Category Archives: History

Excelsior by Longfellow, a tale of hubris

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Excelsior (1841), a classical poem, by the American Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was set to music dozens of times. The cover above illustrates the music for the poem composed by John Blockley.  Excelsior is the most parodied of all Longfellows poems, being almost a parody of itself. The theme of the poem is punishment for human hubris or excessive pride. A boy, bearing a banner ‘Excelsior’, wants to climb higher and higher in the Alps. He ignores all warnings from the local villagers and ends up dead. Half-buried in the snow he is found by a St. Bernard and some monks.

Excelsior was also illustrated for the magic lantern. We found the images of the slides hereunder on Laterna magica’s website. The projection of slides during a singing performance led to a new, often lucrative business of producing these ‘illustrated songs‘ (1). These slides were remarkable because they were handcoloured photographs made of real life models and decors constructed in a studio. These slides immediately preceded cinema.

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(1) The Magic Lantern Slide Set to Music: The Illustrated Song Slide, by Nancy A. Bergh, in: ML Bulletin, vol. I, no. 4, January 1980 

Paris-Vienne

"Paris-Vienne", March composed by Justin Clérice (1907)
“Paris-Vienne”, March by Justin Clérice (1907)

France was a pioneer in the automotive industry and the leading country in car racing during the Belle Epoque. Paris-Rouen (1894) was the first motoring contest in the world. The winner drove at an average speed of 19 km/h. Soon some international city-to-city races followed. The above cover by Clérice Frères refers to the Paris-Vienna automobile race run in 1902. It gives an idyllic image

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Details from the Paris-Viene lithographic sheet music cover by Clérice Frères

of the automobiles driving through the mountains and enjoying the panorama. In reality the race was not so comfortable. The total distance was split into four days and run over four stages.

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Competitors in the Paris-Vienna race arriving at Troyes at 120 km/h according to the postcard.

The Swiss did not allow racing, so the participants had to drive less than 25 km/h through Switzerland. The very dusty roads made it sometimes impossible to see anything. Two of the participants were Louis and Marcel Renault. Louis, a daredevil like his brother, had an accident because he decided not to ignite his lights in fear of losing time. In the dark, he missed a curve and smashed his car. One wheel  was immediately repaired with the help of a chair and a penknife. A blacksmith had to repair an axis. And while driving his co-pilot had to constantly fill the radiator with water. Still he managed to finish the race in 28th position. His brother Marcel did better and won the race. Lucien Faure drew Marcel Renault in full action.

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Marcel Renault and his mechanic, illustration by Lucien Faure

The heroic Paris-Vienne race was also immortalised in ceramic tiles for the Michelin house in London.

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The race Paris-Vienna immortalized in tiles for the Bibendum house in London

Marcel Renault was killed the following year during the Paris-Madrid race. The news of this disastrous event made it to all the front pages and -together with other tragic incidents during the race-  marked the end of the city-to-city races. Except perhaps for the Dakar..?

Anarchist squatter helps French composer

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This cover by Roger de Valerio  represents a caricature of the French singer, composer and lyricist Léonce Paco. He created some songs for the Montmartre cabaret ‘La Pie qui Chantebut little else is known about his life. In the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, we found a picture of him being assisted by Georges Cochon and his fédération des locataires. Apparently Léonce Paco was having trouble with his landlord.

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Léonce Paco (without hat) being assisted by sympathisers of Georges Cochon after having trouble with his landlord (1912). [photographie de presse] / [Agence Rol] Bibliothèque numérique Gallica (BNF)
Georges Cochon was an anarchist and maybe the first squatter ever. He was very popular in the years before the First World War when cheap, decent lodgings were hard to find. Georges Cochon founded a tenants union (Syndicat des Locataires) and was, like a kind of Robin Hood, always ready to assist people being evicted by their landlord. According to The New York Times he moved poor (large) families out of their lodgings on which the rent was overdue so quickly that the landlords couldn’t get papers executed to seize the furniture. He then moved them into any other place available. And if he couldn’t find lodgings, he created them in empty houses or buildings.

Georges Cochon in action to defend Parisian tenants
Georges Cochon in action (©R.Violet)

Furthermore, to draw attention to his cause, he was the author of hundreds of playful protests. For example, he and his union erected a shack in the Parisian Jardin des Tuileries. On a banner one could read ‘House with garden donated by the Union of Tenants to a homeless family of 10, chased by their landlord and abandoned by the Public Assistance.’ Thanks to his protests public opinion changed and housing and renting conditions became more human.

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Georges Cochon’s Syndicate erecting a shack in the Jardin des Tuileries, being interrupted by the police.

Georges Cochon was a welcome subject in the Parisian Cafés Chantants. In our collection Images Musicales we have two songs sympathising with Georges Cochon: ‘Donnez des Logements’ and ‘C’est Cochon !’. The cover of the first song shows his picture and some cartoons of overprized poor lodgings. The cover of the second song illustrates his strategy to move the furniture of tenants with overdue rent on pushcarts, so that their furniture could not be confiscated.  Both are illustrated by the same artist E. Muller. So far we have found no information about this illustrator.

French Petits Formats sheet music covers; songs about Georges Cochon