(CHANSONS) ~ A French manuscript chansonnier. [?Paris, c. 1700-1737].
Manuscript on paper, 8 vols, large 4to (240 ×170 mm). Uniformly bound in early eighteenth-century calf, gilt panelled spines with morocco labels, red edges. Rubbed, with slight wear to corners, a few joints starting, but secure, expert repair to headcaps and some joints. A very good set.
A superb and extensive manuscript chansonnier, containing at least 900 popular, topical and satirical chansons, dating from 1600-1737, many with detailed musical notation.
In pre-revolutionary France, social comment and political criticism found eloquent expression in song. These chansons were sung in the lower reaches of the royal courts, in salons and on street corners, often to popular tunes or show tunes by Lully and other composers, and were passed around orally or on manuscript sheets, a mode of transmission that Cultural historian, Robert Darnton has memorably described as ‘viral’. It was a fashionable activity around 1700 to copy these songs into bound volumes, such as these, collecting all the old songs and adding new ones as they appeared. Similar collections were sometimes also printed, but the manuscript versions tend to be fuller and contain more detail on the context and on the musical accompaniment. In our example, one of the best we have come across, the subject of each song is given in revealing shoulder notes and the melodies are written out in full, complete with key signatures, at the head of many of the texts.
The earlier songs are of the ‘Mazarinade’ variety, with a large proportion of the later seventeenth-century examples directed against the court of young Louis XIV, presided over by Cardinal Mazarin. Later songs include satires on John Law and his disastrous speculation in the Mississippi project, on the religious cult of the Convulsionnaires in Paris, on the morality of the clergy (a Boulogne pastor is accused of deflowering a novitiate) and of the women of the Paris theatre (and their periodic public debauches), and one on Voltaire, condemned for his Lettres philosophiques (Letters Concerning the English Nation, 1733). Together they can genuinely be claimed as a social history of France in verse and song, for the period in question.
Robert Darnton has made an extensive study of similar chansonniers in French public collections, published as Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris (2010). He writes: ‘Parisians improvised new words to old tunes every day and on every possible subject—the love life of actresses, executions of criminals, the birth or death of members of the royal family, battles in times of war, taxes in times of peace, trials, bankruptcies, accidents, plays, comic operas, festivals, and all sorts of occurrences that fit into the capacious French category of faits divers (assorted events). A clever verse to a catchy tune spread through the streets with unstoppable force, and new verses frequently followed it, carried from one neighbourhood to another like gusts of wind. In a semiliterate society, songs functioned to a certain extent as newspapers. They provided a running commentary on current events.’
I. 1600-64, ff. 250, , the first and last blank.
II. 1665-88, ff. 232, the first blank.
III. 1689-1701, ff. 247, , the last blank.
IV. 1702-1708 (title page date 1735), ff. 250, , the last 3 blank.
V. 1708-1714, ff. 1-56, 58-149, .
VI. 1714-23, ff. 246, .
VII. 1724-34, ff. 240, , plus several blanks at rear.
VIII. 1729-1737. ff. 229, .