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No. 2305:
La Marseillaise

by Rob Zaretsky

Today, our guest, historian Rob Zaretsky, marches on Paris. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Who first sang the Marseillaise? The answer to this question, asked by historian Eugen Weber, reveals how a song not only sings volumes about the history of a nation, but also helps invent that nation.

In 1792, Joseph Rouget de Lisle, a captain in the army of revolutionary France, composed a military march. It quickly spread across France, reaching the southern city of Marseille. Local army volunteers from Marseille then adopted the song. They belted it out during their march to join the national army in Paris and immortalized it as "La Marseillaise."

How the words must have galvanized both the performers and audience! A nation founded on liberty and fraternity was rising up against the forces of tyranny, a claim underscored by the "terrifying refrain" calling citizens to arms. 

But wait: this account has hit a false note. As Weber points out, the great majority of residents of eighteenth century Marseille did not speak French. Instead, they spoke Provençal. Most of the young men who marched to Paris were bourgeois, and thus probably bilingual. But many others, both in their ranks, as well as in the admiring crowds, understood little or nothing at all. Except when the singers added their own irreverent verses in Provençal.

In fact, most of France then was like American opera audiences before the invention of surtitles: enamored of the music, clueless to the libretto. Most French men and women didn't speak French. Instead, they spoke one of a half dozen different languages, not to mention countless dialects. The French nation was largely a fiction, united by little more than the monarchy. 

But with the king overthrown, this fiction -- the nation based on a single language -- French, was heaved into its place. Hence the critical role that was played by the Marseillaise: it was a lesson in language as well as civics. More than a century passed before French became the everyday language of France -- in the late nineteenth century, French was still an alien tongue in many parts of the country. But the nation's education began in the impromptu sing-a-longs of 1792.

The song's "lesson" long terrified tyrants into outlawing its performance -- not just outside, but also inside France. Even during WW-II, the collaborationist Vichy regime tried to suppress it: recall that moment in Casablanca when the motley collection of clients at Rick's Café, launch into an impromptu performance of the Marseillaise, to the great dismay of the Nazi officers. Everyone knew the words, French and foreigners alike.

Ironically, now that all French citizens speak French, fewer and fewer know the words of their anthem. The Marseillaise faces a threat greater than hostile regimes -- namely, an indifferent public. If Casablanca were remade today, who would or could sing the Marseillaise? Perhaps a pointless question: the customers could just download it on their iPods. 

I'm Rob Zaretsky, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Robert Zaretsky is professor of French history in the University of Houston Honors College, and the Department of Modern and Classical Languages. (He is the author of Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics and Public Opinion in the Department of the Gard, 1938-1944. (Penn State 1995), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue. (Nebraska 2004), co-editor of France at War: Vichy and the Historians. (Berg 2001), translator of Tzevtan Todorov's Voices From the Gulag. (Penn State 2000) and Frail Happiness: An Essay on Rousseau. (Penn State 2001). With John Scott, he is co-author of The Rift: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume and the Quarrel that Shook the Enlightenment. (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2007).

E. Weber: My France: Politics, Culture, Myth. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).

It's not only France that's losing contact with its national anthem. See Episode 2072.


Arc de Triomphe image 
The singing of La Marseillaise as it is represented in François Rude's sculpture, La Marseillaise, on the Arc de TRiomphe in Paris.