Parisian Soundscapes

November 23, 2015By Nick HammondWhat's New Art & Culture

Parisians Attack Sun King with Scurrilous Songs

Louis XIV crossing the Pont Neuf.

The awful events in Paris this month have been keenly felt in other countries, not least in Britain, where the huge swell of empathy and support has been genuine and deeply felt. A November 26 concert I have been organizing in Cambridge, UK, was arranged well before November 13, but the fact that the songs to be performed are entirely Paris-based gives the concert an added poignancy.

Timed to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Louis XIV’s death, this will be a memorial like no other I have seen taking place in France this year. Whereas most exhibitions and books have tended to focus on the glory of a great and long-serving king – he was monarch for 72 years – our concert allows ordinary people of the time to have their say about Louis’s reign.

In collaboration with members of a highly talented London-based period-instrument group, Ars Eloquentiae, I have been tracking down street songs from the 17th and 18th centuries, enabling modern audiences to hear many of them for the first time in 300 years. Set to popular tunes of the day (which everyone would have known and been able to sing along to), the songs performed on the Pont Neuf in particular often told a very different story from the official accounts of Louis’s life.

In the final decades of his reign, the people suffered great hardship from crippling taxes, famine and disillusion at the increasing military failures of a once-mighty ruler. The songs they sang immediately after his death certainly reflect that mood, but always with a wry sense of humor. In one song, for example, the king’s surgeon, Guy-Crescent Fagon, is praised for being incompetent, because at least he helped make Louis’s life shorter than it might have been. One has a vivid sense of the immediate aftermath of the king’s demise.

Another song complains about the length of a funeral oration given by the wonderfully named Quiqueran de Beaujeu, even mentioning that members of the congregation began to hiss and boo, and makes fun of the preacher’s comparison of Louis to Christ.

In the concert, songs from different episodes of Louis’s reign will be performed, many of them scurrilous and scandalous, including a medley of songs about the sexual proclivities of the king’s court composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully. One of the songs from 1684 even uses a tune from Lully’s latest opera, Amadis.

The common practice of singing such tunes on the street in the 17th and 18th centuries gave  listeners who would not normally have the means to go to the opera a chance to hear the latest arias.

Perhaps above all these songs illustrate the spirit and (given the fact that the chief lieutenant of police employed spies to listen in to the songs for any scurrilous or seditious content) the courage of the Parisian people. The response to the recent attacks shows that Parisians still possess those same qualities in abundance, and we will be paying tribute to that in our concert.

To listen to performances of a number of songs and read the texts of many of them, visit our website. The concert itself, to which all are welcome (admission is free), takes place 5.30pm-7pm on November 26, 2015, at Lady Mitchell Hall, Sidgwick Avenue, Cambridge CB5 8QX, UK.


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