restricted access Béranger: des chansons pour un peuple citoyen by Sophie Anne Leterrier (review)
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Béranger: des chansons pour un peuple citoyen. Par Sophie Anne Leterrier. Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2013. 345pp + CD.

Pierre-Jean de Béranger is now a half-forgotten figure of early nineteenth-century French literature, despite being hailed as a major poet during his lifetime. Sophie Anne Leterrier’s thorough and scholarly study explains the reasons for this: he was a chansonnier, a hero of the popular culture of the post-Revolutionary years, and a focus of political resistance to the restoration of the French monarchy after the Napoleonic period. His literary reputation grew out of his popularity as a writer of song lyrics, first distributed as leaflets and performed on the streets by others and only subsequently collected into anthologies, rather than as a published poet like Lamartine. His significance was recognized nevertheless by such literary contemporaries as Hugo and Stendhal, but his reputation steadily dwindled after the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 and his death in 1857. Leterrier’s book is not a biography but rather a study of Béranger’s role in the functioning of the popular song form in France in the first half of the nineteenth century. She documents in exhaustive detail the distribution of song texts, often politically subversive, written to be performed using traditional or familiar melodies that served to carry their narrative lyrics, but frequently respecting the verse conventions of the period. For Béranger, these texts led to two high-profile political trials and prison sentences during the Restoration period. The tradition of subversive lyric-writing to popular tunes has survived even up to the present day in political satire in the French audio-visual media. In other respects, however, the parameters of popular chanson have changed to such an extent that Béranger is now regarded as a distant precursor rather than an inspiration or a model, and Leterrier compares and contrasts him with the modern singer-songwriter hero Georges Brassens. So as better to appreciate the resonances of Béranger’s writing, Leterrier has included a CD with eighteen representative examples of his songs, performed mostly using the original melodies but with modern instrumental accompaniment: this is very helpful, as no audio recordings of the songs are commercially available, although the correlation between the useful anthology of song texts in the Appendix and the playlist of the CD has fallen victim to careless pagination. Even so, this is a rewarding study of the popular culture of the Napoleonic and Restoration period and an admirable attempt to document in scholarly fashion the career of an influential but neglected figure of French cultural history.

Peter Hawkins
University of Bristol