Parisian Soundscapes

Slanderous Songs from the Pont Neuf

December 19, 2018By Stephen O'SheaWhat's New Art & Culture
The Pont Neuf in 1763, by Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet.
The Pont Neuf in 1763, by Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet.

Tired of Piaf and Daft Punk? For melomaniacs of the Parisian persuasion, a refreshing blast from the past can be heard on the website of the University of Cambridge, of all places. Cultural historian Nicholas Hammond has unearthed a naughty trove of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century satirical jingles known as the Chansonnier Maurepas, a thirty-volume songbook which had been inexplicably gathering dust in the archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale. The result? Hammond collaborated with a team of virtuoso musicians and vocalists from the time-traveling Badinage ensemble to produce an online repertoire of unrivaled ribaldry. Click here for a listen.

The songs were originally performed on or around the Pont Neuf, a dangerous place to hang out in the 1670s and ’80s. The spies of King Louis XIV would have gotten an earful there, as dissidents, malcontents and just general wiseacres gave voice to scathing opinions on the grandees of their world. A rather arresting golden oldie, called “Chausson’s Song,” deplores the execution of one poor fellow for homosexuality while noting that at the same time a certain Guitaut, a notorious boy toy of a royal kinsman, was being honored with the prestigious “blue ribbon” award. In translation:

Great Gods! Where is your justice?

Chausson is about to die in the fire;

And Guitaut for the same vice

Has deserved the Cordon bleu.

Ancestors of YouTube, the seditious ditties were printed and handed out to bemused passers-by. Their lyrics, set to the tunes of songs popular in the taverns of the day, spread like wildfire among the gossips of the capital. Thanks to Hammond’s musicological sleuthing, we too can now enjoy melodious evocations of closet cross-dressing, financial depravity and the sexual peccadilloes of the powerful. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Note: As an antidote to the saccharine carols you might be heartily sick of at this festive time, a racy version of a Christmas carol performed in 1696 can be found on the Parisian Soundscapes site.

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