These French chansons are of a special kind: as the other part of the subtitle, Le Pape musulman (The Muslim Pope) suggests, they're satirical pieces, and of the slash-and-burn sort at that. Except in a few unspecified cases, the composer listed, Pierre Jean de Béranger, did not write the music but instead fitted his poetry to existing operatic and popular tunes; some were also written by established composers. One might expect a French release to be a bit more generous in identifying these, but the booklet is otherwise quite informative about Béranger, who is little known at least outside of France. The comic effect of some of the pieces is so perfect that one would think the music had to have been newly composed. Sample, for instance, Le soir des noces (The Wedding Night, track 3), with its little tale of a groom preparing to take his bride's maidenhead but being stopped cold by her confession that it is no longer present ("in the book of wedded bliss, he is but at the preface," the narrator observes wryly). The French term is the more straightforward rompre la glace, or break the ice, and translator Mary Pardoe makes other editorial alterations, perhaps in hopes of dampening the effect of the potentially incendiary title track in anglophone countries. Béranger's targets may be political or religious, and it was the restoration of the French monarchy after Napoleon's death that provided the energy behind his gibes. However, as with all the great satirists, his most frequent target was himself; many of the songs are mock-sentimental dirges lamenting love gone wrong or fading virility. It's hard to know to what music outside of France this music might be compared; Gilbert and Sullivan, perhaps, if Gilbert had spent a lifetime consorting with courtesans, or Sullivan had somehow teamed up to write comic songs with Guy de Maupassant. Women who are out for themselves fill the pages of the booklet, which contains full texts in French and English, along with a generous set of translator's footnotes. The most fully realized appears in Les cinq étages (The Five Stories, track 13), depicting a woman who spends her entire life in the same building, ascending as she attracts more lucrative lovers, but finally, in the days after "the mirror still smiles at me," ends up sweeping out the halls of the building and living in a garret on the top floor. About the only possible complaint with the often hilarious performances by baritone Arnaud Marzorati is that he might have brought in a woman to sing that piece, which is written from the protagonist's point of view. Marzorati is accompanied by a harmonium, an 1845 Pleyel piano, or both. Also extraordinary is the final Notre Globe (Our Globe), which strikes a serious note and must be one of the first historical uses of the metaphor of a railway car for human existence. A splendid effort whose value is amplified by the rarity of the material involved.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim