Songs for children: history of a repertoire

The songs, like the stories, belong to an oral tradition characteristic of a so-called “popular” culture, which in fact denotes the way of life and thinking of traditional, essentially rural societies. The oral transmission of stories and songs enables their eternal transformation. By putting them in writing, we freeze them. The stories appealed to all ages and both genders and eventually became part of a children’s culture that reshaped them for its use and turned them into children’s books complete with illustrations and editorial staging.

The same happens for songs, but with a delay. While the trial began at the end of the 17the century for stories, it only started in the 19the century for songs. The aim of the exhibition is to explore this living heritage over two centuries. Well, sing now! which will open on June 4, 2022 at the National Museum of Education (Munaé) in Rouen.

A complex story

The history of this “acculturation”, which brings certain popular songs into children’s culture and children’s books at the cost of some transformations, is a complex one, in part because the word “song” denotes lyrics accompanied by music, of very different natures. , from the lullaby to the nursery rhyme, from the rhythmic formula to the round and the song itself.

Lullabies and phrasing have been around since ancient times, but the story that interests us only becomes observable in the 18th century.e century through the appropriation of certain songs by the children themselves. Thus the journeyman glazier Ménétra arrived in Avignon in 1761 and said on the bridge itself: On the bridge of Avignon that his godfather sang to him when he was a child.

On the bridge of Avignon, n° 1513, circa 1920. Printed frieze (27.5 cm x 69.7 cm) – (inv. 2010.05952.1).
Exhibition about songs in the National Museum of Education

A privileged repertoire, built from the Ancien Régime, would be supplemented by new songs, such as Mother Michele, appeared about 1810, as we have been able to show. The existence of this directory is known to educators and in particular to those who are interested in children’s play culture and who publish collections of children’s games, with children’s rounds.

Thus, the oral tradition begins to freeze through publication. But until the 1870s, a whole work of childhood adaptation will be carried out on the texts, the music, their accompaniment and the illustrations.

The first editions of children’s songs

Collections of children’s games published around songs: in 1827 that of Mme Celnart, Complete Guide to Board Gamesgives 24, the edition of 1867, 44. Mme de Chabreul, in her Games and exercises for young girls (1856) announces 28 of them. We don’t go to the forest anymoreHe was a shepherdessMarjoram’s companionsBeautiful wooden fretbut the best known were published in 1846 by Dumersan, in the first French collection of Children’s songs and rounds† Of the 29 songs he gives, half were still sung after the Second World War.

In his day, songs for asylum rooms (Chevreau-Lemercier, 1845; Pape-Carpentier, 1849) that included young children were also published, but there were few loans to popular culture: they are about forging a school culture. At the same time, music teachers also issued children’s collections (by Haller, 1844), but one of them, Lebouc, made easy arrangements in 1860 for a repertoire of children’s songs that had been passed on to ‘ours’.

In popular imagery, for example with Pellerin in Épinal, songs from this repertoire are published, with one image per song or in plates of twelve boxes. All these first editions of songs from 1820 to 1860 were not yet ‘real’ children’s books, published by children’s literature professionals, illustrated by children’s illustrators.

Adolph Tidemand (attributed to), grandmother and grandson or round to the sound of the violin, circa 1840. Oil on canvas (36 cm x 45 cm) – (inv. 2019.11.1).
National Museum of Education, Well Sing Now

The first attempts were made in youth magazines. So, Hachette, in children’s week publishes, from 1857 to 1873, songs illustrated by Castelli. They have been collected in one volume, published in 1876, with music arranged by Verrimst, but not all of them are suitable for children.

The second attempt is that of Hetzel who publishes a collection, Circles and songs from childhood, of 14 illustrated albums by Froelich, from 1875 to 1883, one per issue. But the venture was ruined by De Gramont, who rewrote the traditional songs in an unbelievable, often ridiculous way, and even the images of Froelich, who transformed the popular adult universe into childish characters (Scrooge King as a little boy in one!), do not always succeed in convincing.

However, it is necessary to note this will to permeate the songs into the children’s culture by converting them into an album, where the image takes the main place, and by reworking the lyrics. The music is unprinted, which means we rely on traditional tunes that everyone knows, and we don’t want to give musical education to children’s readers.

The Revolution of Illustration

Boutet de Monvel revolutionized children’s book illustrations by using clear line and color symbolism. He will work on the layout of nursery rhymes, “creating an atmosphere and a world that children enter without any problems” (Cousin, 1988).

It has been practiced since 1881 in the magazine Sinterklaas, illustrated newspaper for boys and girlswhere he sensed the double-page interest, before publishing two albums: Old songs and rounds for small children (1883) with Widor for the music, then Songs from France for French children (1884) with Weckerlin for the music.

Student work, À la volte, poem book, primary school for girls in Frouard (Meurthe-et-Moselle), 1936 – (inv. 1979.37315.1).
National Museum of Education, Well, Sing Now Exhibition

To portray music and texts belonging to different genres (stories, additions of similar sequences, dialogue forms) requires varying the dimensions of the image (single page or double page), graphically bringing framed text and image together, construct lines that match those of the music bars. He often uses the text-space framework as the ground surface, which not only unites the text and image spaces, but also shows that the characters are born from the lyrics of the song.

These characters are spectators, listeners or actors of the songs, sometimes disguised as adults. His solid work helps to evacuate the real, from which he suppresses violence and war.

He portrays music by depicting musical situations or by graphically transposing it with “rhythms and plastic variations homologous to rhythms and musical variations” (Nières-Chevrel, 1997). For example, Boutet de Monvel takes up the challenge of converting children’s songs from oral form into children’s books.

The rise of school songs

under the IIIe School songs would take off in the Republic, especially with Bouchor’s collections (four movements from 1895 to 1911, one after the war), which quickly became part of the school culture. They convey moral lessons, extol great virtues, and make little use of the child’s imagination.

On the other hand, the folklorists multiplied the surveys and the collections (Rolland, 1883), and even the musician Weckerlin, who had published the album with Boutet de Monvel, is said to have collected in Paris and in all the provinces the hundred songs he published in two volumes, in 1886 and 1889, illustrated by several renowned artists.

For the albums, it was not until the 1930s that new illustrators began to renew the graphic universe of nursery rhymes: Franc-Nohain, Minost, Ivanovsky illustrating the songs of Truth.

All were reissued in the 1940s and 1950s, followed by albums of nursery rhymes for the little ones, initiated by Roy’s collection in 1926, which marked a new phase in building a repertoire of sung books for children.

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