Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘La Marseillaise history’

 

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830. As seen here, men can lose their pants when they are led by a woman with a relaxed sartorial attitude.

 

It’s the Fourteenth of July today, the anniversary of the French Revolution and, traditionally, the day of flag-waving, of a military parade on the Champs Elysées, and of public celebration. Somewhere between the celebratory speeches and the all-night partying, La Marseillaise will be played and sung with hearty enthusiasm or at least with a respectful attitude.

It is safe to say that there never was a song with more power to arouse the enthusiasm of the masses. Napoleon did not like to hear it after he proclaimed himself the Emperor, and the rabble-rousing song was outright forbidden under the monarchs who followed him on the French throne.  Despite that, it was publicly sung in 1830, in 1848, and in 1871 as revolution followed revolution.

 

0

The 1848 revolution painted by Alphonse de Lamartine

 

La Marseillaise was officially resuscitated by Napoleon III when he needed to motivate his troops during the Franco-Prussian War. The song alone could not save France from a thrashing by the Germans, but it was adopted as the national anthem soon after the fall of The Second Empire.  It is, by any measure, a bloodthirsty set of lyrics, but there had been in France a thin line between refinement and brutality as we have seen in The Bloodbath of the Paris Commune.

 

Executing communards

Public executions during the Paris Commune in 1871

 

However, there is something not quite right about the lyrics.  Let’s see if you agree (see also the video below):

Arise, children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us tyranny
Raises its bloody banner
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They’re coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons and women!
To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let the impure blood
Water our furrows!
What does this horde of slaves,
Of traitors and conjured kings want?
For whom are these vile chains,
These long-prepared irons?
Frenchmen, for us, ah! What outrage!
What fury must it arouse!
It is us they dare plan
To return to the old slavery!
To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let the impure blood
Water our furrows!
What! Foreign cohorts
Would make the law in our homes!
What! These mercenary phalanxes
Would strike down our proud warriors!
Great God! By chained hands
Our brows would yield under the yoke
Vile despots would have themselves
The masters of our destinies!
To arms, citizens…

Have you read carefully? Strange, indeed. The Children of the Fatherland are supposed to march against foreign cohorts who would make law in the French homes if such a terrible thing would have been allowed. Is that a call to revolution?

Of course not. To begin with, La Marseillaise did not originate in Marseille. It was born in Strasbourg as a war song for the Rhine Army and the author, Rouget de Lisle, was a Royalist.

 

111

Original score of the War Song for the Army of the Rhine (1792)

 

We in are April 25, 1792, and Rouget de Lisle is dining at the table of his friend Baron Dietrich. France has declared war against Austria and the talk is about patriotism. Dietrich is outraged that the French army does not yet have a hymn worthy of her name. Something is needed to rouse the troops, a song with a mustache, n’est ce-pas? All heads turn to Rouget de Lisle, who is known for his literary and musical abilities. Lightened with wine, Rouget agrees to write the song.

On his way home, he regrets the rash promise. What does he know about war songs? He is into nature and romance stuff. As he walks the streets of Strasbourg he does notice placard posters on the walls.

“To arms, citizens!” they shout.  “The banner of war is displayed! To arms! We must fight, defeat, or die. If we persist in being free, all the powers of Europe will see their sinful plots fail. Let them tremble, these crowned despots! The splendor of Liberty belongs to all men. You will prove worthy children of Liberty! Run to Victory! Defeat the armies of the despots!”

Rouget de Lisle sees this as a formidable source of inspiration for the song he is about to compose. He does not hesitate to seize whole sentences of the poster. To diversify his sources, he also opens a collection of poems by Boileau and shamelessly copies some verses from the illustrious poet. As for the opening phrase of his song, “Let’s go, children of the fatherland,” he does not go far to look for it either as he belongs to the battalion nicknamed “Les Enfants de la Patrie”.

One would think that Rouget de Lisle at least composed the music. Wrong again. A friend of his, who was also present at the famous dinner at Dietrich’s, a certain Ignace Pleyel, set the words to music. Not that he should be celebrated for his contribution because he stole the score of La Marche d’Ahasuerus, a piece composed by Lucien Grisons, some years previously. Thus, by the deed of triple plagiarism, was born the French anthem.

 

0

Auguste Pinelli: Rouget de Lisle Composing the Marseillaise, 1878

 

The success of the song was immediate. Without delay, the lyrics and score were printed and distributed to the soldiers. A few copies of this print run were scattered all over France and landed by chance in Marseille. The song immediately pleased the Marseille’s revolutionaries who were preparing to march on Paris. And here was an enormous band of rugged Southerners singing at the top of their voices the hymn of Rouget de Lisle in the streets of Paris, even though this one was destined to be sung on the Austrian battlefields.

Ironically—and history is loaded with this type of irony—Rouget de Lisle barely escaped the guillotine because of his blue blood. He was released from prison after Robespierre’s execution which marked the end of the Terror. It is also of note that, with the exception of Russia, other European countries achieved Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity in a much calmer manner and without shedding the blood of their aristocrats.

You can hear an excellent rendition of La Marseillaise here:

 

Related post:

The Bloodbath of the Paris Commune

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: