Let’s start at the very beginning: Eurovision 1956, Lugano
Thursday, 24 May 1956. Twelve soloists (nine women, three men). Nine international broadcasts. Seven competing countries. Four languages. Two songs per country. And one winner: ‘Refrain’ by Lys Assia for host country Switzerland.
Born of a desire to hold a pan-European contest of song and inspired by Italy’s ‘Festival della canzone italiana di Sanremo’ (Sanremo Music Festival), the European Broadcasting Union’s (EBU) inaugural Eurovision Song Contest was 100 minutes of television history that sadly does not survive in full (see links below) but which should be mandatory viewing – or rather listening – for any Eurovision fan.
Hosted in Italian by Lohengrin Filipello and featuring entries performed in French, Italian, German and Dutch, the contest was by no means in the form we know today: each participating nation had two songs in the running, with one country opting for the “one performer/same language” option (Luxembourg) and the others sending two soloists (Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, Netherlands) or singing in two different languages (Switzerland).
In addition, and far more controversially, countries could vote for their own acts, Switzerland voted on behalf of Luxembourg and all the voting was conducted in secret with only the winner being announced at the end. Unsurprisingly, that voting system was not repeated in subsequent years, and the rule requiring solo performers was also dropped.
Moreover, despite its victory, Switzerland was not announced as the host for the following year’s contest, as a rotation system between the participating countries was in place, with each taking a turn at staging the event.
Now let’s turn to the reason for tuning in: the music.
Whilst Lys Assia’s ‘Refrain’, a nostalgic and somewhat plaintive lament about the lost loves of youth, will be familiar to some, her other song ‘Das alte Karussell’ (The Old Carousel) is a decidedly less serious but charming ditty about an ageing fairground attraction. In a similar vein, ‘De vogels van Holland’ (The Birds of Holland) is a light-hearted number – and the first Eurovision song ever performed – praising the particularly fine musicality of the Netherlands’ feathered friends. Quite a contrast from the country’s other entry ‘Voorgoed voorbij’ (Over Forever), which tells of the end of a relationship from two perspectives and is perhaps best remembered for its chanteuse: Corry Brokken, who would go on to win the second Eurovision Song Contest in 1957.
Whilst several other entries cover the still perennial themes of love lost and won, such as Belgium’s somewhat depressing ‘Messieurs les noyés de la Seine’ (The Drowned Men of the Seine) and more uplifting, wedding day song ‘Le plus beau jour de ma vie’ (The Must Beautiful Day of My Life), in lyric-led, story-telling, traditional chansons, there are two up-tempo compositions: Luxembourg’s ‘Ne crois pas’ (Don’t Believe), which advises listeners to make the best use of their good looks whilst they have them as everyone loses them with age, and Germany’s ‘So geht das jede Nacht’ (That’s How It Is Every Night), a rockabilly number about a woman dating a different man every day of the week that is very reminiscent of the 1950s’ classic ‘Rock Around the Clock’ by Bill Haley & His Comets.
On a personal note, my particular favourite of the fourteen songs is Italy’s peppy ‘Aprite le finestre’ (Open the Windows) about the arrival of Spring and the joy it brings. That’d be most welcome on a cold day here in Melbourne!
If you’d like to experience the first-ever concert yourself, here’s a link to an audio recording: