History has turned this revolutionary war song into a national anthem of freedom, which today accompanies most official events.
Its author, Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle, born 1760 in Lons-le-Saunier, was an engineer captain during the French Revolution. On the night of April 25 to 26, 1792, following France's declaration of war on the Austrian emperor, he composed a piece at the home of the mayor of Strasbourg, named Dietrich, which he entitled "Chant de guerre pour l'armée du Rhin" ("War song for the army of the Rhine").
The hymn was first disseminated in Alsace in manuscript or printed form, before being taken up by numerous Parisian publishers. Sung by the Marseilles federates taking part in the Tuileries insurrection on August 10, 1792, it spread by word of mouth, and was so successful that it was declared a national song on July 14, 1795.
There is no single version of the Marseillaise, which was set to music from the outset in a variety of forms, with or without singing. The first editions were unsigned, raising doubts as to whether Rouget de Lisle, an otherwise rather mediocre composer, was really the author. Overwhelmed by the impact of his work, he returned to anonymity after the Revolution, writing only a few unsuccessful compositions.
Banned under the Empire and Restoration, the Marseillaise was revived during the Revolution of 1830. Berlioz wrote an orchestration of it, which he dedicated to Rouget de Lisle. King Louis Philippe preferred a more moderate hymn, the Parisienne.
In 1879, the Third Republic chose the Marseillaise as its national anthem, without defining an official harmonization. Faced with the great musical disorder that ensued when different orchestras got together, a reference version had to be chosen. The Ministry of War took charge of this task in 1887, on the recommendation of a commission of professional musicians.
On July 14, 1915, Rouget de Lisle's ashes were transferred to Les Invalides.
In September 1944, a circular issued by the French Ministry of Education called for the Marseillaise to be sung in schools "to celebrate our liberation and our martyrs". Its status as a national anthem was reaffirmed in Article 2 of the 1946 and 1958 Constitutions.
The rhythm varied over the years: played a little faster in the 20th century than in its original composition, it was slightly slowed down by President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. His successor François Mitterrand returned to the faster version that prevails today.
Over the two centuries of its existence, the Marseillaise has inspired numerous songs, from opera to jazz.
Allons enfants de la Patrie,
The day of glory is here!
Against us of tyranny,
The bloody standard is raised, (bis)
Do you hear in the countryside
Howling these ferocious soldiers?
They come right into your arms
Slaughter your sons, your companions!
To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let impure blood
Water our furrows!
What does this horde of slaves,
Of traitors, of conspired kings, want?
For whom these ignoble fetters,
These long-prepared irons? (bis)
French, for us, ah! what an outrage
What transports it must excite!
It's us they dare meditate
To return to ancient slavery!
What! foreign cohorts
would rule our homes!
What! mercenary phalanxes
would overrun our proud warriors! (bis)
Grand Dieu! par des mains enchaînées
Nos fronts sous le joug se ploientaient
De vils despotes deviendraient
Les maîtres de nos destinies!
Tremble, tyrants and you perfidious
The opprobrium of all parties,
Tremble! your parricidal projects
Will at last receive their prizes! (bis)
All are soldiers to fight you,
If they fall, our young heroes,
The earth produces new ones,
Against you all ready to fight!
Frenchmen, as magnanimous warriors,
Carry or hold your blows!
Spare these sad victims,
Reluctantly arming themselves against us. (bis)
But these bloodthirsty despots,
But these accomplices of Bouillé,
All these tigers who, without pity,
Tear their mother's womb apart!
Amour sacré de la Patrie,
Conduis, soutiens nos bras vengeurs
Liberté, Liberté chérie,
Combats avec tes défenseurs! (bis)
Sous nos drapeaux que la victoire
Accoure à tes mâles accents,
Que tes ennemis expirants
Voient ton triomphe et notre gloire!
We will enter the quarry
When our elders are no more,
We will find their dust,
And the trace of their virtues, (bis)
Much less jealous to survive them,
Than to share their coffin,
We will have the sublime pride,
To avenge them or to follow them
The seventh verse, whose author remains unknown to this day, was added in 1792.