The French Revolution is often considered one of the most important revolutions in world history, because it was one of the most violent and yet romanticized series of events, and one of the most influential and impacting revolutions in history. For many, it served as a cautionary tale of what could happen to a country or a state if class struggles and separation became too great. (In fact, the French Revolution later impacted Karl Marx’s views toward capitalism and elitism. He came to see it as a step towards a proletarian revolution and heading down the path he was thinking.) However, such a revolution would not have occurred had it not been for those who inspired it with their speeches, their songs, or their essays. A state of discontent or disapproval is not enough to get a revolution started, rather, someone needs to stir the proverbial pot and provide a rallying cry around the misfortune. It’s quite ironic that the composer of one of the most famous pieces of the French Revolution was a royalist, who wrote it while defending France against the Austrians.
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[youtube_sc url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4K1q9Ntcr5g” title=”La%20Marseillaise,%20French%20National%20Anthem%20(Fr%2FEn)”]
((“La Marseillaise, French National Anthem (Fr/En),” YouTube video, 5:21, posted by “bursty13,” September 1,
La Marseillaise Sheet Music ((Rouget de Lisle, Claude Joseph. La Marseillaise. Retrieved from http://imslp.org/wiki/La_Marseillaise_%28Rouget_de_Lisle,_Claude-Joseph%29 ))
“La Marseillaise,” composed and written in April 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle (1760-1836), was quite the revolutionary piece of music. The song itself follows much like a march, and has an easy and catchy tune. The refrain of the piece, or the repeated part of music, has simple words and simple notes, and therefore makes it easy for everyone to sing, hum, or whisper along. Thus, it intrinsically represents one of the ideals presented by John Locke, and that many revolutionaries believed in – equal opportunity. More specifically, it presents the opportunity for everyone who wants to sing along to be able to sing along. The piece’s style, therefore, in itself makes it revolutionary.
Secondly, the lyrics make the song revolutionary as well. Often times, the lyrics express the need to defend the “fatherland” (verse one, line one) against the enemies “tyranny” (verse one, line three) and “savage soldiers” (verse one, line seven). The lyrics therefore express the unification of one group of people facing the oppression or aggression of another individual/group. Such a description also depicts what is considered to be a revolution. To be put simply, during the French Revolution, the suppressed impoverished and middle class unified to take on the oppression of royalty and nobility. Lastly, the second verse highlights the need for the defense of liberty and freedom, also a rallying cry of the French Revolution.
Lastly, the song generated lots of controversy in the years following the French Revolution due to its root history. Despite being declared France’s national anthem in the years following the Revolution, Napoleon I banned the piece soon after becoming ruler in France. Following this, the song underwent periods of being banned and legal for the next three quarters of a century. It appears that, for many, the piece’s revolutionary undertones were too much for the rulers that followed and as such, the piece consistently was controversial and under scrutiny. However, following its reinstatement as the national anthem in 1879, it has remained that way since then.
Possible Questions to Consider:
Do you agree with my argument that the song’s catchy nature makes it effective as a revolutionary song?
Why might a song be especially effective at transmitting attitudes and thoughts? Or rather, what might make a song more effective than an essay or a novel/book?
Are there any other famous revolutionary songs that you may be able to compare this one too?