Tonight, as an act of solidarity after the Paris attacks, 70,000 football fans will be invited to sing La Marseillaise before the England v France friendly match at Wembley. Some newspapers have printed the words so there will be no excuses for those who fled school French. But what are the origins of the anthem?
It began as a war song. In April 1792, France was in the throes of revolution; Louis XVI was clinging to the throne. Meantime, on the eastern borders, Habsburg forces were massing as European monarchies entered a coalition in an attempt to contain their revolutionary neighbour. For months, France had been paralysed by indecision even as members of its National Guard were gathering in Alsace. Finally, on 20 April, Louis declared war, and the news reached Strasbourg five days later. The mayor of that city, Friedrich Dietrich, organised a farewell banquet that night for the French officers, during which he turned to his friend, an army engineer called Claude Rouget de Lisle, and suggested that he might like to compose a song to mark the glorious coming hostilities.
Rouget was a prolific, mediocre and highly unsuccessful composer of operas and songs. That night, though, something remarkable seemed to happen to him: in the small hours after the farewell party, he wrote a masterpiece. Stefan Zweig, in his essay on the Marseillaise, imagined the scene: “For one night, it was granted to Lieutenant Commander Rouget de Lisle to be a brother of the immortals: out of the opening of the song, taken from the street and the newspapers, creative words form at his command and rise into a verse that, in its poetic expression, is as abiding as the melody is immortal.”
Not that its immortality was recognised at once: it was performed on the evening of 26 April chez Dietrich “to the great satisfaction of the whole company”, as the mayor’s wife wrote, which hardly suggests it brought the house down. It was titled, uncatchily, Chant de Guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin. Quickly, though, the song took off, sung by French troops as they marched east. On 30 July it made itsParis debut, and on 10 August was sung by volunteers from the south – hence its nickname Le Marseillaise – as they stormed the Tuileries. The war song had become a revolutionary song.
Rouget was a royalist and was imprisoned, while the song’s commissioner, Dietrich, succumbed to the guillotine. Rouget escaped that fate himself only by dint of the wonderfully named Thermidorian Reaction, the coup against the Jacobins that brought the most extreme spasms of the revolution to an end in July 1794. (Thermidor was a month in the revolutionary calendar.)
Rouget had a chequered life thereafter, with a spell in debtors’ prison among other indignities. The song itself has had plenty of reversals since that night in April 1792: though it became France’s national anthem in 1795, it lost its status under Napoleon and the restored monarchy; was briefly reinstated in 1830 and was only officially readopted in 1879. (Briefly, France’s anthem was a song calledPartant pour la Syrie, or “Leaving for Syria”, about a crusader about to set off for that country: I leave the reader to supply their own layers of irony.)
Since the late 19th century, though, it has become inextricably linked with the idea of France, much aided by memorable cultural moments: it is used in the introduction to the Beatles’ All You Need Is Love, for example, but most significantly, perhaps, it appears in a moving scene in the 1942 film Casablanca. German officers, celebrating at Rick’s club, decide to strike up with a chorus of Die Wacht am Rhein – only to be drowned out by the hearty lungs of Victor Laszlo and the other freedom fighters singing the Marseillaise. It is a powerful moment: the fictional boundaries of the film collapse as the camera focuses briefly on the intense, tear-stained face of Yvonne, Rick’s ex-lover, who does not seem to be acting so much as expressing real passion and pain. (The actor, Madeleine LeBeau, had in fact fled France in 1940 with her Jewish husband.)
Of all national anthems it is, surely, that with the most irresistible and rousing melody. But make no mistake, it is a military march written to accompany soldiers on their sanguinary mission. There are many national anthems whose lyrics do no bear too close a scrutiny – God Save the Queen among them, with its (usually edited) scattering of enemies and frustration of knavish tricks. Applied to today’s grim situation in France, though, and coupled with President Hollande’s warlike rhetoric, some might view the Marseillaise as especially and troublingly bloody. Best to try to regard the song, if one can, as containing a symbolic power that overwhelms the troubling specifics of its lyrics.