Today (and possibly tomorrow – I’ll come back to that) is the anniversary of the composition of La Marseillaise, the national anthem of France. (Thanks to a Tweeting friend for reminding me.) The song was composed by a French army officer, Rouget de Lisle, following the declaration of war between France and Austria in April 1792. Rouget de Lisle was stationed in Strasbourg at the time, at the house of the town’s Maire, who is reputed to have asked him to compose a stirring war song for the army of the Rhine.
The reason I say today or tomorrow is that it was actually composed during the night of 25th-26th April. Versions of the song were rapidly diffused around Alsace and made their way to Paris from there. Some think that Rouget de Lisle didn’t compose it at all, since he had a reputation for being an indifferent composer, if a good soldier. Only a moderate revolutionary, he was lucky to escape the Terror thanks to his song’s wild success.
Given its place of composition, it should really be called La Strasbourgeaise (or possibly Strasbourgeoise), although that doesn’t really trip off the tongue. How it got its final name is not entirely clear. The accepted explanation is that Marseillais who took part in the Tuileries uprising in August 1792 took up the song. It is also felt that taking the name of a southern city made the song more truly symbolise national unity.
Whatever the true explanation, the song was so successful that it was declared the national anthem on 14th July 1795. Banned under the Empire and the Restoration, it played a part during the 1830 Revolution. It definitively became the national anthem during the 3rd Republic in 1879. Children taking the Certificat d’études at the age of 13 or so were required to sing La Marseillaise as part of the exam. It was still not plain sailing, though. The Vichy Government replaced it with ‘Maréchal, Nous Voilà’ in homage to Pétain. It was reinstated in September 1944.
Today, everyone recognises the stirring refrain. How many people know the words, though? French footballers don’t, clearly. It’s almost embarrassing watching them pretending to sing it before World Cup matches – and I’m not even French. I knew the first two lines, but before doing some research today, had no idea of the rest. There are various versions, but the received version has seven verses with a chorus between each.
Here’s the first verse plus chorus:
Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L’étendard sanglant est levé, (twice)
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats?
Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras Egorger vos fils et vos compagnes!
Aux armes, citoyens,
Formez vos bataillons,
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!
It’s all pretty bloodthirsty stuff, but then it was a war song.
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