisian residencies usually captured on video (Ferré 1984, 1988). In his last years there were many tribute concerts such as at the Francofolies festival in La Rochelle in 1987, confirming his status as a revered figure in French popular music. Yet he never accepted to receive the honours that would normally be accorded to such a figure by the French state (Belleret 1996: 694-5); nor was his contribution to the individual fields of classical music and poetry ever fully recognised.

The advantages and limitations of the Bourdieusian approach

9It is apparent from this outline of Ferré’s career that the Bourdieusian notion of the ‘field of cultural production’ is a useful concept which allows us to see Ferré’s work in perspective. It is equally evident that, while it allows us to see the implications of his attempts to break down the divisions between such fields, the concept is ill-suited to encompass these attempts at fusion, which question a larger ‘habitus’, by undermining the widely respected convention of the critical separation of different artistic activities. Each ‘field of cultural production’ is still to some extent autonomous, being governed by a different set of criteria, and determined by a different set of power relations between its major participants. Ferré, according to this way of looking at him, appears to ‘fall between several stools’: in the end recognition is only accorded to him in the field of popular music. As he commented ironically in a song of 1972, ‘Je ne suis qu’un artiste de Variétés…’ (Ferré 1972a, 1993a: 295-6).

10Another difficulty of this approach when applied to Ferré is that it appears to leave out of account an extremely important aspect of his work: his politics. Ferré is probably most famous for his anarchist beliefs, and these condition his artistic production in many important ways. In the Bourdieusian approach, political views do not constitute a field of cultural production as such. Ferré was never actively involved in the political field proper, except perhaps as an occasional voluntary fundraiser for the Anarchist Federation (Belleret, 1996: 182-4) but then he was also sometimes involved in similar activites for the French Communist Party (Belleret 1996: 169, 725). The importance of his political views colours his cultural production as a whole, and it is difficult to take account of this within the analytical framework we have established. Yet this observation itself paradoxically confirms one of the principles of Bourdieu’s approach, which is to analyse the constitution of artistic production as an autonomous field, with its own logic separate from political and economic determinism. In the interests of completeness, it leads us to consider Ferré’s politics as a separate question from the positioning of his artistic production.

Ferré’s politics

11Right from the beginning of his career as an artist and public figure, Ferré made no secret of his anarchist convictions, which have been a significant theme in his song lyrics and poems, as well as in manifestoes and declarations of various kinds which have often accompanied them (e.g. Ferré 1993a: 280-9). It is equally clear that he has always shied away from any direct political involvement, most notably in May 1968, when he declined an invitation to join some students sympathetic to his views in street demonstrations (Belleret 1996: 445). His anarchism has always been a personal and individual creed, not a programme of political activism. In terms of political position, his opinions have carried considerable weight even so because of his public persona as a star, and in this respect it is worth examining these in their own right. He has always made public declarations of his political views an integral part of his artistic output , and to this extent it is difficult to ignore them or to leave them out of account in any survey of his career. It is interesting to look at his positions on a number of issues not directly implied by his anarchism, which will enable us to situate him more precisely as a generally left-wing political commentator, a fellow-traveller of French radical politics in the post-war years.

12One of the most striking features of this is his anti-clericalism, expressed most forcibly in one of his earliest songs, ‘Monsieur Tout-blanc’ (Ferré 1993a: 21), a telling denunciation of the silent complicity of Catholic papacy in the repression and genocide perpetrated by the Nazis during the Second World War. Another typical feature is his anti-authoritarianism, through attacks on the Spanish dictatorship of Franco (Ferré 1993a: 14, 274) or the military regime of Videla in Argentina (Ferré 1993a: 452); but also the political ambitions of De Gaulle (Ferré 1993a: 16, 272). Several songs are attacks on capital punishment, including his anarchist anthem ‘Ni Dieu ni Maître’ (Ferré 1993a: 277). His attitude to the Communist Party is interestingly nuanced: despite a brief period of membership (Belleret 1996: 169) he has little time for the major ideologues of the Communist pantheon, mocking such figures as Lenin, Trotsky, Fidel Castro or Mao Zedong (Ferré 1993a: 276, 308), but often alludes appreciatively to Karl Marx (Ferré 1993a: 387) and is prepared to collaborate with the French Communist Party in festivals such as the Fête de l’Humanité (Belleret 1996: 725), or to work with one of its major literary figures, Louis Aragon (Ferré, 1961). He will also champion the cause of Jean-Paul Sartre in his selling of the banned Maoist newspaper La Cause du Peuple (Ferré 1993a: 296). He is prepared to celebrate the memory of the Marxist Salvador Allende (Ferré 1993a: 455) and to attack the proponents of neo-liberalism, such as Margaret Thatcher (Belleret, 1996: 645, 655). This places him as a broadly left-wing libertarian figure but not far removed from a certain received political correctness, and this ideological vagueness, coupled with his detachment from any practical involvement, is probably the reason for the virulent ultra-leftist attacks he sustained in the early seventies (Belleret 1996a: 535-40, Raemackers 2000). He is often presented in this context as a bogus left-winger who has sold out to a comfortable middle-class lifestyle while exploiting his radical image for easy profit. One can understand this view, although on closer examination his position seems coherently libertarian, even if it doesn’t always coincide with the ideological dogmatism of his opponents.


13With the distance provided by an interval of 10 years, we are in a position to make a provisional assessment of the legacy of Léo Ferré’s work. In doing so, we shall take account of the principal artistic fields in which he worked, whilst bearing in mind that this may have distorting effect, in that they do not take account of his attempts at fusion of these domains. We shall also have to estimate whether this blurring of artistic genres and frontiers has also had any lasting effect.

14In relation to French popular music, it is certainly true that the younger generation of French singer-songwriters who came to prominence after Ferré showed marked traces of his influence. The clearest example of this is probably Bernard Lavilliers, who has made no secret of his admiration for Ferré and has regularly re-interpreted some of his songs and texts (Lavilliers 1980, 1997). Others, such as Alain Souchon, have acknowledged his influence, even if their style is far removed from that of Ferré (Hawkins 2000: 189). But it is equally obvious that few of today’s younger generation of artists can be traced back to the direct influence of Ferré: even those grouped on the recent tribute album Avec Léo, such as Alain Baschung, Noir Désir, Miossec, do not show a clear filiation in their own style of songwriting or performing. The dominant modes of contemporary chanson tend rather to show evidence of influences from outside France, such as World music or Anglo-American rock. Even in terms of the lyrics, the influence of Serge Gainsbourg is noticeably more visible than that of Ferré.

15With reference to classical music, this has been a great growth industry in French culture over the last twenty years or so, with a considerable increase in public interest in the practice of traditional instruments, in choral singing and in concert-going. How much is this attributable to the influence of Ferré? A little, perhaps: his championing of symphonic music in the 1970s may have been one of the factors initiating this trend. Music is now very much ‘in the streets’, as Ferré demanded, in the form of open air concerts, chamber-music buskers, music festivals and many other examples. Yet in one other crucial respect, there has been little posterity for Ferré’s attempts at fusing classical and popular music. The two fields seem to be as separate now in France as they were at the time of Ferré’s 1970s landmark concerts with a symphony orchestra.

16In terms of Ferré’s effect on the field of poetry, surveys in the French press, such as the left-wing paper Libération, suggest that, on the one hand, for many French children, their first experience of poetry was hearing a classic poem by Baudelaire, Rimbaud or Verlaine sung by Ferré (Hazera, 1993). On the other hand the ‘crisis of contemporary French poetry’ has equally been widely reported: surveys in the same paper have reported that the general public in France are usually unable to cite the name of a single contemporary, living poet. This has provoked a widespread reaction in educational and literary circles in the form of campaigns to promote contemporary poetic writing. In the meantime Ferré’s own poetic experiments and iconoclastic challenges seem worlds away from the proccupations of contemporary poets, and seem to have gone largely unrecognised in that field. Similarly, very few contemporary singers seem interested in continuing the practice of performing poetic texts as songs. There is, however, one major exception to this general rule: the development of rap in France can be seen as continuing Ferré’s practice of reciting a poetic text rather than singing it; but even in this analogous sub-field, the influence of Serge Gainsbourg seems much more evident than that of Ferré (MC Solaar 1994).

17Interestingly, the systematic application of Bourdieusian ‘fields of cultural production’ seems to lead to some rather negative conclusions about the long-term posterity of Ferré’s multiple output. Yet the recent celebration of the 10th anniversary of his death (14 July 2003) on the popular state radio station France-Inter and generally in the press suggest that he is certainly not a forgotten figure. Re-issues of his recordings continue apace (Ferré 2000, 2002), and they still occupy a sizeable amount of space in most French record stores. It may well be that his long-term impact is obscured precisely by the application of a Bourdieusian strategy dividing his output according to notions of field and artistic genre. His long-term importance should lie precisely in the questioning of these categories, in the assertion of the artist’s freedom to experiment across different media, to intervene in a variety of different fields at the same time, even if this has apparently had little visible effect in recent times. What is abundantly clear even so is that he remains a major icon of French culture in the second half of the 20th century, whose influence reached far beyond the circumscribed limits of the artistic genres in which he chose to express himself.

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Belleret, Robert, Léo Ferré: une Vie d’Artiste, Actes Sud, Arles/Leméac, Canada, 1996, 774p.

Bourdieu, Pierre, Les Règles de L’Art, Le Seuil, Paris, 1993a. Translated as The Rules of Art, tr. by Susan Emanuel. Polity Press, Cambridge, 1998.

Bourdieu, Pierre , The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, edited by Randall Johnson, Polity Press. Cambridge, 1993b.

Estienne, Charles, Léo Ferré, (Poètes d’aujourd’hui, No 93), Seghers, Paris, 1962.

Ferré, Léo, Poète…vos papiers! La Table Ronde, Paris, 1956. Reissued: Folio, Paris, 1977.

Ferré, Léo, Testament phonographe, Paris: Plasma, 1980; re-issued: La Mémoire et la Mer, Monaco, 1997.

Ferré, Léo, La Mauvaise Graine, Editions No 1. Paris, 1993a.

Hawkins, Peter, Chanson: the French singer-songwriter from Aristide Bruant to the present day, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2000.

Hazera, Hélène, article in commemorative edition for Léo Ferré, Libération, 19 July 1993.

Johnson, Randall, ‘Pierre Bourdieu on Art Literature and Culture’ in Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, 1993, 1-25.

Raemackers, Alain, sleeve note for Ferré, Sur la Scène, La Mémoire et la Mer, Monaco, 2002, double CD.

Verlaine, Paul, Poèmes saturniens, suivi des Fêtes Galantes, Livre de Poche, Paris, 1962; preface by Léo Ferré.


Baschung, Alain et al. Avec Léo, Barclay, Paris, 2003, CD.

Ferré, Léo, Léo Ferré chante Aragon, Barclay, Paris, 1961, LP/CD.

Ferré, Léo, Léo Ferré chante Verlaine et Rimbaud,: Barclay, Paris, 1964, double LP; also available in the boxed set of CDs Léo Ferré chante les poètes, (1993d).

Ferré, Léo, Léo Ferré chante Baudelaire,: Barclay, Paris, 1967, double LP; also available in Ferré (1993d)

Ferré, Léo, Amour Anarchie, Barclay, Paris, 1970, double LP/CD; also available in Ferré (1990a).

Ferré, Léo, La Solitude, Barclay, Paris, 1972a, LP/CD; also available in Ferré (1990a).

Ferré, Léo, Léo Ferré chante La Chanson du Mal-Aimé de Guillaume Apollinaire, Barclay, Paris, 1972b, LP; also available in Ferré (1993d).

Ferré, Léo, Et Basta, Barclay, Paris, 1973a, LP; also available on CD in Ferré (1990a).

Ferré, Léo, Il n’y a plus rien, Barclay, Paris, 1973b, LP/CD; also in Ferré (1990a).

Ferré, Léo, Ludwig/L’Imaginaire/Le Bateau ivre ̧ RCA, Paris, 1981, triple LP; republished on CD by Monaco: La Mémoire et la Mer, 2002.

Ferré, Léo, On n’est pas sérieux quand on a 17 ans, EPM, Paris 1986, LP/CD; re-issued on CD: La Mémoire et la Mer, Monaco, 2002.

Ferré, Léo, L’ Intégrale 1960-74, Barclay, Paris, 1990a, boxed set of CDs; re-issued as Léo chante Ferré,03.

Ferré, Léo, Premières Chansons, Le Chant du Monde, Paris, 1993b, CD.

Ferré, Léo, Les Années Odéon, Sony, Paris, 1993c, boxed set of CDs.

Ferré, Léo, Léo Ferré chante les poètes, Barclay, Paris, 1993d, boxed set of CDs.

FERRÉ, Léo, Sur la Scène, La Mémoire et la Mer, Monaco, 2002, double CD.

Lavilliers, Bernard, ‘Est-ce ainsi que les hommes vivent?’ in O Gringo, Barclay, Paris, 1980, LP/CD.

Lavilliers, Bernard, ‘Préface’ in Clair-obscur, Barclay, Paris, 1997, CD.

MC Solaar, ‘Nouveau Western’ in Prose Combat, Polydor, Paris, 1994, CD.


Ferré, Léo, Léo Ferré en public au Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, 1984, RCA, Paris, 1984, VHS SECAM cassette; re-issued on DVD by La Mémoire et la Mer, 2003.

Ferré, Léo, Léo Ferré au TLP Dejazet 1988, EPM, Paris, 1988, VHS SECAM cassette; to be re-issued on DVD by La Mémoire et la Mer.

Ferré, Léo, Léo Ferré chante les poètes, EPM, Paris, 1990b, VHS SECAM cassette; to be reissued on DVD by La Mémoire et la Mer.

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Peter Hawkins

Peter Hawkins, Department of French University of Bristol.

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