1 Dec /15

La Marseillaise

By definition, national anthems are intended to unite a population by providing a rallying point to which all citizens can share certain ideals. However, as we have recently seen at sporting events across the world as a result of the terrorist attacks in Paris, the French anthem, La Marseillaise, has morphed from simply being a national anthem into a show of solidarity with France. While many people can spot the familiar music of the anthem and some non-Francophones may even know the lyrics, there is a lot of back story to La Marseillaise that is often overlooked.

Originally titled “Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin” (“War Song for the Rhine Army”), the anthem was composed in 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle. Unlike many modern anthems, La Marseillaise was created not only as an anthem of freedom and revolution (the French Revolution beginning only 3 years prior), but was also meant as a popular call to arms for the French people at the onset of the War of the First Coalition. The “War Song” became popularly known as La Marseillaise due to its initial adoption as a marching song by volunteer National Guard units from Marseille entering Paris at the beginning of the war.

Though its use as a revolutionary anthem has never been in question, its use as a French anthem has. Immediate and widespread popularity caused the French National Convention to adopt it as the First Republic’s (and France’s first) anthem in 1795; however, this status didn’t last long. La Marseillaise ceased being the French national anthem under Napoleon (likely for its revolutionary tone) after little more than a decade, was banned under the restored monarchy, and was replaced during the reign of Napoleon III. Following the death of Napoleon III in 1870, the anthem was quickly adopted by the revolutionary Paris Commune, and though the commune did not last long, the reintroduction of La Marseillaise back into mainstream national consciousness did result in it being permanently reinstated as the French national anthem in 1879.

Considering the time that it takes most of the words we discuss to cross the Channel from French to English, La Marseillaise remarkably took only 2 years, first being mentioned in The Times in September of 1794: “The whole to conclude with a Solo on the Salt box; and the favourite Marseillais Hymn, with Marrowbones and Cleavers.” Little more than 3 decades later, Sir Thomas Moore’s poem, Copy of an Intercepted Dispatch, displays the resonance of the anthem with French republicans, stating, “If the Marseillois Hymn could command Such audience, though yell’d by a Sans-culotte crew.” While the majority of the French and those expressing solidarity with France may no longer sing it with an eye towards revolution, the enduring ideals expressed within this anthem, notably the freedom from fear and tyranny, not only can speak directly to us, but demonstrate why, regardless of time and banning, this anthem still deserves to be respected and appreciated.