The True Story Behind the Marseillaise

Photo of Subarna Ganguly
25 May 2017

In 1792, flames of the revolution lit in Paris had engulfed the nation. Revolutionary fervor and the fury of the people against the monarchy had reached a crescendo. Foreign forces were looming over the borders, threatening to squash those defiant voices. It was at such a time, on a night of gathering storm, that an ordinary soldier penned a song that became the greatest inspiring force of the revolution. This is the story of that stirring song, “La Marseillaise”.

Liberty Leading the People, artist Eugéne Delacroix | © Musée du Louvre/WikiCommons

The major events leading up to the creation of the revolutionary song were frenzied. The people had stormed the Bastille in July 1789; in August 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was made, and in October 1789 an angry mob of Parisians attacked the Palace of Versailles, forcibly transferring the Royal family to the Tuileries Palace. The National Constituent Assembly formed in July 1789 was an attempted compromise of shared executive and legislative power between the King and the assembly. But this arrangement was short-lived, as Louis XVI, being a weak ruler at the behest of his aristocratic advisers, was not much inclined to accept reforms and share governance with the new authorities.

Louis’s plan to escape Paris in disguise with his queen Marie Antoinette and children in June 1791 was thwarted, and he was captured in Varennes and brought back to Paris. This disastrous act, viewed as betrayal and treason, further eroded the faith of the people in the monarchy and paved the way for radicals to preach the abolition of the monarchy and establishment of a Republic.

The arrest of Louis XVI and his family at the house of the registrar of passports, at Varennes in June, 1791, by artist Thomas Falcon Marshall | ©WikiCommons

Henceforth, the King was at the mercy of the Legislative Assembly that replaced the Constituent Assembly in September 1791. His only hope now lay in a foreign intervention. Meanwhile, outside France, the revolution drew the sympathies of those in neighboring countries who wanted to see a change in the regime of absolute monarchy. The counter-revolutionaries, formed mostly of royalists who had escaped France, reached out to rulers in Europe for help. The rulers were at first indifferent to the explosive situation in France, then cautious but finally alarmed when the Assembly in France declared a revolutionary principle of international law, stating that the people had the right to self-determination.

Marie Antoinette’s brother, the Austrian King and Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, was eager to come to the rescue of his sister and brother-in-law. He rallied the Prussian King and together issued the Declaration of Pillnitz in August 1791, calling to other rulers to join hands and by force restore King Louis XVI to his throne. Prussia and Austria formed a defensive alliance in February 1792. With hope that foreign armies might rescue him, and under pressure from the Assembly, Louis agreed to give his assent to an aggressive policy. With the political atmosphere now charged, France declared war on the Habsburg monarchy of Austria on April 20, 1792. With Prussia joining Austria within a few weeks, the battle lines were drawn.

La prise de la Bastille by artist Henry Singleton | © WikiCommons

Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle was a young soldier in the French army based in Strasbourg. He was fond of music and drama and had talent in poetry and writing. On April 25, 1792, he was present at a banquet hosted by the Mayor of Strasbourg. Discussions at the table quickly centered on the war, the imminent threat of foreign invasion by a coalition of powers, and something was said for a need for a patriotic song to arouse the people in the fight to defend the fatherland. In a fit of excitement, Rouget de Lisle went to his lodgings that night and with his violin beside him composed the lyrics and melody of a song—in an hour, according to legend—titled “Le Chant de Guerre de l’Armée du Rhine” (War Song for the Army of the Rhine).

Rouget de Lisle chantant la Marseillaise by artist Isidore Pils | ©Unknown/WikiCommons

The song with its powerful words and evocative melody was written as a call to arms to mobilize the people against tyranny and an Austrian invasion. The famous chorus says “Aux Armes Citoyens, formez vos bataillons! Marchons, marchons! Qu’un sang impur, abreuve nos sillons!” (Take up arms, citizens, form your battalions! March, march! Let’s water our fields with their impure blood.) It immediately fired the imagination of the people. It was first published and sung by a young volunteer (fédéré), François Mireur, at a gathering in Marseille where the revolutionaries were preparing for a march to the Tuileries Palace in Paris. The song inspired the troops, and they decided to use it as their marching song. When they reached Paris on July 30, 1792, with the song booming from their lips, it electrified the capital, becoming known as “La Marseillaise.”

“La Marseillaise” became the rallying song of the revolution. In the Alsace region where German was widely spoken, a German version (“Auf, Brüder, auf dem Tag entgegen”) was released in October 1792. It was declared as the national anthem in a decree passed on July 14, 1795, making it France’s first anthem. In Russia, it was used as a republican revolutionary anthem as early as 1792 by those who knew French and was in use as an unofficial anthem after the 1917 revolution. The original song had six verses — a seventh was a later addition. However, in common practice, only the first and sixth verses are sung.

“La Marseillaise” was, however, intertwined with controversy right from its inception. The interpretation of the lyrics has varied over time. It was viewed at times as anarchist and even racist. The controversial words “Sang Impur” have been thought to refer to the “cleansing out” of those with impure French lineage. Modern interpretations of the song have frequently associated it with France’s colonial legacy and the far right. It has often been deemed uncomfortable and inappropriate, with many calling for a revision of the words. Within weeks of it being written, its composer, De Lisle, was thrown in prison, suspected of being a royalist. The song was banned by Napoleon Bonaparte during the Empire and by Louis XVIII during the Second Restoration (1815) because of its revolutionary roots. The July Revolution of 1830 reinstated the song, but it was again banned by Napoleon III, then restored as the anthem in 1879 — and remains today.

John Kerry looks on as U.S. Embassy in Paris is lit up in the French tricolor after the 2015 terrorist attacks in the city | ©U.S department of State/WikiCommons.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in France, the song has yet again assumed a new identity and proven to be still relevant and powerful in galvanizing people, as millions around the world showed solidarity with France by singing “La Marseillaise”. It is, as pointed out by historian Simon Schama, a “great example of courage and solidarity when facing danger.” The song today is a symbol of France, united with the world fighting a new form of tyranny-terrorism across borders.

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