Sor: Appel des nègres aux français. Preface

Preface to the new Tecla edition of Sor’s Appel des nègres aux français, by Brian Jeffery

As far as I know, the existence of this song by Sor has never been pointed out before. It survives in only one known copy, now in the library of the Real Conservatorio Superior in Madrid. I am grateful to Sr. Carlos José Gosálvez Lara, the Director of the Library of the Conservatorio, who kindly drew my attention to it, and to the Conservatorio for permission to reproduce it here. It is of very great interest not only because of the music, but because of Sor’s involvement, through it, in what we today call human rights.

The song was published in Paris by Pacini and sold by Victor Dufaut at rue du Mail no. 4. It can be dated between 1832 when Dufaut began to use that address (1),  and 1839 when Sor died. Most probably it dates from 1832 itself or shortly thereafter because of the words in the text “Mais quand pour elle [Greece] un nouveau ciel se dore” (a new dawn is breaking), which probably refer to the new independence of Greece which was declared at the convention in London in 1832. Sor had already written a song in support of Greek independence, called “Le Dernier Cri des Grecs”, dating from May 1829. See my book Fernando Sor Composer and Guitarist (second edition, 1994), pages 98-99 and bibliography.

Slavery had long been an object of protest and political debate. In England already in the eighteenth century Quakers had spearheaded the movement for its abolition. In France, Convention had abolished it already in 1794 in the first years of the French Revolution, but Napoleon as First Consul re-established it in 1802. In the following years various measures were passed in many countries against the slave trade and against the institution of slavery itself, but at the time of this song neither the trade nor the institution had yet been formally abolished in France. Here we see Sor taking part in the continuing movement for abolition.

The song is called “Appel des Nègres aux Français”, “Chant Héroïque”: the cry of the negroes to the French, a heroic song. In the song, one of the negro slaves describes their lot, and calls on the French to help to liberate them from slavery. A picture shows a scene on the (presumably African) coast with a fort and palm trees, the slaves, a figure with a sword and another with a whip who are presumably slave traders, and in the distance a ship (presumably French) to which the slaves are waving flags. It is possible, though I have not been able to confirm this, that there was some specific French military or naval activity against the slave trade at that particular moment.

The tempo is that of a march, which perhaps Sor chose because the words of the song are an appeal to French soldiers to help to liberate the negros from slavery. The title describes it as a “chant héroïque”. So the song has a military character, as well as describing sorrow at the lot of the slave and optimism for the future. Also, as the actor of the words of the song is a negro slave or slaves, it was perhaps intended that the song was to be sung by a man. The range of the song is low, from C up to D, so it would have been a bass or baritone.

This song, like so many of his works, shows Sor as a child of the Enlightenment. His passionate desire for liberty had been demonstrated in his Spanish patriotic songs at the time of the French invasion of Spain, as well as in his song for Greek independence. His refusal to be dogmatic and his preference for reasoning are demonstrated again and again in his method for the guitar. This is not the place to develop this theme, but it may be noted that in his account of his time as a chorister at the monastery of Montserrat, he records that many refugee clergy came there from France, and it may well be that it was there at that time that he became familiar with Enlightenment ideas. This song against slavery is a dramatic demonstration, not known until now, of his passionate belief in human rights.

The poem which Sor has set to music is attributed on the title-page to Louis Mialle. In form it is stanzaic, with a refrain. There are six stanzas, where each stanza has the following structure:

Main part: six lines of 10 syllables.

Refrain: one line of 8 syllables, then another line of 6 syllables.

The rhyme scheme is ababcdcd, in which abab has fresh rhymes in each stanza but the cdcd is unchanging because the refrain does not change.

Sor dedicated the work to Adolphe Nourrit, who was the principal tenor of the Paris Opera from 1826 to 1836, that is to say a musical figure of the highest importance, but not one who had any particular interest in human rights, as far as I know. (2)

Interestingly, there is another song by Sor from around this time which is specifically for men’s voices, the seguidillas boleras “Me preguntó mi amigo”, which in Sor’s autograph manuscript was written in the tenor and bass clefs and therefore was presumably intended for those two voices. (3)

The full title of the song on the original title-page is as follows:

Appel des nègres aux français. Chant héroïque. Paroles de Louis Mialle. Musique avec accompagnement de guitare et dédiée à Mr. Adolphe Nourrit par Ferdinand Sor. Prix 1f 25c. Chez Pacini Boulevard des Italiens No. 11. A Paris au Magasin de Musique Ancienne et Nouvelle de V. Dufaut, Rue du Mail No. 4.


The text as it is printed in the original edition shows signs of illiteracy, no doubt on the part of the music engraver. Examples are indépendence instead of indépendance, or cent peuples diférent instead of cent peuples différents, which I have silently corrected. In the fifth stanza, the words “Un gros des tiens” do not make sense, but I have been unable to propose an emendation. The syntax of the last few lines of the poem is loose.

            Bar 14 at leur, in the original this F in the voice has a sharp sign. That sharp is perfectly possible if one considers the voice alone, but it does not fit easily with the F natural in the guitar part. In this edition I have altered it to natural, but a singer who wishes to may sing F sharp here.

Singers who may not be familiar with French song may like to note the following:

In a decasyllabic line, there is a caesura (a slight break in the sense and the rhythm) in each line after the fourth syllable.

A final -e of a word is elided (is not pronounced) when followed by another vowel (for example, in line 1, in “esclavage au”, the final -e of “esclavage” is not pronounced).

At the end of a line, if the last word of the line ends in -e (or -es, or -ent if it is the third person plural of a verb), that final syllable is normally pronounced even though it does not count in the ten syllables of the decasyllable (for example, in line 1, the -es of “tortur-es”).

Within the classical tradition of French song, usage has been for many years – and still is – to use a rolled r like today’’s Spanish r rather than the velar r which is used today in educated French speech.

In line 7 of each stanza, within that same tradition, the final r of laisser in “laisser encore” would be pronounced rather than being silent as it would be today in educated French speech.

 (1) Cf. Devriès & Lesure, Dictionnaire des Editeurs de Musique Français, II (de 1820 à 1914), Geneva, 1988.

 (2) See Etienne Boutet de Monvel, Adolphe Nourrit, Sa vie et sa correspondance (Paris, 1903). There is also an article on him in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Nourrit died in 1839 as did Sor, and like Sor was buried in the Cimetière Montmartre.

  (3) “Me preguntó mi amigo” is published in the edition of More Seguidillas of Sor which I have edited (Tecla, 1999).

Dans l’esclavage, au milieu des tortures,
Quand notre sort est digne de pitié,
Que de français dans leur retraite sûres
Passent leur vie au sein de l’amitié!
O peuple heureux, ô peuple qu’on adore,
Toi qui sauvas cent peuples différents,
Pourrais-tu nous laisser encore
En proie à des tyrans?

Pardonne, hélas, à l’ardeur qui nous presse,
L’indépendance est fille des revers;
Nous gémissons sur le sort de la Grèce,
Comme elle aussi nous sommes dans les fers.
Mais quand pour elle un nouveau ciel se dore,
L’esclave nègre exhale ces accents:
Pourrais-tu nous laisser encore
En proie à des tyrans!

Il t’appartient, ô soldat de la France,
De mettre fin à notre anxiété;
C’est à toi seul de mettre en assurance
L’empire saint de notre liberté.
Ah! lorsqu’ici chacun de nous t’implore,
Daigne te rendre à nos cris déchirants;
Pourrais-tu nous laisser encore
En proie à des tyrans!

Ose évoquer l’immortelle mémoire
De l’heureux chef de tes nombreux héros;
Ose appeler l’héritier de sa gloire
A partager tes sublimes travaux.
Tes vieux guerriers nés sous une autre aurore
Seconderont tes efforts bienfaisants.
Pourrais-tu nous laisser encore
En proie à des tyrans!

Dans ces beaux jours où la terre étonnée
Reçut le sceau de ton autorité
Un gros des tiens dans notre âme peinée
Grava les mots d’honneur, d’égalité.
Ces mots sacrés ont dans le coeur du Maure
Développé des germes tout-puissants.
Pourrais-tu nous laisser encore
En proie à des tyrans!

Oui, c’en est fait, notre esprit se réveille;
Brisons le joug qui pèse sur nos fronts.
Pour foudroyer le tyran qui sommeille
Sachons franchir les plaines et les monts.
Qu’un jour le fils du père que dévore
Un monde entier d’exécrables méchants
Sans lui dise «Où serais-je encore?
En proie à des tyrans!»

(In slavery, in the middle of tortures, when our fate is worthy of pity, how many French people, safe in their retreat, pass their lives in the bosom of friendship! Oh happy people, oh adored people, you who saved a hundred different peoples, could you leave us still at the mercy of tyrants?

Forgive, alas, the ardour which urges us on. Independence is the daughter of setbacks. We lament the fate of Greece, like her we also are in chains. But while for her a new dawn is breaking, the Negro slave still breathes these words: Could you leave us still at the mercy of tyrants?

It is for you, o soldier of France, to put an end to our anguish. It is for you alone to give security to the holy reign of our liberty. Oh! when all of us here are entreating you, deign to answer our heartrending cries. Could you leave us still at the mercy of tyrants?

Dare to evoke the immortal memory of the happy chief of your numerous heroes. Dare to call the heir of his glory to share in your sublime labours. Your old warriors, born under a different dawn, will second your benevolent efforts. Could you leave us still at the mercy of tyrants?

In those great days when the astonished earth received the seal of your authority, some among you engraved into our sorrowing souls the words of honour, of equality. These sacred words developed all-powerful seeds in the heart of the Moor. Could you leave us still at the mercy of tyrants?

Yes, it is settled, our spirit awakes, let us break the yoke which weighs on our brows. To strike the sleeping tyrant, we must cross plains and mountains. One day, may the son of the father who now is devoured by a whole world of execrable tyrants, be able to say: “Without him, where would I be now? At the mercy of tyrants!”)


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