The Road to the French National Anthem: The History (and Lyrics!) of...

The Road to the French National Anthem: The History (and Lyrics!) of “La Marseillaise”

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Bastille Day London 2012 - 01 by Garry Knight/Flickr
Bastille Day London 2012 – 01 by Garry Knight/Flickr

As it is the month of July, thus the month of Bastille Day (July 14), the time is ripe to dip into a – to use a seasonal metaphor – refreshing pool of French history.

Sounds of “La Marseillaise,” the French National Anthem, will be filling the streets in July, as celebrations for Bastille Day snap, crackle, and pop throughout the city.

Bastille Day commemorates the storming of the Bastille in 1789, which was a factor in the inciting of the French Revolution.

Written in 1792, “La Marseillaise” was penned by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle (that’s a mouthful) in Strasbourg, following the war between France and Austria. The Mayor of Strasbourg, Philippe-Frédéric de Dietrich, asked Rouget de Lisle to write a song that would, as spoken by Dietrich: “rally our soldiers from all over to defend their homeland that is under threat.”

"The Departure of the volunteers of 1792" (a.k.a. La Marseillaise), sculpture by François Rude, Arc de Triomphe de l'Etoile, Paris, France. courtesy of Wikimedia
“The Departure of the volunteers of 1792” (a.k.a. La Marseillaise), sculpture by François Rude, Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile, Paris, France. courtesy of Wikimedia

Though, the song didn’t become the country’s official national anthem until 1795, when named as such by the French National Convention. However, the “official” anthem has been edged out at times, depending on the ruling leaders; under Napoleon I, “Veillons au Salut de l’Empire” was the anthem. And under the thumb of Napoleon III, the anthem was “Partant pour la Syrie”.

Interestingly, the song’s proper, full name is: “Chant de Guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin.” It earned the new moniker and nickname (which is now just regarded as the actual name) of “La Marseillaise” after it was sung by people from Marseille marching merrily through the streets of Paris.

If the melody of the song sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Mozart’s Allegro Piano Concerto No. 25 (written in  1786) used a similar one, and possibly served as inspiration for Rouget de Lisle.

There’s even a movie by the same name. La Marseillaise was a 1938 French film directed by Jean Renoir. Jean was the son of celebrated and renowned French painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

The movie told the story of the start of the French Revolution. It was not one of the director’s best-known and well-received films. This is understandable, given the time frame and the competition in the year 1938, which was the year that legendary films like Bringing Up Baby, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and A Christmas Carol, all hit the local cinemas. The next year, 1939, we had Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. And shortly thereafter, in 1940, was the year of Pinocchio, Fantasia, Rebecca, and The Philadelphia Story. Suffice to say those few years didn’t leave much room for smaller French films focusing on a foreign revolution from centuries ago.

Isidore Pils (1813-1875), Rouget de Lisle chantant la Marseillaise courtesy of Wikipedia
Isidore Pils (1813-1875), ‘Rouget de Lisle chantant la Marseillaise’ courtesy of Wikipedia

Below are the full song lyrics, and if you want to practice singing along, YouTube’s version has been viewed 25 million times and can be seen here.

So, in the words of Maria von Trapp from Sound of Music: let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.

Take a deep breath, and sing out loud:

Allons enfants de la patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé !
Contre nous de la tyrannie
L’étendard sanglant est levé ! (bis)
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes,
Mugir ces féroces soldats ?
Ils viennent jusque dans nos bras
Égorger nos fils, nos compagnes !
Refrain

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Que veut cette horde d’esclaves,
De traîtres, de rois conjurés ?
Pour qui ces ignobles entraves,
Ces fers dès longtemps préparés ? (bis)
Français ! pour nous, ah ! quel outrage !
Quels transports il doit exciter !
C’est nous qu’on ose méditer
De rendre à l’antique esclavage !

Quoi ! ces cohortes étrangères
Feraient la loi dans nos foyers !
Quoi ! ces phalanges mercenaires
Terrasseraient nos fiers guerriers ! (bis)
Grand Dieu ! par des mains enchaînées
Nos fronts sous le joug se ploiraient !
De vils despotes deviendraient
Les maîtres de nos destinées !

Tremblez, tyrans ! et vous, perfides,
L’opprobre de tous les partis,
Tremblez ! vos projets parricides
Vont enfin recevoir leur prix ! (bis)
Tout est soldat pour vous combattre,
S’ils tombent, nos jeunes héros,
La France en produit de nouveaux,
Contre vous tout prêts à se battre !

Français, en guerriers magnanimes,
Portez ou retenez vos coups !
Épargnez ces tristes victimes,
A regret s’armant contre nous. (bis)
Mais ces despotes sanguinaires,
Mais ces complices de Bouillé,
Tous ces tigres qui, sans pitié,
Déchirent le sein de leur mère !

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

Refrain

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

Refrain

Image Credits: Bastille Day London 2012 – 01 by Garry Knight/Flickr“The Departure of the volunteers of 1792” (a.k.a. La Marseillaise), sculpture by François Rude, Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile, Paris, France, courtesy of WikimediaIsidore Pils (1813-1875), ”Rouget de Lisle chantant la Marseillaise” courtesy of Wikimedia.

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