Collection of songsRecueil d’airs

Pierre Rétat

1A large volume in-folio preserved at the library of Windsor Castle and bearing this title on the edge of the binding (from the 19th century, so we do not know whether the title is original or added late) contains a collection compiled for the Prince of Wales, Frederick Louis, who had asked Montesquieu, during his stay in England (July 1729–May 1731), to “have a collection of the best French songs made”. We are informed of this circumstance by an autograph manuscript note at the head of the volume, where Montesquieu gives the reason for which he never sent it: the fear of making the French nation known for its “bad side”, even if particularly French “gaiety” ought not to cause to be taken too seriously what would be shocking elsewhere.

2The hand of abbé Bottereau-Duval, Montesquieu’s secretary, permits us to situate the composition of the collection in 1731. The numerous autograph additions by Montesquieu (stanzas added, new songs on intercalated sheets) prove that he did not disdain to revisit it and enrich it in the following years, at least until 1734.

3It is one of a kind of compilations that were numerous in the 18th century (especially in the years 1730-1760) which were generally called Recueil de chansons, “satirical”, “historical”, “to serve the anecdotal history of France”. This one corresponds then to a well-known model, and with particular care, since most of the melodies are noted. It is however distinguished by the mixture of genres and times, which other collections generally avoid: Bacchic or bawdy songs and popular political songs follow each other in no order, the secretary having no doubt taken the songs from many sources. Nor is any chronological order respected. The work remained moreover uncompleted, the end leaving the staffs empty of notes and blank pages awaiting future complements.

4The nature of the document and the role that Montesquieu took in it lend it an obvious interest. Kept in the library at La Brède, it was offered to the Prince of Wales, the future George IV, in 1818 by Montesquieu’s grandson, Joseph-Cyrille.



Royal library of Windsor, I IB 4B.

First publication of the liminal note

Shackleton (1961), p. 121-122. (inaccurately called “Preface”)

Critical edition of this note and complete inventory of the collection

OC, t. IX, p. 31-41, 609-686 (ed. Cecil Courtney and Henri Duranton).