Welcome back, everyone! My thanks to Emmanuel Dubois of the Lafayette, We Are Here podcast for swapping promos with The Siècle. Be sure to check out his show for a sweeping view of French history, a topic which apparently includes more than just the 19th Century? I learn new things every day!
Today I’ve got a special treat for you. This episode is a look at a crucially important figure in Restoration France who’s been a recurring background character on The Siècle since nearly the very beginning. I’ve quoted or referenced Pierre-Jean de Béranger in Episodes 6, 18, 20, 21, 28 and 32, and Supplemental 8. Béranger wasn’t a noble or a politician.1 He was a songwriter, or a chansonnier, but just calling him that massively understates his significance. Béranger was one of the most famous and influential men of his day. His songs ran the gamut from love and partying to pointed political commentary. He was, essentially, the Bob Dylan of Restoration France.
To learn more about Béranger, I sought out an expert guest: Sophie-Anne Leterrier, an academic who’s written a book in French about Béranger titled Béranger: des Chansons pour un Peuple Citoyen, or “Béranger: Songs for a Citizen People.” You can find a link to that book online at thesiecle.com/supplemental17 — that’s t-h-e-s-i-e-c-l-e.
But just talking about one of the most famous songwriters in French history seemed inadequate. So in a first for this podcast, I reached out to the Press universitaire de Rennes, the publishers of Leterrier’s book, and licensed the right to broadcast audio clips of Béranger recordings that they published along with Sophie-Anne’s book. So you’ll get to hear some clips of Béranger’s songs in today’s episode!
That means I also need to thank my supporters on Patreon, who currently donate $320 per month to support this show. That covers my hosting costs and book purchases, but also gives me the freedom to do things like pay to license music and transcribe interviews — like this one, which was transcribed by Heather Hughson. I especially want to thank my newest patrons: Doris Slone, Ian House, Nick, Frank McGee, Hamish Ivey-Law, Miriam Yang, Nick Buron, John Murphy and Graham Leader. If you’d like to join them for as little as $1 per month, visit thesiecle.com/support.
With all that out of the way, let’s dive in to my interview with Sophie-Anne Leterrier. I will note that Prof. Leterrier is not a native English speaker; if you have difficulty understanding any portion of our conversation, you can — as always — find a full transcript online at thesiecle.com/supplemental17. Now, let’s get in to it.
This is The Siècle, Supplemental 17: Béranger.
THE SIÈCLE: Sophie-Anne Leterrier, welcome to The Siècle.
SOPHIE-ANNE LETERRIER: Thank you.
SIÈCLE: I’m so glad to have you on here, because we’ve been talking about Béranger on the Siècle for most of its run, and I find the guy fascinating and I want to learn more about him and share that with the audience. So thank you for coming on to share your expertise.
LETERRIER: You’re welcome.
SIÈCLE: If you could start out, just introduce yourself to our listeners and tell us about yourself and your research.
LETERRIER: I am Sophie-Anne Leterrier, professor emeritus at the University of Artois, in the north of France. After having devoted my thesis to the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, I worked on the intellectual life of the first [half of the] 19th Century. And then I turned my research to music. I dealt with the way in which music had become an object of history, and I tried to understand how early music, and Gregorian chant in particular, have been rediscovered and reinterpreted, and that’s how I came to popular music and particularly urban folk music, and that’s how I met Béranger.
SIÈCLE: For listeners who aren’t familiar, give us the basic facts about who Pierre-Jean de Béranger was, tell us about this famous French songwriter.
LETERRIER: Béranger is a chansonnier, and he enjoyed exceptional fame in his time. Pierre Larousse said of him that he was as famous as Napoléon, which is saying a lot. He is mostly known because of his political songs, which made him the Opposition’s chansonnier, the national chansonnier, under the Restoration. His songs were known and sung by all, as well in the salons of the liberal elite as in the workers’ goguettes. The printed volumes sold tens of thousands of copies, in luxury illustrated versions as much as in the deliveries sold for a few cents. This is why one can still find many of them in bookshops. Béranger was born at the end of the eighteenth century, in 1780 in Paris. He was about ten years old when the Revolution broke out, but he did not stay in Paris during the Terror. He lived his childhood in the provinces near Péronne. Because his parents married very young and soon separated, they could not take care of him, and entrusted him to a relative. He received only a rudimentary education, in particular, he did not know Latin, which at this time was very discriminating. He was brought up in the principles of the Republic, at least that is what he says in his autobiography. At the age of fourteen, he was apprenticed to a printer, then he returned to Paris under the Directoire, worked with his father in the credit business, before becoming an employee at the university in ‘89. He began to make entertaining songs which introduced him to the Caveau, a circle of chansonniers then famous. It was not until 1810 that he began to write political songs, especially after the fall of Napoléon, the return of the Bourbons, and the occupation of the territory. He was published in La Minèrve, a liberal newspaper. Béranger published several collections of songs in 1815, in ‘21, and in 1826. These collections earned him legal proceedings, and two resounding trials that sent him to prison. In 1821, he was sentenced to three months and a 500-franc fine.2 In 1828, nine months in prison and a 10,000-franc fine.3 The proceedings contributed enormously to his fame, to his popularity. Then, after 1830, he gave up his [rights to his] songs to his publisher, and lived quite retired until his death. He was briefly representative of the nation during the Second Republic.
SIÈCLE: All right well that’s a fascinating life story, we’re going to dive into pretty everything you talked about in a little more detail over the rest of this episode. First of all, I want to start with something simple. You referred to him as a chansonnier, which literally translates to “songwriter”, but this has a particular connotation in French popular music. Can you explain what a chansonnier is?
LETERRIER: Le chansonnier is someone who writes lyrics of songs, and sometimes this is also someone who sings these songs, which is not the case of Béranger, except when he was young he was singing his songs, but after, when he became famous, he stopped singing them in salons. So, the chansonnier is the author. Many chansonniers were — they had no education, they met in kind of cafés where everybody could sing. These cafés were called goguettes.4 Goguettes is a place where workers meet and sing and drink, of course.
SIÈCLE: So Béranger and other chansonniers would publish lyrics, they weren’t publishing the sheet music, they would publish the lyrics and then a note about what melody the song was supposed to be sung to?
LETERRIER: Exactly. Béranger did not know music, and he never wrote a line that would have made him a composer. Like everyone else, he wrote on familiar tunes. This way of doing facilitated greatly the circulation of the songs, since they were already popular and the listener could sing them without reading the music at all. That means, another title of this song, it was only written sur l’air de, on the tune of, that could be anything that, that could be La Mère Michel, that could be Au Clair de la Lune. Everybody knew them, and you could write new lyrics on these tunes. So, it happens also that new music was composed for some of the songs of Béranger, but Béranger had generally written them on pre-existing tunes. That means there are two tunes for a song: one which has been chosen by Béranger, and the other one which has been written in a second time, just because Béranger was popular and a musician would like to write a new tune for a song. But then, [to] write a new tune was necessarily [addressing] an audience that was not purely popular, since this tune would have to be deciphered, [read], and moreover, the new tunes are often indicated in a transcription for the piano, which made them even less popular. Copyright has only concerned music since 1851, and this was a revolution in the practice of song. Singing [new lyrics] on familiar tunes has become the prerogative of militant songwriters, anarchists in particular, and we still see this today in demonstrations. We continue to make parodies, for example with the gilets jaunes, but the practice of parody has almost disappeared except in this case.
SIÈCLE: We’ve been talking a lot about Béranger, this famous songwriter, but we’re actually able to listen to what his songs might have sounded like, thanks to a CD that you were involved with. Can you talk a little bit about this project?
LETERRIER: Well, I’m glad that you asked the question, because for me, the book and the CD go really together, and if you want to know more about Béranger, you have to listen to his songs. So that’s why it was important for me to have these songs listened to by the readers of the book, so if you want to have an idea of his talent, you can listen to different types of songs. For instance, Ma Grand-Mère is a very funny song but it has no political meaning, but if you listen Les Missionaires, it’s very different and it’s very against the clerical power which was very important during the Restoration. So, I think you have two different kinds of songs illustrative of what Béranger was doing if you listen to these two.
SIÈCLE: We’ll talk about your book a little bit later on and in more detail, but why don’t you introduce the song we’re about to hear?
LETERRIER: So if you take the example of Ma Grand-Mère, Ma Grand-Mère is a song which is written like it was said by an old woman. She explains that she had a lot of lovers, and she starts when she was young and then when she was a married woman and when she was a widow, and it’s a long litany of lovers and how she managed to be happy in marriage and outside marriage, and at the end of the song she says to her granddaughter that she has to do the same. So it’s a very immoral song, but it’s very funny because it’s never indecent, so she says things but never crudely, it’s always very metaphorical, and sometimes kind of humoristic.
SIÈCLE: Alright, let’s take a listen to an excerpt.
Listen to the audio recording of this episode for an excerpt of Ma Grand-mère.
Lyrics for excerpt from Ma Grand-mère
Ma grand-mère, un soir à sa fête,
De vin pur ayant bu deux doigts,
Nous disait en branlant la tête:
Que d’amoureux j’eus autrefois!
Combien je regrette
Mon bras si dodu,
Ma jambe bien faite,
Et le temps perdu!
Quoi! maman, vous n’étiez pas sage ?
— Non vraiment ; et de mes appas
Seule à quinze ans j’appris l’usage,
Car la nuit je ne dormais pas.
View the rest of the French lyrics here.
Approximate English translation
My grandmother, while passing the time,
Two glasses in to a bottle of wine
Would say to us with a shake of her head
Oh, what lovers I have had!
How I so regret
My arms newly thick-set,
My over-done thighs
And the time gone by!
“What! Mama, weren’t you wise?”
“No, not at all! For how to catch eyes
Was a skill I’d not learn till 15 I did turn
Then sleep at night I’d often spurn.”5
SIÈCLE: Can you tell us a little bit about who was singing that, and who was performing that song?
LETERRIER: The songs are performed by Judith Fages, [who] is a friend of mine, [who] is not a professional singer, and that was important for me because I wanted to have the feeling that everybody could be able to sing these songs, but of course she’s a good singer and she uses a lot of expression to interpret the song. It’s an immaterial song, but it’s very pleasant. And she’s accompanied by other friends, [who] are musicians, and also I didn’t want the songs to be accompanied by piano, because as I said, piano was very bourgeois. In gaugettes, there were no pianos, there were sometimes fiddles, guitars, or just people singing without accompaniments, so we chose accordion because now when somebody listens to accordion, it feels popular music, it feels like a valse music, etcetera.
SIÈCLE: You talked about Béranger as a political figure, and how he got in legal trouble for some subversive content in his songs, and certainly I think that’s how most listeners of the Siècle might recall Béranger, I’ve quoted and translated excerpts from his songs on a few occasions to illustrate how some of these political developments were seen. Talk a little bit more about Béranger’s politics, what were his political leanings, precisely, and how did he use his songs to promote these political ideals?
LETERRIER: I have to say that Jean Touchard’s book explores this point thoroughly, so if somebody wants to know everything about the political connections of Béranger, they have to read La Gloire de Béranger.
SIÈCLE: We’ll have a link to that online in the show’s transcript
LETERRIER: It’s an old book, it was published at the end of the ’60s, but it’s very precise, and it shows that Béranger knew everyone. He had liberal networks, he had literary networks, he had popular connections, too. He was really someone who knew everyone, and the political networks includes especially the Minèrve group, that means the most radical of the liberals, if I can say so. That means for instance Lafayette, Benjamin Constant, Paul-Louis Courrier, [Jacques-Antoine] Manuel, Dupont de l’Eure, the banker Laffitte, and also some independents like Delécluze, Stendhal, and poets of course like Casimir Delavigne, Barthélemy, who were engaged poets, but he also knew many vaudevillists, songwriters, people who wrote for the theatre like Désaugiers. Béranger was clearly a liberal in the sense of somebody defending political freedom. He was also clearly a patriot. There is a problem with this term “liberal”, because when you use it today in the 21st Century, you mean somebody who is for freedom of commerce, which is very different [from] the 19th Century, where the deal is political freedom, liberty of expression, etc., so it’s very different. But, Béranger never belonged to a party or even to a movement, he was an independent person. He knew everybody, but he still thoroughly refused to engage because he thought that he might have much more impact as an independent.
SIÈCLE: What was Béranger’s relationship to Napoleon, and the memory of Napoleon, and the Bonapartist movement in Restoration France?
LETERRIER: That’s an interesting question. First, I have to say that Bonapartism under the Restoration is not a party, it is a cause, and it is the cause of people who have lost the battle and have paid dearly, some by exile, most by the loss of their posts or their dignities. So Béranger is not at all an admirer of Napoléon, but he is somebody who has a lot of empathy for the people who were engaged in the Empire, and who lost everything with the Restoration. However, his songs do much for the Napoleonic legend, because he wrote them especially after the death of Napoléon. So for him and in his songs, Napoléon is the son of the Revolution, and as Béranger was republican, I mean at least in [his] principles, he contributed a lot to the Napoleonic legend, and to the regret and the sadness which came with the return of the clergy to power with the Restoration. He was not a Party man, but he was a man with strong principles, and with strong democratic principles.
SIÈCLE: Let’s take a listen to another excerpt of a song here, one of these political songs that Béranger wrote. Can you introduce the song that we’re about to listen to?
LETERRIER: Yes, Ma République is an interesting song because it doesn’t speak of a specific regime, but of a society where everyone can live free and happy, and even go to Mass, that’s actually written in the song.
SIÈCLE: All right, let’s take a listen
Listen to the audio recording of this episode for an excerpt of Ma République.
Lyrics for excerpt from Ma République
J’ai pris goût à la république
Depuis que j’ai vu tant de rois.
Je m’en fais une, et je m’applique
À lui donner de bonnes lois.
On n’y commerce que pour boire,
On n’y juge qu’avec gaîté ;
Ma table est tout son territoire ;
Sa devise est la liberté.\
Amis, prenons tous notre verre :
Le sénat s’assemble aujourd’hui.
D’abord, par un arrêt sévère,
À jamais proscrivons l’ennui.
Quoi ! proscrire ! Ah ! ce mot doit être
Inconnu dans notre cité.
Chez nous l’ennui ne pourra naître :
Le plaisir suit la liberté.\
View the rest of the French lyrics here.
Approximate English translation
A republic’s grown a brighter sheen
With every passing king I’ve seen
So I made my own, and without a pause
Began to write the best of laws:
Only trade so you can drink,
Only judge with happy wink
My table is her territory
Her motto? Simply “Liberty.”
Friends, drink up — we must obey
The Senate, she will meet today
First, an order, strict and firm:
Eternal ban against boredom.
“What? A ‘ban?’” That word must be
Never known in our city
With us, life is never hollow
Where liberty leads, must pleasure follow.6
LETERRIER: We have this song recorded with a new music, it’s not the original music, it’s music written by Jean-Louis Murat, [who] is a very interesting songwriter and singer. I don’t know if you know him, but he devoted an entire CD to Béranger’s songs, the CD is called 1829, that means he took especially songs of the end of the Restoration, very engaged and very political songs.
SIÈCLE: All right, and I’ll include a link to that at thesiecle.com as well. We’ve talked about how Béranger faced legal challenges as a result of his songs, can you talk a little bit more about how the Bourbon Restoration government responded to Béranger? Obviously, they brought charges against him, was he seen as a political threat, as a danger to the regime?
LETERRIER: His songs developed his ideas, ideas of democracy and of freedom, in two ways. On the one hand, his songs ridiculed the reactionary power of the Restoration, especially the fanaticism and intolerance that characterized the religious pursuits. There is also in Béranger’s songs a writing of the contemporary history. They talk about the Revolution, they talk about the death of Napoléon, they talk about censorship, the police hunting songs and songwriters, and so on. In France, at this time, where the press was subjected to obtuse censorship, the song was a very good way of disseminating principles, because it was free, and it plays the role that would be in the 20th Century said of political jokes in totalitarian countries. And the two trials were largely contributed to his notoriety and even to his glory. So they made him a martyr of the liberal cause, and so they entered into a real strategy on the part of Béranger, because he thought that being sent to jail was a real proof that he was dangerous, and that his songs were dangerous.
The circumstances of his two detentions are not the same. The first was in the context of a reaction following the assassination of the Duc de Berri, censorship had been restored, liberal newspapers had been severely repressed, and peddlers had been closely monitored.7 For the second trial, the liberals were divided between those who wanted to be associated [with] the government, and those who were irréductible [inveterate], including Béranger himself, of course. So the collection of songs published in ‘28 was very aggressive, especially two songs, Le Sacre de Charles-le-Simple, and Les Infiniments Petits, which are real provocations.
SIÈCLE: The Sacre de Charles-le-Simple is the coronation of Charles the Simple.
LETERRIER: Exactly, exactly.
SIÈCLE: I quoted that in my episode discussing Charles X’s coronation.
LETERRIER: Yes I saw that, I have spent some time on your podcast, I have to say.
SIÈCLE: Well thank you very much. We’ve talked a lot about Béranger’s politics, let’s talk a bit about his personal life. You mentioned that he had friends in a lot of circles, can you talk a little bit more about what he did outside of his songwriting, and I guess in particular I’m curious about the relationship that he had with the liberal politician Jacques-Antoine Manuel.
Below: Jacques-Antoine Manuel, by Michel Martin Drolling, 1822. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
LETERRIER: First, we must say that little is known about his personal life, except what he wrote in his [autobiography] and in his letters. Because like everybody in the nineteenth century, he spent hours every day to write, and to answer letters he received. He received also pleas and demands for money, for help, for jobs, so he tried to help for instance young writers who were workers and who wanted to be edited, he tried to help his friends – friends in a very general way. His friendship with Manuel is probably his strongest bond.
Manuel was a former soldier of the Revolution and a lawyer under the Empire, therefore [of ] a bourgeois milieu, but not very wealthy. He was [a] Deputy during the Hundred Days, and Deputy of the Vendée in 1818, and he was a very fierce opponent of the Restoration, and a man of formidable eloquence, a remarkable improviser, which probably fascinated Béranger, because Béranger was a writer, but he was not at all an orator. It was Manuel who brought Béranger into the circle of parliamentary liberalism, into contact with Laffitte, or Dupont de l’Eure.
Béranger was very fond of Manuel, whom he describes as an intransigent patriot, and also as somewhat savage, living in a simple way. They lived under the same roof from 1824 until Manuel’s death three years later, and they share the same grave at Père Lachaise cemetery, which might seem very special, but is not actually. If you go through this cemetery, you will find other graves with people who were just friends. I didn’t inquire on that, but it was always strange, even for me. We know nothing of their intimacy. We can imagine many things, but they took their secrets to the grave.
SIÈCLE: Certainly, they were very close. I’ve seen a lot of speculation that they had a romantic relationship, but you’re saying that there’s no evidence for or against that?
LETERRIER: Exactly, but why not? I mean, we can romance it if you want. I’m not very interested in this kind of facts, but, it is fascinating in a way. I agree with that.
SIÈCLE: In a future episode, we’re going to look a little bit more into questions of homosexuality in the Bourbon Restoration and how that was treated, but that’s for a future episode. For now, starting to wrap up, can you talk a bit about Béranger’s legacy? You mentioned that he was extremely famous at the time; how was he seen in his day, immediately after his day, and how has his legacy changed as the years have gone by since his death?
LETERRIER: In his lifetime, as I’ve said, he enjoyed immense popularity, because he was considered a great poet, and admired by the greatest of his time, like Chateaubriand, Lamartine, Victor Hugo, and he was a true idol of the people. Many men of the people had his portrait at home, and sang his songs, and some wrote to him to express their admiration, or tried to imitate him, and this is important because at his death, the priest was anonymous. But then a few years later, it was not the case. He wrote for goguettes, and the goguettes disappeared with the Second Empire. The Second Empire was fatal to the type of song of which Béranger was a model, and he was excluded from the great literature during the Third Republic, with only a few names of writers of avant-garde, which Béranger was absolutely not, because he wrote in a very classical way. He wrote in rhymes, he wrote with very much the lexique of the eighteenth century.
SIÈCLE: The vocabulary of the eighteenth century.
LETERRIER: Yeah, exactly. And third, the question of music may also play a role because, as I said also, he wrote on music of his time, that means music from the beginning of the century. People forget these songs, because like today, there are always new songs à la mode, so after awhile, people didn’t know the tunes he chose, that didn’t help the long-lasting of his songs.
SIÈCLE: What, if anything, do most modern-day French people know about Béranger? Do they know he existed?
LETERRIER: (laughing) Yes, everybody knows he existed and knew he was very popular, but that’s almost all, because there are a few recordings, the recordings are mostly moral songs, if I can say so, like Ma Grand-Mère, or Le Sénateur, this kind of song has been recorded but none of the political songs have been recorded until very recently, because, for instance, Arnaud Marzorati had some of his songs recorded, especially the songs against the Pope, but it’s recent. Maybe I played a role in this, I hope so, I hope I had some people interested in Béranger because I wrote this book.
SIÈCLE: We’ll listen to one more song before we go here, but before that, if you could just wrap up with any final thoughts, in particular talk about this book, the project, and how people might be able to get it.
LETERRIER: The origin of my book lies in the fact that it tells more on his songs than his biography, his person, or even his writings, and the book is accompanied by a CD, and it’s important to listen to the songs, which are sung in a special way, that means not in a professional way, and accompanied by accordion or wheel fiddle, ah yes, wheel fiddle.
SIÈCLE: The hurdy-gurdy.
LETERRIER: I tried to understand why the songs were so important in his time, and what he had changed in his rear, and in fact he brought much, not only by writing remarkable songs, but by really changing the status of the song. After him, song was considered like popular poetry, not a minor genre of literature, but instead a privilege, the high call of public thought. And I think Béranger has done a great deal to allow people to express themselves in song, which is also a form of democratic education.
SIÈCLE: Excellent, and the title of your book is Béranger: des Chansons pour un Peuple Citoyen.
SIÈCLE: And you can find a link to purchase that, for those of you who read French, at thesiecle.com. As we head out, we’ll listen to one more song. Can you introduce this final song that we’re about to hear?
LETERRIER: I think that we should have Le Souvenir du Peuple, because this is Béranger’s most famous song. Le Souvenir du Peuple is a song which tells about a grandmother, talks about different times where she met Napoléon. She met him when he was a Republican general, and he came to the east of the territory, then she met him when she was in Paris and he was going to the coronation, and then afterwards she met him another time, a third time, when he was having his last battles and losing these battles, that means in 1814, and then afterwards, she explains that he comes to her house, he comes knocking, and he’s wet with rain, and he has to go near the fire to get some heat, and he takes some wine, and she kept his glass as something very precious, and the children which are around her say “Ah, you still have the glass, grandmother! Can we see it? So important,” etc., so it’s a very good song because it tells a story of Napoléon, but it tells us here a lot about the admiration of the people for Napoléon, and the kind of very human and familiar link between Napoléon and the people.
SIÈCLE: Thank you very much for coming on the show, Sophie-Anne Leterrier, and we’ll let Béranger play us out.
At least, not during the Restoration. Decades later, as an old man, he would make a run for office. ↩
In the 1821 case, Béranger’s prosecutor was Louis Antoine François de Marchangy, the royalist attorney we’ve seen prosecuting the Carbonarist “Four Sergeants of La Rochelle” in Episode 23, inspiring an opera with an epic poem about French mythic history in a footnote to Episode 28, and being mocked as a “counterfeit Chateaubriand” by Victor Hugo in Supplemental 11. Béranger’s defense attorney was André Dupin, who showed up getting disqualified on a technicality in Supplemental 16. See Sophie-Anne Leterrier, Béranger: Des chansons pour un peuple citoyen (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2013), 71. ↩
Ten thousand francs is a truly stupendous figure, nearly double the annual salary of a post-Revolutionary aristocratic family. See Peter McPhee, A Social History of France: 1789-1914, 2nd ed. (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 103. The announcement sparked an outcry in the courtroom when it was announced. Pierre-Jean de Béranger, Œuvres complètes de Béranger, ed. H. Fournier, ainé, Vol. 3 (Paris: H. Fournier et Comp., 1839). ↩
Roughly translated by me. ↩
Roughly translated by me. ↩