"Play the Marseillaise! Play it!" - The natal hour of an iconic song in 1792

25 April 1792, “La Marseillaise” is composed by the royalist French Army captain Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle in Strasbourg.

“With just the ‘Carmagnole’ to sing he will only overthrow Louis XVI; but give him the ‘Marseillaise’ and he will liberate the world.” (Victor Hugo, “Les Misérables”)

An inspired Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle writing the tune of “La Marseillaise”
 with the Goddess of Freedom waving the Tricolore à la Delacroix and pointing the way,
as imagined by the Swiss-born painter Auguste de Pinelli (circa 1875)

The French Army wasn’t what she used to be many long years ago when the revolutionaries declared war on Austria on 20 April 1792 and the invasion of the Austrian Netherlands, allegedly pro-revolutionary, ended in a disaster with the children of the revolution running away after killing their own officers. Meanwhile in the Rhine valley, the Austrian and Prussian armies gathered to nip the revolution in the bud. Not that the Prussians were up to Frederick the Great’s standards any more either, but the outcome of the war seemed obvious for all parties involved except die-hard fanatics. Under these auspices, Marshal Count Luckner, the Bavarian-born French commander of Strasbourg, lamented over dinner with his officers that the young republic and Captain Rouget de Lisle not even had a national anthem. The young royalist who had refused to take an oath on the new constitution took the words of his foreign aristo CO to heart, went to his quarters, sat down and wrote the first lines of “Allons enfants de la Patrie, / Le jour de gloire est arrivé !“ and set it to music along the lines of King Frederick William II of Prussia’s compositeur de notre chambre Luigi Boccherini’s flute quintet in C major. Publicly performed during the following days as “Chant de guerre pour l'armée du Rhin“, “War Song for the Army of the Rhine", the revolutionary audience’s reaction was so-so, but the Provençal greffer Charles Barbaroux seemed to like it and when his battalion of volunteers from Marseille arrived in Paris to storm the Tuileries Palace in August of the same year, they had made it their battle song. The tune became known as “La Marseillaise” and somehow, the tides of the revolution had turned. Austrians and Prussians received one trashing after the other by French revolutionary armies in the Rhine valley and Goethe said to Prussian officers after the planned allied “Walk to Paris” had foundered at the Battle of Valmy in September 1792: “From this place, and from this day forth begins a new era in the history of the world, and you can all say that you were present at its birth." Accordingly, the revolution began to eat its own children, Luckner received an appointment with the national razor just for being a bothersome foreign aristo in January 1794 and Rouget de Lisle escaped the same fate by a hair’s breadth.

A broadsheet from 1792 with the sheet music of “La Marseillaise”
called “Marche des Marseillois chantée sur diferents theatres

Like books, songs have their fate as well. “La Marseillaise” did become the French National Anthem for 10 years. Napoleon didn’t like it one single bit, though, the tune was discarded and banned during the Bourbon restoration. When liberty led the people again in July 1830, the old song gained immense popularity but it was not until the 3rd Republic (1871-1940) that it was made again into the national anthem of France. Meanwhile, “La Marseillaise” had been the signature tune of Proletarian internationalism, only to be superseded by “L'Internationale", written during the days of the Paris Commune and originally intended to be sung to the tune of “La Marseillaise”. Ironically enough, Kerensky made “La Marseillaise” the anthem of the Russian Provisional Government from February 1917 until the October Revolution, when “L'Internationale" was found to be more en vogue. Nonetheless, “La Marseillaise” remained a signature tune for France, the French and other Revolutions, at least those of the 19th century, and was quoted by various composers in their works, from Beethoven and Schumann to Verdi and Tchaikovsky. It was probably the 20th century composer Max Steiner, though, an Austrian-born émigré to the US, who characterised the internationalised character of the song best in his powerful integration of “La Marseillaise” into the film music of Michael Curtiz’ “Casablanca”, played by a Franco-American jazz band, conducted by a Czech resistance fighter and sung by the international assembly of refugees as counter tune to the Nazi officers belting out “Die Wacht am Rhein” after their occupation of Sam’s piano in "Rick's Café Américain".

Below is a rendition from the Warner Bros. movie Casablanca, Michael Curtiz, 1942.

And more about “La Marseillaise” on: