The Marseillaise, a hymn to the troubled history

The national anthem, sung in Wembley on Tuesday, November 17 and around the world, became the symbol of the unity of the nation, solidarity and resistance, in response to the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13. However, the Marseillaise has not always been the French anthem and has even been banned for a long time.

A week after the attacks on Paris, the Marseillaise became abroad a symbol of solidarity with France. Perhaps the most symbolic image was that of the Wembley stadium resounding with the French national anthem sung in chorus by English and French fans. Two centuries after Waterloo, the publication by the British dailies of the lyrics of the song of Rouget de l’Isle – which will also be sung this weekend in all the English stages – was undoubtedly a strong symbol. But this song also seems to have been rediscovered by a large part of the French while the members of the congress of Versailles Monday, November 16th have also resumed the hymn, as after the events of last January.

Rejection and attachment
France, however, had for years seemed to be sulking this song considered too warlike for modern manners. The “modernizing” president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (president from 1974 to 1981), does not like him very much. He reduced the pace to reduce the warrior sound and in 2009, he judged his words “a ridiculous! Regularly, these criticisms of the lyrics return to the forefront and it is a question of modifying their content in a more peaceful sense. But the polls have always revealed an attachment of the French to their hymn and no politician has dared to touch the Marseillaise.

A war song …
The French anthem was written by Claude Rouget de L’Isle, a small Jura noble, officer in garrison in Strasbourg. At the request of the mayor of the city, Dietrich, he composes some texts on the occasion. On the 20th of April, 1792, the patriotic fever seized the whole country. The National Assembly declared war on the “King of Bohemia and Hungary”, in other words, the House of Austria. But the whole of central Europe is soon coming together against revolutionary France. The German states and the powerful Prussia are preparing to invade the country.

… but a European song!
Rouget de l’Isle then composed on 25 April a “war song for the army of the Rhine” that he dedicates to the chief of it, Marshal Nicolas Luckner, a Bavarian mercenary in the service of France who adopted with enthusiasm for revolutionary ideas. This text is plated on a known music, as it is often the case at the time when one is satisfied to specify that the text must be played “on the air of …” An Italian musicologist thus discovered that Rouget de l’Isle had taken over the music of a little-known Italian, Giovanni Battista Viotti, who had written the theme of the Marseillaise in 1781 in his Themes and Variations in C major. Written by a Frenchman on an Italian music for a Bavarian general: the French anthem is a work already “European. “

The Marseillaise becomes Marseille
This song, which resounds for the first time in Dietrich’s salon on April 26, 1792, will soon be a great success. While the French armies recede and the territory is invaded, the National Assembly proclaims July 11, 1792 the “homeland in danger” and the “federated” regions join the capital to organize the counter-attack. Among them, the Marseillais distinguish themselves by singing the song of Rouget de l’Isle which becomes for the Parisians, then for the French, the “song of the Marseillais”, then the “Marseillaise”. “

“National song” and prohibition
This song is however not very appreciated under the Terror. Moreover, Luckner is guillotined in 1794 and Rouget de l’Isle escapes the same fate. It was after the fall of Robespierre that the Marseillaise became July 14, 1795 the “national song” of France. A first time, because its revolutionary nature makes it suspect to many regimes. Thus, the Consulate and the Empire forbid it altogether. If there is no official anthem, then Napoleon Bonaparte often uses the Consular March in Marengo (still sung by the Foreign Legion in official parades) or the Song of Departure, a hymn of sacrifice that was given to the Honor in 1974 by the supporters of … Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

The Bourbons reject it
Obviously, during the Restoration, the Bourbons reject with dread this song which remains prohibited, while Rouget de l’Isle are trying to propose alternatives to Louis XVIII and Charles X. The French anthem is then a modernized version of an old 16th century song, “Long live Henry IV! Become “Long live our Princes!” This French anthem until 1830 will then be retrieved by Walt Disney for its cartoon Sleeping Beauty to make it the musical background of the finale. But the Marseillaise then becomes, for the left, the symbol of resistance to oppression and attachment to the Revolution; while the monarchist right sees in it the example of revolutionary madness and the blood of terror.

The Parisian rather than the Marseillaise
Logically, during the Revolution of July 1830, the Marseillaise resonates on the barricades. The new regime, the July Monarchy, however, continues to be suspicious and, if it stops prohibiting this song, it is not the song of Rouget de l’Isle that is chosen as the national anthem by Louis-Philippe but La Parisienne, on a text of the poet’s friend regime Casimir Delavigne and a music of the opera author Auber, taken from a German song. The Parisienne tries a few times of the Marseillaise, including the famous “marchons! But the song remains identified with the regime, not with the nation. And if the regime tries to recover the Marseillaise, magnified on the Arc de Triomphe by the sculpture of François Rude, the revolutionary song becomes a republican song which resonates on the barricades of the insurrections which oppose the regime.

The Republic without the Marseillaise
The Marseillaise continues to identify with the revolution. In this, she worries all the powers of the time and is taken up by all the insurrections. The second republic, born from the revolution of 1848 but also from the repression of the workers’ insurrection of June 1848, prefers the song of the Girondins. This song underscores the new republic’s desire to distinguish itself from the first and the Jacobin terror. The text is taken from the Knight of Red House Alexandre Dumas with a chorus of Rouget de l’Isle, showing once again how the Marseillaise haunts the minds, but scares. This song had little success, but the air was taken again in 1907 by the Monthus chansonnier for his Glory in the 17th, anti-militarist chant long forbidden in honor of the regiment which refused to shoot the revolted winegrowers of Languedoc.

Again, national anthem
The Second Empire banned the Marseillaise again and replaced the Chant des Girondins as a national anthem by … Leaving for Syria! This song dates from the Egyptian expedition of Bonaparte in 1798 and highlights both the legacy of the First Empire and the global ambition of Napoleon III. The fall of the Empire puts the Marseillaise in the spotlight, but the Commune establishes its own version. Between 1871 and 1877, France hesitates between Monarchy and Republic and did not choose her hymn. Even with moderate Republicans, the Marseillaise has adversaries, as in 1848. After the victory in the legislative elections of 1877 of Republicans, one asks a new more peaceful hymn to Charles Gounod for the music and to Paul Déroulède (who will become then a nationalist leader ) for the lyrics. But the Marseillaise is popular, it embodies the Republican struggles since 1792 and the President of the Republic, Jules Grevy, a moderate yet, decided to recall July 14, 1879 that the decree of July 14, 1795 is still in force. The Marseillaise becomes national anthem, sanctified in the constitutions of 1946 and 1958.

Status change
The official version in 1887 has six verses, the first of which is sung during official ceremonies. Since 2003, there has been a crime of contempt for the national anthem, and since 2005 there has been an obligation to teach the first verse at school. The image of singing has evolved a lot, from the status of rebellious song to that of official song and from revolutionary singing to “national” singing, often considered later as “nationalist” or even “racist”. But this song – which was also, briefly, that of Bolshevik Russia after the revolution of October 1917 – remains a reference to which the French remain attached and which has become a symbol of the country abroad.

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