The Marseillaise

La Marseillaise started life as a revolutionary battle song and a hymn to freedom. It gradually gained acceptance as a national anthem. Nowadays it is performed at most official events.

History

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Following the French declaration of war on Austria in 1792, during the night of April 25-26, Rouget de Lisle, a French officer stationed in Strasbourg, composed the "Battle Song of the Army of the Rhine" in the home of citizen Dietrich, the Mayor of the city.

The song was taken up by the "fédérés" (volunteers) from Marseilles who took part in the Tuileries insurrection on August 10, 1792. It proved so successful it was declared a national song on July 14, 1795.

Banned under the Empire and the Restoration, La Marseillaise was reinstated by the July Revolution of 1830, and Hector Berlioz orchestrated the music, dedicating his composition to Rouget de Lisle.

The Third Republic (1879) established it as the French national anthem, and in 1887 an "official version" was adopted by the Ministry of War following the recommendation of a specially-appointed commission. On July 14, 1915, under the Third Republic, the ashes of Rouget de Lisle were transferred to Les Invalides.

In September 1944, a circular issued by the Ministry of Education called for La Marseillaise to be sung in schools in order "to celebrate our liberation and our martyrs."

Its status as the national anthem was reaffirmed in the 1946 and 1958 Constitutions (article 2).

The Composer

Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle, captain of engineers in the French army, was born in Lons-le-Saunier in 1760. His military career was fairly brief. As a moderate revolutionary, he was saved from the Terror (1793) by the success of his song. He also wrote a handful of romances and operas, and then lived in obscurity under the Empire and the Restoration until his death in 1836 in Choisy-le-Roi.

The Music

In a matter of weeks, the "Hymne des Marseillais" spread throughout Alsace, in handwritten or printed form, before being taken up by several Paris printers. The early editions were published anonymously, casting doubt for a while on the authorship of Rouget de Lisle, who was otherwise a rather poor composer.

There is no authoritative version of La Marseillaise, having always been set to music in a variety of forms, with or without words. In 1879, La Marseillaise was declared to be the official anthem with no indication as to the version to be used, causing considerable musical confusion whenever the work was performed by more than one band brought together for the occasion! The 1887 commission, composed of professional musicians, reworked both the tune and the harmony and settled on an official version.

In 1974, the newly-elected President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing wanted the performance of the work to more closely reflect its origins and ordered it to be played at a slower tempo. However, the version played at official ceremonies today is an adaption of the 1887 version.

La Marseillaise has also been adapted by jazz and popular musicians.

Listen to the Marseillaise

Audio Recording : 170 Hymnes Nationaux, Musique de la Garde Républicaine (Republican Guard Band), 1992/1995. Corélia, CC 895770-1.

The Lyrics

Allons enfants de la patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé !
Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L’étendard sanglant est levé !
L’étendard sanglant est levé !
Entendez-vous dans nos campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats ?
Qui viennent jusque dans nos bras
Egorger nos fils et nos compagnes !

Aux armes citoyens !
Formez vos bataillons !
Marchons, marchons,
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!

Arise, children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us tyranny’s
Bloody banner is raised,
Bloody banner is raised.
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, your women!

To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let an impure blood
Soak our fields!

Amour sacré de la patrie,
Conduis, soutiens nos bras vengeurs !
Liberté, Liberté chérie,
Combats avec tes défenseurs!
Combats avec tes défenseurs!
Sous nos drapeaux, que la victoire
Accoure à tes mâles accents!
Que tes ennemis expirants
Voient ton triomphe et notre gloire !

(chorus)

Sacred love of the Fatherland,
Lead, support our avenging arms
Liberty, cherished Liberty,
Fight with thy defenders!
Fight with thy defenders!
Under our flags, may victory
Hurry to thy manly accents,
May thy expiring enemies,
See thy triumph and our glory!
(chorus)

Nous entrerons dans la carrière
Quand nos ainés n’y serons plus;
Nous y trouverons leur poussière
Et la trace de leurs vertus.
Et la trace de leurs vertus.
Bien moins jaloux de leur survivre
Que de partager leur cercueil,
Nous aurons le sublime orgueil
De les venger ou de les suivre !

(chorus)

We shall enter the (military) career
When our elders are no longer there,
There we shall find their dust
And the trace of their virtues (repeat)
Much less keen to survive them
Than to share their coffins,
We shall have the sublime pride
Of avenging or following them!
(chorus)

Excerpt from La Marseillaise by Rouget de Lisle (1792)

Source: Website of the Elysée (in French)

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