Brelian crescendo

Jacques Brel, the famed Belgian singer, began some songs slowly and then sped up. A lot.

Jacques Brel
Rob Mieremet, Anefo / CC BY-SA 3.0 NL

It takes something special to get an eponymous adjective. “Brelian crescendo” is not an extremely common term, but it accurately and succinctly describes a song that starts out sedate, charming, and calm, and then gradually builds up to a frantic and fervent climax. Jacques Brel was the master of this form.

Brel is one of the most famous singers to come out of Belgium. Part of the French Chanson tradition, his songs have been covered by… well, almost everyone: David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper, Tom Jones, Barbara Streisand, Ray Charles, Nirvana, Celine Dion, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra. Now, to be fair, many of those are covers of his iconic song “Ne me quitte pas” or its English translation “If you go away,” but his catalogue is wide and he remains one of the most influential Francophone singers of the 20th century.

The best illustration of the Brelian crescendo that I can find is this one, “La valse à mille temps” (“The thousand-beat waltz”). It begins with a pretty standard little three-beat waltz. Then Brel and the band speed up for the second verse. And again for the third verse… building up to a frenetic climax in which Brel rattles off several words a second like a speed-reader on Acid.

There’s a nice French parody of this song, by the way, called “Une vache à mille francs” (“The thousand-franc cow”):

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