On July 14, Bastille Day, La Marseillaise, maybe the best-known national anthem in the world, is sung all over France. In fact, the anthem was not created in Marseille but in Strasbourg during the heat of the Revolution. General Kellermann, who as at the head of the Army of the Rhine in 1792, asked Captain Rouget de Lisle, one of his officers who was a poet and musician in his spare time, to compose a battle march to be played as the soldiers were leaving for the front. Although he was only given about 20 hours, Rouget de Lisle took a violin, locked himself in his room and composed all night. The next day, the captain presented the new war song. There was great enthusiasm among those present: The town attorney wept with emotion as young people waved their hats shouting "Vive la France!".
The following day, Rouget de Lisle’s anthem was played in Strasbourg, where the crowd proclaimed it a triumph. In Marseille, a student sang the martial verses at the end of a banquet that the city was offering to 500 volunteers preparing to go to Paris. The sans-culottes (the common people) found it so beautiful and stirring that they adopted it and sang it all along the road to Paris. When the Parisians saw them marching past and singing these words, they called it the "Marseillaise".
The French national anthem has had a turbulent past. Every now and then, there is an outcry to have it banned, or at least updated; it has been a long time since the Revolution was endangered by bordering European monarchs. Some people are offended during national ceremonies, when they hear such vengeful verses as "these ferocious soldiers who slaughter our sons and wives" or demanding "that impure blood flow in our fields." But the majority of French people do not wish to change so much as a comma in their national anthem. Didn’t the members of the Resistance in WWII sing it as a final and supreme challenge to Nazi-occupying forces as they fell beneath the bullets of the firing squad?
The extent of the attachment of the French to their national anthem was revealed in the 1970s, when President Giscard d’Estaing attempted to impose "his" Marseillaise by having it played to a slower tempo in order to give it greater solemnity. The President’s initiative raised a storm of protest and Hector Berlioz’s orchestration was maintained. Late controversial singer and composer Serge Gainsbourg tried to rewrite the Marseillaise his own way in 1979 by having the national anthem played by a reggae band. The reception was less than stellar: A group of legionnaires threatened to give him a hard time if he performed his new version in public. Gainsbourg did sing the Marseillaise, but a cappella. One cannot tamper with that which is sacred!
Hear the French National Anthem
Allons enfants de la patrie, Le jour de gloire est arrivé! Contre nous de la tyrannie, L’étendard sanglant est levé! L’étendard sanglant est levé! Entendez-vous dans nos campagnes Mugir ces féroces soldats? Qui viennent jusque dans nos bras Egorger nos fils et nos compagnes!
Arise children of the motherland, Our day of glory has arrived! Over us, the bloodstained banner Of tyranny holds sway! Oh, do you hear there in our fields The roar of these ferocious soldiers? Who came right here in our midst To slaughter our sons and wives.
Aux armes citoyens! Formez vos bataillons! Marchons, marchons, Qu’un sang impur Abreuve nos sillons!
To arms, oh citizens! Form up in serried ranks! March on, march on, May their impure blood Flow in our fields!
Amour sacré de la patrie, Conduis, soutiens nos bras vengeurs! Liberté, Liberté chérie, Combats avec tes défenseurs! Combats avec tes défenseurs! Sous nos drapeaux, que la victoire Accoure à tes mâles accents! Que tes ennemis expirants Voient ton triomphe et notre gloire! (chorus)
Supreme devotion to our Motherland, Guides and sustains avenging hands! Liberty, oh dearest Liberty, Come fight with your shielding bands! Beneath our banner come, oh victory, Answer your soul-stirring cry! Oh come, come see your foes now die, Witness your pride and our glory! (chorus)
Nous entrerons dans la carrière Quand nos ainés n’y serons plus; Nous y trouverons leur poussière Et la trace de leurs vertus. Et la trace de leurs vertus. Bien moins jaloux de leur survivre Que de partager leur cercueil, Nous aurons le sublime orgueil De les venger ou de les suivre! (chorus)
Into the fight we too shall enter, When our fathers are dead and gone; We shall find their bones laid down to rest, With the fame of their glories won, Oh, to survive them care we not, Glad are we to share their grave, Great honor is to be our lot To follow or to venge our brave. (chorus)
Excerpts from La Marseillaise by Rouget de Lisle