French Revolution,  Paris

Music & Revolution

Song and Revolution. Like wine and cheese, we think of them as natural partners today. But it took the French Revolution to really cement the pairing.

For the final Month of Revolution installment, let’s take a look at the music of the French Revolution. Who doesn’t like a rousing song when overthrowing their government? Like the revolution itself, the music reflected the shifting moods of the people and their leaders. One common thread, however, was a certain blood-thirstiness to the lyrics. History shows you shouldn’t mess with the French!

The Song Begins

When looking at the music of the Revolution, there are two basic types: hymns and songs. Hymns are big, formal affairs, in the vein of a “classical” composition. These were sanctioned early on by the leaders of Revolution as rousing public spectacles. They are the songs that will stir souls at public fêtes and add to the solemnity of the occasion.

However, the leaders were not eager to incorporate popular songs into their cultural vision. Then as now, pop music was seen as music for the masses and was viewed dimly by the bourgeoisie suddenly in charge of the country. Who wants a drinking song, sung by the rabble in the streets, to represent their glorious revolution? Well, the rabble certainly did and one of the earliest songs changed the leaders’ minds.

Ça Ira

Ça Ira” (It Will Happen or It Will Be Fine) kicked off the popular song frenzy in 1790. The title/refrain is believed to be a reference to Ben Franklin’s frequent response to, “How’s the revolution coming along?” Once the leaders saw how the crowd reacted, they decided songs weren’t so bad after all. “Ça Ira” remains a popular song in France and long-standing symbol of the Revolution. There are a number of lyrical versions. One includes these unambiguous lines:

If we don’t hang them
We’ll break them
If we don’t break them
We’ll burn them
Ah! It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine
Aristocrats to the lamp-post
Ah! It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine
The aristocrats, we’ll hang them!

From Ça Ira Wikipedia article, Sans-Culottes Version lyrics

Aristos beware! Check out this rousing version from Edith Piaf:

As with many popular songs, the lyrics were sung over an existing melody. In this case, a dance song called, “Le carillon national”, by Bécourt. He was apparently a one hit wonder who was probably a musician at the Théâtre Beaujolais. History is often vague. 😄 You can check out the original song (with dance!) here.

The British reaction to Louis’ execution and the song “Ça Ira”

By contrast, in the same year the new Revolutionary government commissioned this very traditional hymn: a Te Deum by composer François-Joseph Gossec. The Ancien Régime doesn’t feel too far away here:

Side Note

We tend to create borders between artistic trends or changes. But revolutions in art are rarely immediate and absolute. In reality, the old and the new usually overlap. Nirvana didn’t immediately overshadow Guns N’ Roses in the 1990’s and the Revolution didn’t just toss out aristocratic styles in the 1790s. These things take time and some catchy songs.

Time for the Chorus

As the Revolution headed towards the Terror, the songs became more violent and graphic…

La Marseillaise

The future French national anthem, “La Marseillaise“, is the most enduring and famous song of the Revolution. It is sort of a hymn and song rolled into one. Unlike many other songs, it was an original composition by soldier and amateur musician Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle. The mayor of Strasbourg, where de Lisle was stationed, commissioned a new song to rouse the troops. The French Republic was flexing and attempting war against its neighbors along the Rhine and they needed some patriotic zeal! The “Chant de guerre pour l’armée du Rhin” was later re-christened “La Marseillaise” when it became the marching song for the National Guard of Marseille as they marched to Paris.

Check out the “long version” of the song and those no-holds-barred lyrics:

“La Marseillaise” had a bumpy road to becoming the national anthem. It was declared the anthem of the new republic in 1795. But then it was banned by Napoleon for fear of stirring revolutionary fervor. The royal and imperial rulers that followed agreed with him. It was outlawed (barring the 1830 revolution) until 1879, when once again it became the national anthem.

As a symbol of France, “La Marseillaise” is also now seen as a symbol of her colonial legacy. This includes the continued inequities against people of color from her former colonies. History rarely lives only in the past.

La Carmagnole

Another song written in the same year (1792), “La Carmagnole” directly attacked the King and Queen. In particular, the queen is accused of wanting to cut everyone’s throats, however she failed thanks to the cannons! The title “carmagnole” is a reference to the short jacket worn by the sans-culottes, one of the more militant revolutionary groups. It remains extremely popular today, even being taught in a children’s sing-a-long video (below).

And for the somewhat disturbing children’s version. I’m not sure why Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI (Madam’ and Monsieur Veto) and the “patriot” are in modern clothes and everyone else are in vaguely historic clothes. Watch out for the cannon balls!

Boum indeed

Victor Hugo helps us understand the difference between “La Marseillaise” and “La Carmagnole” in Les Miserables:

“With just the ′Carmagnole′ to sing [a Parisian] will only overthrow Louis XVI; but give him the ′Marseillaise′ and he will liberate the world”
[Part One, Book II, Chapter 5, trans. by Norman Denny]

The lesson: Choose your music wisely.

The Outro

As the Revolution began to consume itself and the end came to Robespierre and his Terror, there was a song for that too. “Le Réveil du Peuple” (The Alarm of the People) was adopted as the anthem of the “gilded youth” (jeunesse dorée). This group of young men, usually of modest means, dressed like dandies but physically fought against the violent factions of the revolution. This included the sans-culottes and Robespierre’s Jacobins. They would also get into singing battles of “Le Réveil du Peuple” against those still supporting the violent regime, who then would sing “La Marseillaise” back at them!

As tempers cooled, the songs became less revolutionary and bloody. They instead focused on pastoral, romantic, and broadly patriotic themes. Upon his ascension, Napoleon chose “Le Chant Du Depart” as his anthem. A rousing, more traditional hymn that dates from 1794, it sings to France’s strength and glory, with a few “revolutionary” themes thrown in. “Tyrants go down to your graves,” anyone?

Final Thoughts

Music is actually my greatest passion. Bigger than history, bigger than travel, bigger than France. 😄 For me, of course music accompanies revolution. Its power to stir the soul and passion of the listener is greater than any other art form. But it is that very power that can make music uniquely controversial. We’re seeing it now: intense conversations on historic meaning, cultural ownership, and how to navigate the complexity of art, symbolism, and human dignity. If music can rouse people to revolution, so too can it bring people together. How we do this, how we find that music, is a question that remains unanswered for now. But we must keep trying!

In a final example of the power of song, check out this scene from Casablanca. The occupying Germans have started playing the Nazi anthem, “Die Wacht am Rhein.” Victor Lazlo (Clause Rains) requests the house band play “La Marseillaise” over them. Rick (Bogie) agrees. A lot of the cast were displaced French nationals. The tears are real. As are mine every time I watch it.

Lastly, I personally find “La Carmagnole” the most appealing and singable ditty of these songs, creepy children’s video aside.

Which do you like best? Did the songs stir your passions or make you long for Fortunate Son? Ball of Confusion? Or maybe Imagine? Let me know below! Merci! 🙂


Image Credits
Sheet Music: Le Réveil du peuple contre les terroristes” Gaveaux, Pierre (1760-1825), Composer. Souriguère de Saint-Marc, Jean-Marie (1763-1837), Lyricist. Publisher: Gaveaux brothers (Paris). 1795. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Musique, VM7-16848. Public Domain.
British Cartoon:Hell broke loose, or, The murder of Louis, vide, the account of that unfortunate monarch’s execution“. London : Sold by T. Aitken, No. 14 Castle Street, Leicester Square : Pub. by W. Dent, Jan 25, 1793. From Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. Digital ID ppmsca.10742. Public Domain

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