PATRIOT MONTH #3: La Marseillaise, by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle (1792)

Type of Media: Song

No matter what kind of music you listen to, you almost definitely know the tune to France’s national anthem La Marseillaise. Even if you haven’t heard any of the dozens of songs that have thrown in its opening bars as a musical reference, it’s so associated with France you’ve probably heard it used in a cartoon or movie to introduce a French character. It’s a song with a driving, distinctive melody that just makes you want to sing along, even though you don’t know what the lyrics mean. In fact, it might be better if you don’t know what the lyrics mean, because La Marseillaise is one of the most violent national anthems in the world (second only to Vietnam’s). Written during the upheaval of the French Revolution, La Marseillaise reflects the urgency of the time in which it was written, not shrinking away from the bloodthirsty origins of the French First Republic.

In contrast to other national anthems, which involve a lot of pleasantly vague concepts and references to geography, the lyrics to La Marseillaise are real and immediate. It’s a call to arms, warning that the armies of tyrants march under bloody banners and they’re coming to put you in chains and here they ARE THEY’RE COMING THROUGH THE GATES KILL KILL KILL. The chorus ends with the lyrics “let an impure blood soak our fields!” and to cap off the whole thing there’s a ‘Children’s Verse’ (!!!) where the young’ns of France are supposed to sing about how they’ll continue the fight when their elders die in battle, and that they’d rather take dirt naps than live under monarchy.

Now that sounds both grim and incredibly xenophobic, but it speaks to the fervor the French revolutionaries felt to continue the First Republic. The Revolution wasn’t seen as just a French movement, but a potentially global one. The monarchs of Europe weren’t happy with the idea of revolutionaries spreading to their kingdoms and fomenting regicide, so they decided to invade France. Unfortunately for the revolutionaries, most of the French army had just deserted. Austrian and Prussian soldiers were forming up on the French border and the revolutionary leaders were scrambling to raise fresh troops. 

Enter Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle. Rouget de Lisle wasn’t a composer by trade, and wrote the lyrics to La Marseillaise in a single night at the request of the mayor of Strasbourg to help rally the French to war. Avoiding the pomp and high ceremony associated with monarchy, Rouget de Lisle’s words sounded more like a war speech than a national anthem. They even called out a specific guy, the Marquis de Bouillé who had tried to help King Louis XVI’s family escape, as an enemy of the French. Revolutionary soldiers began to sing it as they marched and it quickly spread among the military, reaching Paris in just a couple months. As the tide of the invasion turned and the French beat back the Austrian and Prussian armies, the song became synonymous with the Revolution, and just three years after it was written the First Republic’s legislature adopted it as the national anthem.

When you hear La Marseillaise played at the Olympics, it still sticks out from other national anthems with its drive and fervor. Recently there was a petition in France to change the lyrics to be more cordial, but it didn’t find enough support. I’m kind of glad, because as violent as the words to La Marseillaise are, they preserve the spirit of one of the most important events in world history.