July 14 is Bastille Day, which means: ’tis the season for La Marseillaise, the patriotic song that’s been tapped by people the world over. It’s on one of the earliest recordings in history (Sousa’s Band, 1898). Arrangements and send-ups range from Stravinsky to Monty Python. Film critic Roger Ebert listed the singing of La Marseillaise in Casablanca as one of the “100 Great Movie Moments” (video below).
Incredibly, the French national anthem has become a 4th of July tradition. Municipalities across America wait until sunset to start Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (written to honor Russia’s defeat of Napoleon). About 12 minutes into the overture, Tchaikovsky writes “marcatissimo” − heavily accented − on the trumpet part. The trumpets start blaring a melody. On beat four, the first cannon fires along with the opening salvo of the fireworks show. That trumpet tune is La Marseillaise.
It is one of the first melodies a Suzuki violinist learns (Schumann’s Two Grenadiers). It pops up in The Beatles’ All You Need Is Love (video below), in Shostakovich, Debussy, Berlioz, Kodaly, Liszt − even rappers have had their way with La Marseillaise.
Can you name other references to La Marseillaise?
Background: The Storming of the Bastille
Louis XVI convened the Estates-General on May 5, 1789, an assembly composed of representatives from the three “estates”: the clergy, the nobility, and the rest of the population. In reality, the Third Estate had little power. Crippling taxes and a shortage of food fueled unrest among members of the Third Estate. In June, the Third Estate pressed for a constitution and formed a parliament, the National Assembly, to address grievances without interference from the king.
On July 13, rumor spread that the king was dispatching his army to destabilize the parliamentarians. On the morning of July 14, 1789, a group of tradesmen raided the Invalides, stealing a cache of weapons. The gunpowder, however, was stored at the castle known as the Bastille. The mob proceeded to the medieval fortress. The Bastille guards opened fire on the crowd. The king’s reinforcements arrived, but sided with the mob. The Bastille surrendered later that afternoon. The crowd proceeded to dismantle the entire building.
People across France rebelled against landowners.
Composition of La Marseillaise
By 1792, French revolutionaries had established a constitutional monarchy, though radicals wanted to abolish the crown. Fear of interference by neighboring monarchies led France to declare war on Austria and Prussia. The mayor of Strasbourg approached an army engineer and amateur musician about composing a marching tune for French troops. That engineer, Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle, responded with La Marseillaise – or rather, “Chant de guerre de l’armée du Rhin” (“War Song of the Army of the Rhine”). Ironically, Rouget de Lisle was a royalist, but his tune spread through the revolutionaries like fever. Soon revolutionaries from Marseille marched into Paris singing the song. It came to be known as La Marseillaise.
Tragic End for Composer
Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle, composer of La Marseillaise, was imprisoned for refusing to denounce the king. He survived Robespierre’s Reign of Terror (1793-1794) when an estimated 40,000 were executed. The composer was freed from prison in its aftermath. He died in poverty in 1836.
Pierre-Jean David d’Angers made a drawing, a medallion, and a wax bust of Rouget de Lisle. The artist left this journal entry about their meeting:
“I moved closer to the poor sick man and, despite all my enthusiasm, I could not suppress my emotion on seeing my idol buried beneath a woolen bonnet. In that pile of rags it was impossible to recognize the author of that anthem that will forever stir Liberty in people’s hearts…They wrapped him in a blanket, and the poor rheumatic, more or less erect, sat in his chair.”