With the first day and round of voting on what could prove to be pivotal presidential election, not just for France, but for Europe the world at large, today’s the day to highlight one of the most recognisable, and passionate of all national anthems. Most national anthems appear outmoded, naff, embarrassing, or plain meaningless for other nations, if not for those of that nationality, but somehow this song transcends most others. Written in 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle in Strasbourg after the declaration of war by France against Austria, and was originally titled Chant de guerre pour l'Armée du Rhin" (War Song for the Rhine Army), and very much a call to arms, with multiple verses, and this very famous chorus:
Aux armes, citoyens,
Formez vos bataillons,
Qu'un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!
To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let's march, let's march!
Let an impure blood
Soak our fields!
But at the moment La Marseillaise is more prominent than every before, with the real danger of Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, winning, and a racially inflamed society, xenophobia, boiling over. How ironic than that a party who are nothing at all to do with the exulted French revolutionary values of liberté, égalité and fraternité are trying to claim this anthem for their own. Nationalism typically bends values to its own ends, and such is a warning for the rest of the world, including the US and UK.
Mireille Mathieu sang this in 1989 at the request of the then president, François Mitterrand at a De Gaulle commemoration. Less known abroad, Mathieu (born in 1946), the eldest of 14 brothers and sisters from a family of stonemasons, is in fact one of France’s most successful artists. A diminutive woman (5ft tall) with a huge voice, she has recorded more than 1,200 songs in 11 languages and has song more than 150 million albums. You can see why:
Mathieu’s inspiration was the great Edith Piaf, and she is very much her successor as a national musical figurehead. Piaf (1915-63) is the ultimate symbol of French passion, sorrow, tragedy and bravery, known best for her torch songs and chansons La Vie en rose (1946), Non, je ne regrette rien (1960), Hymne à l'amour (1949), Milord (1959), La Foule (1957), and L'Accordéoniste (1955). So let’s also enjoy her rendition:
La Marseillaise has appeared in numerous other musical works, classical including those by Beethoven, Schumann, Verdi, in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Debussy, Rossini, Shostakovich, as well as Django Rheinhardt, The Beatles’ All You Need Is Love and A Tribe Called Quest’s Push It Along. But perhaps the most controversial was Serge Gainsbourg’s laid back, smoky 1979 reggae version, Aux Armes etcaetera, from the album of the same name, involving prominent Jamaican artists including Rita Marley and Bob’s backing musicians, and a brilliantly daring statement of French multiculturalism that at the time enraged France’s war veterans and nationalists, but eventually won the country and critics over:
And finally, perhaps there are no more stirring versions than that seen the film Casablanca, in what always feel like a tear-jerking moment no matter how many times you watch it. While Nazi soldiers in the bar sing their own national anthem, the French, led by resistance leader Victor Laszlo, strike up a rendition of La Marseillaise. At first it seems like a comic scene, but then we see the tears of the actress, Madeleine LeBeau, playing Rick’s discarded girlfriend, Yvonne. Why do so many of us moved here? Perhaps because LeBeau’s tears aren’t acted. She herself had to flee Paris with her husband in 1940 due to the invading German army. A moment of powerful and moving defiance against nationalism and nazism that has never been more profound, one, it can only hope, France can look to itself to see right within itself in 2017.
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