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French Revolution
French Revolution

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5.3 The Marseillaise

During the Revolutionary Wars, as Robespierre insisted, ‘republican enthusiasm must be exalted by all means possible’. The Jacobins encouraged a revolutionary solidarity and patriotism, expressed in the slogan ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’. The Marseillaise began as the ‘battle-hymn of the army of the Rhine’, composed by Rouget de Lisle in April 1792 immediately after France declared war on Francis of Austria. It acquired its name when a battalion of volunteers from Marseilles reached Paris in July 1792. It became the anthem of the Revolution, and the national anthem by a decree of the Convention in 1795. A choral version with orchestral accompaniment by Gossec was performed at the Paris Opera 130 times between 1792 and 1799 (Hemmings, 1987, p. 51). You will almost certainly be familiar with its tune. (You can hear a few bars from it in the audio clips towards the end of this free course on Britain and the French Revolution.) It is lively and rousing, magnificently evocative, as Simon Schama says, of ‘the comradeship of citizens in arms’ (Schama, 1989, p. 598). What about the words?

Click to view The lyrics of the Marseillaise [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

Exercise 10

Read the words of the Marseillaise. How would you characterise them?

Discussion

The words are an aggressive and sanguinary demonisation of the enemy (in 1792 the Austrians) as tyrannous and cruel.

In the dynastic wars of the Old Regime, bloody as they were, monarchs did not normally encourage personal hatred of the enemy. The Revolutionary Wars were embittered by ideological zeal. By ‘traitors’ and ‘conspiring kings’, the author had in mind Louis XVI and his émigré supporters as well as counter-revolutionary monarchs abroad. At the same time, the words were general enough to serve for France's various enemies throughout the Revolutionary Wars, and the ‘impure blood’ of the invaders was identified (in Figure 4) with the blood of the executed Louis XVI.

Figure 4 Villeneuve, Matière à réflection pour les jongleurs couronnees (Matter for thought for crowned twisters), 1793, engraving, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. Beneath the severed head of Louis XVI are the words from the Marseillaise

The proclamation of 1792 to people of Belgium contains the same language of incitement. The Belgians are invited to defect to France in the cause of liberation from tyranny (the Habsburg emperor).