Cookie Fonster Reviews Eurovision 1956: Humble Beginnings Shrouded in Mystery

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Note: I wrote this post after finishing my review of the season 6 finale of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. That will come out Friday morning!


The first ever Eurovision Song Contest, then known as the Grand Prix of the Eurovision Song Competition (French: Grand Prix Eurovision de la Chanson Européenne), was held exactly 67 years before the day I am writing these words—on May 24, 1956. It boggles my mind how long Eurovision has existed. The contest is 44 years older than me, and it was first held when my grandparents were teenagers. Two grandparents who lived in Germany and might have known of the contest; two grandparents who lived in the United States and probably had no way to know it existed.

There are innumerable ways the Eurovision of then differed from the Eurovision of today. Imagine if you could tell a European in 1956 that people all over the world can watch the contest using telephones, or that the contest has so many countries that it now spans five days, or that Australia is now a competitor. But what I find most striking is how much of the first contest is lost to the sands of time. We don’t know any rankings besides the winner, we don’t know who most of the commentators are, we don’t know if some contestants are still alive*… but most importantly, we don’t even have video footage of the contest, except the winning song’s reprise. I wonder if anyone in 1956 was a huge enough Eurovision nerd to keep track of all information on the contest they could, then preserved the papers they wrote it on when the Internet age began? If anyone like that is alive today, their claims would be hard to prove.

Putting aside the incredible evolution of technology, here are some basic facts about Eurovision 1956. It was broadcast on radio and TV, though most people consumed it via radio. It was hosted near the center of the seven participating countries in Lugano, Switzerland, and in an excellent example of early installment weirdness, each country sent two songs. It’s one of two Eurovision Song Contests with no songs in English; half the songs were in French, and the others were in German, Dutch, and Italian.

Now what are we waiting for? Eurovision 1956 review, let’s begin! I’ll list the songs in order of broadcast.

* French Wikipedia claims Mony Marc is dead, while Spanish Wikipedia claims she’s alive. Perhaps because little is known about her, she has no English Wikipedia article.

Netherlands #1: De vogels van Holland

Artist: Jetty Paerl

Language: Dutch—it still bends my mind that there’s a language so close to German but unambiguously isn’t German

Key: C major (listing keys helps me remember which song is which)

The Eurovision song that started it all: a cute, playful waltz about the birds in Holland, which are supposedly better and more musical than anywhere else in the world. If you ever thought Eurovision has only been wild and zany in recent decades, this song proves the contest was whimsical from the beginning. I can hear some slight laughter the second time she sings “ze leren in hun prille jeugd al tierelieren”, as if acknowledging how goofy this song is. I can’t think of a more fitting opener to the first ever Eurovision Song Contest.

Switzerland #1: Das alte Karussell

Artist: Lys Assia

Language: German, whose Eurovision presence has been tragically meager since the 2010s

Key: Starts between B major and C major, then a key change to between C major and D♭ major. My brain leans towards hearing both as C major.

Another waltz about a silly topic—an old, rusty carousel—that goes on for over 4 minutes, because there was no length rule back then. Listening to it, I was surprised it lasted this long, but it was enjoyable enough that I didn’t mind. When I review the next year, I’ll discuss the song that led the length rule to be implemented.

I find it amusing to hear German sung with the rolled R’s typical of most European languages, since the other German songs this year use the uvular R of standard German, French, and Danish.

Belgium #1: Messieurs les noyés de la Seine

Artist: Fud Leclerc

Language: French, starting a pattern of Belgium alternating languages every year

Key: G minor

A melancholic ballad using drowned men in a river as a metaphor for misery and lack of love life. I’m impressed at how elaborate these songs have been so far. This again lasts 4 minutes and feels like a musical number from an opera, like it’s one part of a much longer story.

Germany #1: Im Wartesaal zum großen Glück

Artist: Walter Andreas Schwarz

Language: German—I need to enjoy this language’s presence while it lasts

Key: Between C and C♯ minor

The lyrics alternate between singing and spoken words. As with the last one, it feels like telling a story that extends beyond this one tune. I don’t know what else to say about it, other than that it has some neat piano breaks.

France #1: Le temps perdu

Artist: Maté Aldéry

Language: French—did I mention I can speak it? I learned it heavily in school, but it’s pretty rusty today.

Key: E♭ major

As of this writing, this is the first song whose singer is still alive! It doesn’t leave as much a mark on me as the last few did, and it just feels like a standard French waltz about love, with a high soprano voice. When listening, I immediately thought “yep, that’s France”.

Luxembourg #1: Ne crois pas

Artist: Michèle Arnaud

Language: French, which was Luxembourg’s standard choice

Key: Between B♭ and B minor

Luxembourg has a rich assortment of languages, but the vast majority of its Eurovision songs were in French. In fact, most of Luxembourg’s representatives are from France because the country is so small. This shows that Eurovision has had language bias from the start; French has always been one of the most desirable languages to sing in. It feels like the “default language” of Eurovision 1956, like English is the default of the 21st century.

The song itself sounds like a villain song from a movie, though it might say something about my age that most of these songs make me think “movie”. The theme of the lyrics is that you shouldn’t expect youth to last forever, so I can imagine it being sung by a strict parent who doesn’t want their kids to make the same mistakes they did.

Italy #1: Aprite le finestre

Artist: Franca Raimondi

Language: Italian, a Eurovision mainstay language to this day

Key: Between D and E♭ major

The order selected for these songs was heavily deliberated over, and it shows. I find it strange that after this contest, the order became random until 2012. While you could argue random order is fairer for voting, I think ordering songs so that they flow well is more important.

This is by far the most uplifting song yet, and I can imagine it at the start of a 50’s movie, sung by the protagonist as she opens the windows (as the title says) and takes a nice walk outside on a sunny spring day. Easily one of my favorites.

Netherlands #2: Voorgoed voorbij

Artist: Corry Brokken

Language: Dutch

Key: F major

The cycle of countries restarts! Listening to songs in Dutch is fun because I can guess what a few lyrics here and there mean. I have an advantage here because Dutch is commonly described as “between English and German”, the languages I speak best. In fact, it almost feels like cheating to look up English translations of the lyrics.

The song itself has a very common theme in popular music: feeling happier after a breakup. The title even means “over for good”. The song’s tone is so cheerful I almost find it strange, because these days, songs about breakups usually have a tone of bitterness.

Switzerland #2: Refrain (the winner)

Artist: Lys Assia, again

Language: French, which was Switzerland’s most common choice during the 20th century

Key: Between C and D♭ major

As far as I can call any 1950’s Eurovision song “flashy”, this is probably the flashiest, especially with those piano breaks. It’s the closest to my typical imagination of “50’s popular music”, but I can’t say it stands out to me as much as so many others. It’s nice to know that the winner not being what I found a standout isn’t a new thing either.

Belgium #2: Le plus beau jour de ma vie

Artist: Mony Marc

Language: French

Key: A♭ major, with a key change to B♭ major

It feels relieving to know that the first ever Eurovision has some samey songs that blend together, and not every song is wowing. This is just another alright 50’s orchestral song about love, and it matches with my imagination of what most 50’s Eurovision songs were like before I listened to them all.

Germany #2: So geht das jede Nacht

Artist: Freddy Quinn

Language: German

Key: F major

Now this is a change of pace! It’s the first Eurovision song that you can call, by some stretch of the imagination, “rock”, or rather rock and roll—more in composition than instrumentation. It has a swing rhythm and twelve bar blues chord progression, and when you mix that with jazzy chords, catchy lyrics, and memorable hooks, you get one of the highlights of this contest.

One notable line in the song’s lyrics is: “jetzt hab ich Boogie und den Cha Cha Cha geübt”, which means “I’ve now practiced the boogie and cha cha cha”. To me, it almost sounds like Freddy Quinn (who is still alive) was foreshadowing Finland’s iconic song 67 years later. Silliness aside, I like that the lyrics repeat enough to get you hooked, but not so much I’d call it “repetitive”.

France #2: Il est là

Artist: Dany Dauberson

Language: French

Key: Between G minor and G♯ minor

Another one with a loose “villain song” vibe, but only in terms of instrumentation. Maybe it’s less a villain song and more of a “chased by the villain” song, because the lyrics are about a woman unable to avoid the man she loves. It’s got some fun tempo changes, and little portions in the song’s relative major key, which help give it the movie feel.

Luxembourg #2: Les amants de minuit

Artist: Michèle Arnaud, again

Language: French

Key: B♭ major

Luxembourg is the only one of the 1956 contestants—the Eurovision OGs, you could say—that didn’t remain a mainstay in the 21st century, since they dropped out after 1992. They’re like your friend from an online music team who was super active at first but left within the first year and has long moved on. Or at least, I had that metaphor in my head before learning that Luxembourg would return in 2024! I came up with a new analogy afterwards: Luxembourg is like that member of your old friend group who moved to Australia* years ago, but just moved back to where you live and is reconnecting with the group.

The song itself doesn’t stick out to me. Just another standard 1950’s Eurovision song in French. Maybe Arnaud wanted to play it safe for this song compared to her other.

* If you’re Australian, that metaphorical friend moved to New Zealand.

Italy #2: Amami se vuoi

Artist: Tonina Torrielli

Language: Italian

Key: Between F major and F♯ major

The last performer of this contest, and the last one who’s alive as far as I know. It’s the slowest of the contest, and again feels like a normal 50’s Eurovision entry aside from brief swing sections. I do like that it’s clearly designed around the rhythm of Italian.

Who’s my favorite?

Eurovision 1956 and Eurovision 2023 aren’t as different as I had expected. A mix of great songs and forgettable samey songs, and the best songs are good enough that I can’t easily choose which is my favorite. Two songs stand out above the rest: “So geht das jede Nacht” and “Aprite le finestre”. The jazzy song and the uplifting song. My inner patriot is screaming at me to choose the German song, but I feel iffy about selecting a song just because it’s from my country. Still, as fun as Italy’s song is, no part of me is screaming as loudly to choose it. I tried to imagine, what if both songs were in English and came from the UK and Ireland respectively? I would have probably still chosen the jazzy song, so I will go with this winner: Germany #2, So geht das jede Nacht.

Honorable mentions to Aprite le finestre (Italy #1) and De vogels van Holland (Netherlands #1). Both fun little songs.

And so, my list of Eurovision favorites per year is:

  • Germany, 1

General thoughts

In some ways, Eurovision has changed massively, but in other ways, it hasn’t changed at all. If I was alive in 1956, I could see myself rooting for a few particular songs while many others blend into generic song soup. The contest was much simpler then, but the essence remains the same. The sameness that you might expect coming in belies the variety that the competition truly offers, and if you only care about modern Eurovision, I encourage you to check out its first installment. You might be surprised!

Oh yeah, enjoy short and sweet reviews while it lasts. It’s not a cookiefonster project if the installments don’t get longer and longer.

That was a fun start to my Eurovision blog post series! It only took me a few hours to write. See you next time as three more countries join the club, with only one song per country.

>> 1957: Say Hi to Three New Guys

2 thoughts on “Cookie Fonster Reviews Eurovision 1956: Humble Beginnings Shrouded in Mystery

  1. alexpsyforever from the eurovision reddit group:
    I really like your style, feels fresh. I reviewed this edition too (not posted yet) and plan to do more. Most welcome to join my freshly created group for ESC reviews:
    Just a question you say the ESC was broadcast on TV, I always thought it was only broadcasted by radio. Did you find a source for it being broadcasted on TV?


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