La Marseillaise - background
Following France's declaration of war on Austria and Prussia, the mayor of Strasbourg, Baron de Dietrich, asked army engineer Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle to write a marching song. On the night of April 25th 1792, Rouget de Lisle penned the Chant de guerre pour l'armée du Rhin - war song for the Rhine Army, named in honour of the garrison to which he belonged.
The song was published under the name of Chant de guerre aux armées des frontières - Border armies' war song by one François Mireur, who was in Marseille to organise a march of revolutionary volunteers on King Louis XVI's Tuileries palace. The French Embassy in Fiji site describes Mireur as a student from Montpellier whereas the Prime Minister's site casts him as a general of the Egyptian army recruiting volunteers from Montpellier and Marseille. I suspect this is more likely to be true.
Ironically, since Rouget de Lisle supported the monarchy, the revolutionaries adopted the song and sang it with such fervour as they entered the capital, on July 30th 1792, that the Parisians named it La Marseillaise.
It was declared a national song on July 14th 1795 but subsequently banned under the Empire. The July revolution of 1830 reinstated the song, which was rearranged by Hector Berlioz, and it was adopted as the national anthem under the Third Republic in 1879. In 1887 the Ministry of War, after consultation with a specially-appointed commission, adopted what it was to call an "official version" of the song, which was written into the Constitutions of the Fourth and Fifth Republics (1946 and 1958 respectively). Article 2 of the Constitution of October 4th 1958 designates La Marseillaise the national anthem of France.
The modern Marseillaise is divided up into seven verses and a chorus. However at national events, sporting meetings and other occasions when it is played, only the first verse and the chorus are sung. Indeed most French people only know these sections. Personally I like the fourth and sixth verses although they all have a certain style to them.
Today's version is adapted from the 1887 score but in 1974, during President Giscard d'Estaing's premiership, performances of La Marseillaise were played at a slower tempo so as better to reflect the music's origins.
Thierry Klein reports that the song originally had seven additional verses which didn't survive into any official version. I do not currently have any further information about these "missing" verses.
Berlioz's new arrangement
Hector Berlioz's grandiose arrangement of the song now has its own dedicated section on this site: Berlioz.
Regarding the name La Marseillaise
Richard Durkan sent this interesting question about the name given to the marching song adopted by the Marseille volunteers.
I was interested to visit your website but I still do not understand the significance of the title La Marseillaise which I understand to mean the Marseilles woman. What is the connection between that and the events you describe?
As a student of French for many years I had perhaps overlooked the potential for confusion that the name La Marseillaise presents. A French word can be both an adjective and a noun; this is possible only in certain circumstances in English. For example one can say "He is a Parisian" or "It is a typical Parisian scene" but whilst one can say "It is a typical English scene" one cannot say "He is an English."
Such constructions sit quite happily in French. "Une Marseillaise" is indeed a woman from Marseille (note the capitalisation of Marseillaise indicating it is a noun) and "une chanson marseillaise" is a song from Marseille (marseillaise being an adjective; it happens to have no convenient one-word translation in English).
We have already seen that the song was adopted by soldiers marching from Marseille. By the time they reached Paris it had become a "chanson marseillaise" which eventually got abbreviated (becoming a noun in the process) to La Marseillaise.
In short you can think of La Marseillaise as being The Marseille (Song) with song quite happily allowed to fall by the wayside under the rules of French grammar.
Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org