Lelièvre was already known for his hit Petit matin when in 1976 he introduced Marie-Hélène on his LP “Programme double” for the Les Disques Presqu’île label. The album, and in particular the catchy Marie-Hélène, established the composer as a future giant of Quebec songwriting.
Marie-Hélène is an intriguing character study, sung in the third person, of an “everywoman” figure, a young woman starting her adult life in the big city. Lelièvre paints his appealing title character in deft, sparing strokes: Marie-Hélène is twenty, jobless, and does not have a lover yet; she is uncertain.
The jazz groove that made Marie-Hélène a favourite of Quebec radio stations is established from the start: a short introduction by strummed guitar with percussion is followed by a plaintive, jazzy violin riff. Lelièvre sings the verses (with Louise Bédard joining the choruses) and arranger Marc Bélanger providing the violin part. The mood is laid-back, much like the song’s title character.
Lelièvre on the writing of the song: “I wrote Marie-Hélène in 1976. I thought the situation for our youth would change. However, it remains true to this day: it’s not easy being a 20 year old. The entire tradition of the song reveals how wonderful it is to be 20. It was wonderful for me. I look at the students that I work with, it’s not as wonderful for them…. The song tells a story of solitude.” (Lelièvre, Sylvain. (26 May 2006). Le chanteur libre. Canada: Éditions TYPO.)
Pop-culture references situate the song in time and place, such as references to Montreal (“rue Saint-Denis”; “en métro”), British rock band Genesis, Quebec band Harmonium (“Cinquième saison”), and The Beatles’ Let it Be.
A song with “legs,” Marie-Hélène’s popularity grew rapidly. The sheet music was published in 1977, selling for $1.75. In 1980, the song appeared again on the composer’s “Sylvain Lelièvre – 13” album, its title prominently displayed this time on the album cover. And a single on the Kébec-Disc label was released in January 1981.
Marie-Hélène appears on several subsequent Lelièvre albums: “Le Chanteur indigène” (1983, Kébec-Disc; a compilation album for sale in France); “Ses plus belles chansons” (1991, Kébec-Disc), again prominently named on the cover; and a 2001 two-piano instrumental version recorded for Radio-Canada and released on “Chansons Retrouvées” (2008). The song also leads off the 2002 collection “L’Intégrale 1975-1989” and is featured again on “Versant jazz: Live au Lion d’Or” (2002). Print versions can be found in the collections “Le Plus Beau Métier” and “Le chanteur libre,” and it has been arranged for four-part choir.
2001 was a big year for Marie-Hélène: not only did the song earn the coveted SOCAN Classic Award for 25,000 radio plays, but “L’Intégrale 1975-1989” took home the ADISQ Industrial Award for anthology of the year. The following year proved just as auspicious, with the album “Versant Jazz: Live au Lion d’Or” being awarded ADISQ’s Félix Award for best jazz album in 2002.
Shortly after Lelièvre’s sudden death in 2002, Quebec musicians joined together to sing Marie-Hélène and his other hits at a tribute concert. Since then, the song has been a favourite of various tribute acts, such as Benoit Gautier’s “Lettres de Lelièvre,” and of special radio broadcasts including, Radio-Canada’s seven-episode series about Lelièvre.
Marie-Hélène has been performed by Guillaume Vigneault (son of Lelièvre’s mentor, Gilles Vigneault); jazz singer Linda Racine on her ADISQ-nominated 2007 album “Racines”; Le Quatuor Robert Angelillo (an instrumental version); and Marc Bélanger. It has been included in anthologies such as, “Les Cent plus belles chansons du Québec” and “Les Romantiques Vol. 1”. Marie-Hélène continued to earn kudos on “Petite anthologie: de Limoilou à Tombouctou” (2013).
Sylvain Lelièvre (1943-2002) was originally from Quebec City. His interest in piano and French literature led him to a dual career as a songwriter and as a French teacher at Montreal’s Collège de Maisonneuve. A poet and novelist, he was mentored by chansonnier Gilles Vigneault, and became known for such hits as Petit matin, Lettre de Toronto, Hiroshima, and Tôt ou tard. Among his many top honours were first place in the 1963 Concours international de chanson, and the 1994 Félix Award for composer of the year. The Société professionnelle des auteurs et des compositeurs du Québec (SPACQ) named an annual songwriting award after him, and the Quebec/Wallonie-Bruxelles award was renamed the Rapsat-Lelièvre award named after Pierre Rapsat and Sylvain Lelièvre who both died just 10 days apart in April 2002. His name graces halls at Collège de Maisonneuve and Cégep de Limoilou and a park was named Sylvain-Lelièvre in Limoilou, Quebec in 2004.