3. A French Christmas Carol

By Tiéphaine Thomason

If you were to stroll through the chilly streets of late seventeenth-century Paris, you would be sure to hear singing. This singing would be set to tunes ranging from the solemn, almost melancholic ‘Or nous dites Marie’ (But tell us Mary) to the decidedly jolly ‘Laissez paître vos bêtes’ (Leave your beasts to pasture) and ‘Tous les bourgeois de Châtres’ (All the burghers of Chartres). All these tunes were undoubtedly ‘Christmassy.

Strain your ears just a little to catch the words and you might be surprised. Urban song in early modern France consisted of ‘contrafacta.’[1] That is, new texts were usually set to a repertoire of pre-existing tunes, making these easier to memorise and accessible to the illiterate masses. Generations of listeners would associate political and social themes to the same tunes. If you had grown up in Paris, you would be able to tell from the very first notes of a song the singer’s political stance. These sources have reached us through various song collections, court records and texts hastily scribbled on scraps of paper.

Fresh texts, set to old tunes, brought useful news of war and political change. They were also a perfect means for circulating gossip about the royal court. A favourite type of tune for gossip was the ‘Noël’ – the Christmas song.[2]A brief glance over the extant Noëls set to the sombre ‘Or nous dites Marie’ in the early 1700s tells us, for instance, that the Marquis de Gesvres was, unfortunately, ‘terrible in bed’, but a ‘rather good dinner companion’ and poor Mme de Nesle had foolishly slept with someone other than her ‘devoted’ M. d’Agenois. 

If these ‘carols’ weren’t quite the spiritual refuge that we’ve grown to expect, they undoubtedly brought good cheer to an otherwise bleak time of year.[3]

Example of a ‘Noël’ from 1685, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Fonds Français, 15140, p.405.

[1] Annette Keilhauer, Das französische Chanson im späten Ancien Régime : Strukturen, Verbreitungswege und Gesellschaftliche Praxis einer populären Literaturform, (G. Olms, 1998).

[2] Monique Rollin, ‘La Mélodies des timbres de cantiques et de noëls: les critères de choix, les structures musicales et leur évolution’ in Jean Quéniart (ed.) Le chant, acteur de l’histoire (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2000).

[3] For those curious about how these might have actually sounded, the Parisian Soundscapes Project has performed some pieces and undertaken some transcriptions the more famous collections – see https://www.parisiansoundscapes.org/default-page.

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