Arts & Culture

French history is taught, sung in ‘cabaret lecture’

4 min read

In 18th century Paris, political gossip and courtly intrigue swirled through the city as smoothly and deliciously as well-aged wine. To stay current, most citizens turned not to newspapers but to street songs, popular tunes that were improvised and modified as affairs developed.

“Street songs became a kind of ‘sung newspaper’ through which information was disseminated,” said Robert Darnton ’60, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the Harvard University Library. “These songs shed light on the role of oral communication in 18th century France, and also teach us a great deal about the politics of the ancien régime.”

The intersection of French politics and music was the focus of a history and literature public “cabaret lecture” given by Darnton Nov. 27 in the Radcliffe Gymnasium. The event, titled “Street Songs in Paris, 1749,” featured renowned French mezzo-soprano Hélène Delavault. She was accompanied by George H. Blaustein, a lecturer in history and literature and a graduate student in the history of American civilization.

“I wanted to blend my lecture with her singing,” said Darnton, “so we’ve invented a new genre — the cabaret lecture.”

Despite its seemingly disparate elements, the cabaret lecture unfolded smoothly as Darnton and Delavault wove together historical lessons and popular, often bawdy, tunes. The performance focused on 12 street songs from the year 1749, introduced by Darnton and brought to life by Delavault.

The subject of the songs ranged from military operations to sex scandals and political schemes. One tune celebrated a French battle victory in the War of Austrian Secession; another lamented the taxes imposed after the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. Mme de Pompadour, the famous mistress of Louis XV, was an especially popular subject in many of the satirical songs.

“The royal mistresses were irresistible to the public,” said Darnton. “Mme de Pompadour was a great target because of her maiden name ‘Poisson,’ which means ‘fish’.” One tune, for example, criticized the extravagances of the crown and the influences of Pompadour with the quip, “all the Fish are growing big.”

Despite their obvious satirical quality, Darnton noted that the street songs were not “revolutionary.”

“The songs were not imagining 1789,” Darnton said. “Many Parisians felt that the king was on their side, but that the civil ministers prevented him from interceding on their behalf.”

Darnton first discovered the street songs in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The lyrics were written on slips of paper and gathered in scrapbooks called “chansonniers.” Darnton looked through 12 chansonniers, some of which had more than 50 volumes, to get a sense for which verses were the most popular. Additional manuscripts provided original music for most of the tunes.

“I found so many songs in the archives that I estimate Parisians were writing an average of three to four per week in 1749,” Darnton said.

According to Darnton, very few of the songs were attributed to individual authors. Instead, he says, the lyrics were the collective creation of “ordinary people” who invented new stanzas as the political scene changed. They borrowed tunes from a range of repertoires including drinking songs, the opéra-comique, and even Christmas carols. Street singers would improvise new verses on scraps of paper, which they pulled out of their waistcoat pocket to declaim for friends or passersby.

Some of the more seditious verses made their way to police archives, after singers were arrested and frisked in the Bastille. Officials emptied prisoners’ pockets, seizing the scandalous scraps of lyrics as evidence of misconduct.

“The police were very active in repressing songs if they were told to do so by the government,” Darnton said. Spies were placed in cafés to listen in on local gossip. In one incident, police were instructed to arrest anyone who mentioned a tune that began with the lyrics “monster whose black fury …,” which presumably slandered the king. Fourteen people were detained, but the author of the lyrics was never found. Darnton suggests that the song, like so many others, was most likely a group composition, edited and modified by anyone who felt creative. The police couldn’t nab the author probably because he did not exist.

Whether they were politically charged or just plain bawdy, said Darnton, the songs of 18th century Paris had a kind of power.

“It was the golden age of the French chanson,” Darnton said. If the songs were truly as catchy as Delavault’s offerings, it must also have been an age of great fun.

The lecture cabaret was organized by the Committee on Degrees in History and Literature, with support from the Center for European Studies, the Office for the Arts, the Department of History, the Humanities Center, the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, and the Harvard University Library.