What the Marseillaise means a year after the Paris attacks

  
I’ve just written this article for The New York Times on France’s national anthem: what it means to people a year after the attacks, and what those views reveal about life in France.

I’m biased, but it’s genuinely interesting, including comment from some amazing people: from Bataclan survivors to some of France’s biggest musicians (here’s one of Akhenaton’s hits with his group Iam; and here’s one of Zebda’s fun tunes).

The article could easily have been three times as long.

Deep inside, it mentions the Defense Ministry’s Marseillaise contest. Last time I wrote about that on here, I largely highlighted the joke entries it was getting like one that got Google Translate to read out the lyrics. But the winner turns out to great so click that link now.

A hand clap: the anthem of Euro 2016

This year’s Euros have been a tournament of anthems: la Marseillaise sung over and over at every game France has played; Wales’ Land of My Fathers belted out almost in disbelief after every win; Cristiano Ronaldo practically screaming at his teammates to sing Portugal’s awful tune.

But if there’s one sound the tournament will be remembered for, it’s not an anthem, but a hand clap. Step forward, Iceland with the most intimidating and celebratory chant I’ve ever heard.

Iceland’s actual anthem, Lofsöngur (Hymn), is probably the more forgettable in the tournament. As its title suggest, it’s little more than a prayer. “Oh, God of our country…we worship thy name in its wonder sublime”, goes its opening.

But there is one good reason to sing it, at least if you’re Scottish. Read this snippet of mine from The Times’ diary column this week to learn more:

Times snippet on Iceland's anthem

If Daft Punk had written la Marseillaise

Sort of.

France’s Ministry of Defence is – right now! – running a contest getting people to reinterpret the country’s national anthem. It’s had, at time of writing, an abysmal 46 entries, most of them by people who seem to need clinical help.

But the Daft Punk one above is pretty good. No, I have no idea why the person’s chosen to illustrate it with a Danish flag.

I also like this one where someone just got Google Translate to read out the lyrics, but that probably suggests I need clinical help too.

If you feel you can do a better job, you can enter here. You can win a camera, which seems a bit of a rubbish prize for the Ministry of Defence. How about a tank?

National deficit (or why famous composers don’t write anthems)

BBC Music Magazine March 2016 cover

This feature was originally published in the great BBC Music Magazine‘s March 2016 issue (see above), but now it’s out of the shops I feel happy to put it up. It discusses everyone from Verdi to Sibelius, all of whom I probably should have written about in my book. I hope this makes up for it.

 

In January 1797, Haydn wrote what was, in one respect, the biggest failure of his career. Austria was at war with France, Napoleon’s cannons were threatening even Vienna and Haydn was commissioned to write a piece to keep them back. He thought of his time in London where he heard God Save the King almost daily, and he thought of la Marseillaise, whose rousing, bloody call to arms seemed to be getting closer by the minute. And then he decided to write Austria their equivalent.

He had been given lyrics to write to – Gott Erhalte Franz den Kaiser, God Save Emperor Francis – and he sat down and penned a melody that he’s meant to have believed could “inflame the hearts of Austrians to new heights of devotion” as well as “incite [them] to combat”. It debuted on 12 February, and was so instantly popular, it was taken out of the theatre and straight into the streets.

But unfortunately for Haydn, it didn’t exactly have the effect he’d hoped for. Within weeks, Napoleon had invaded. Within months, Austria was forced to sign an embarrassing peace treaty. Gott Erhalte… was not Austria’s Marseillaise. But Haydn did achieve one thing with that song: he became the only famous composer to successfully write a national anthem. It is still in use today, albeit across the border in Germany and now known as the Deutschlandlied.

It’s surprising that out of the world’s 200-odd countries, Germany is the only one whose anthem has a star composer attached. It means that none of music’s great nationalists ever managed to give their homelands a song to bellow at football matches or turn to at times of need. Finland’s anthem, for instance, is to the tune of a German drinking song, not anything by Sibelius; the Czech Republic’s is taken from a 19th century comedy, not Dvořák or Smetana. Is it composers’ fault this situation has arisen, or is there just something about anthems that puts everybody off?

Soon, every Soviet composer you can name – Prokofiev, Khachaturian, even Shostakovich – was writing one piece of Communist bombast after another in an effort to conjure the winning tune

It would be wrong to say that Haydn is the only household name to have written an anthem. Several others have tried. In 1942, Stalin decided he needed a new anthem to replace the Internationale, apparently because Winston Churchill was refusing to let that song’s revolutionary message (“Enslaved masses, stand up!”) be played on British radio. Soon, every Soviet composer you can name – Prokofiev, Khachaturian, even Shostakovich – was writing one piece of Communist bombast after another in an effort to conjure the winning tune.

It’s impossible to know if any of them entered with genuine enthusiasm since they had little choice – who turns down Stalin? – but also because they all seem to realise the competition was a money-spinner. Each entry earned 4,000 roubles – ten times the average monthly wage at the time – with bonuses for those that made the competition’s final. Shostakovich made 34,000 roubles for his multiple entries, none of which anyone’s felt good enough to record since. Khachaturian made 30,000, including payment for one composition that went on to become the anthem of Soviet Armenia (it was discarded in 1991).

Stalin’s lyricists were adamant a famous composer should be chosen. It would “be almost unique and raise the profile of the USSR on the world stage,” they wrote. But Stalin ignored their pleas and picked a piece by a man called Alexander Alexandrov instead. He deserved the victory – his anthem, still Russia’s today, is so rousing and filled with threat it could inspire anyone to trudge across the steppe. Although Shostakovich saw it differently. “A national anthem must have bad music, and Stalin didn’t break with tradition,” he says in his disputed memoirs.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Benjamin Britten once tried to write an anthem for Malaysia, a country he had only set foot in once and then only for a few harrowing hours (he spent most of the “really hair raising trip” fearing he was about to be shot by communist guerrillas).

‘A national anthem must have bad music’, wrote Shostakovich, ‘and Stalin didn’t break with tradition.’

In June 1957, the Federation of Malaya was about to become independent from Britain, but its government had somehow failed to find an anthem. As a last throw of the dice, it contacted Britten, William Walton and Gian Carlo Menotti and begged them to have a go. Only Britten took up the offer producing, by his own admission, “a curious and I’m afraid rather unsuccessful job.”

The Malaysian government evidently agreed as a few weeks later they asked him to rewrite it so it sounded actually Malaysian, sending him several records of folk music as inspiration. He rewrote an entire section, but it didn’t help. The government ended up using the anthem of Perak – one of Malaysia’s states – instead; a piece of music better known in Malaysia as a cabaret tune.

There are a few composers whose music has become an anthem without their involvement. In 1990, Boris Yeltsin chose Glinka’s Patriotic Song to be Russia’s anthem despite it having no words, something that made it doomed from the start (Vladimir Putin brought back the Soviet anthem almost as soon as he came to power). Similarly, Sibelius’s Finlandia was Biafra’s anthem for that country’s tragic, three-year existence, rechristened Land of the Rising Sun.

There are also some composers who are wrongly thought to have written anthems. Our own God Save the Queen, for instance, is frequently misattributed to Thomas Arne. Arne is responsible for its first documented performance on 28 September 1745, when he arranged it for London’s Drury Lane Theatre to inspire people heading off to fight Bonnie Prince Charlie. But when Arne was asked if he knew who had composed it, he said he “didn’t have the least knowledge, nor could guess”, an admission that opened the floodgates to the wildest of claims.

John Bull, the great organist, is the likely composer. But the better story is that Jean-Baptiste Lully wrote it in 1688 for some nuns so they could welcome Louis XIV on a visit to their convent (“Grand Dieu, sauvez le Roy!”). A few decades later, Handel’s meant to have visited it too, stumbled across the song and, realising just what a gem it was, rushed it back to England, his own name now attached. The story appears in the memoirs of a French noblewoman and is such fun, it’s almost a shame to learn they are fakes.

The other anthem that’s often misattributed is Austria’s current Land of the Mountains, Land by the River (the country dropped Haydn’s music after World War Two). Many believe Mozart wrote it as part of a cantata for his Masonic lodge, but it doesn’t appear in his original score and even the Austrian government admits it is more likely written by the somewhat less glamorous Johann Holzer.

So why have so few famous composers tackled these songs, instead leaving them to amateurs, everyone from teachers to musically-inclined politicians?

One possible reason is that they are simply incapable of writing them. Coming up with a minute-long song that’s catchy and stirring enough to unite an entire country is a genuinely difficult task, and much harder if you are used to writing symphonies or operas.

‘There can be only one music grateful to the ears of Italians [right now]; the music of the cannon,’ Verdi wrote

Just take Verdi’s experience. In 1848, when Milan threw out its Austrian occupiers, Verdi rushed to the city, but shied away from composing anything to celebrate, writing to one of his librettists: “You speak to me of music? What has gotten into you? There can be only one music grateful to the ears of Italians [right now]; the music of the cannon.” A few months later, he appeared to have a change of heart after being asked by a leading revolutionary to write a hymn so powerful it “might become the Italian Marseillaise…in which the people might forget the composer and the poet.” Verdi produced Suona la Tromba, The Trumpet Sounds, a march so plodding even he seemed to realise it was a failure. “I tried to be as popular and simple as is possible,” he wrote. “Use it however you want. Burn it if you think it is unworthy.”

It got several airings, but it never caught people’s attention, who kept singing the rambunctious Fratelli d’Italia instead – the song that is now Italy’s anthem. Verdi clearly realised that was the better piece of music as he used it to represent Italy in his Inno delle Nazioni (Hymn of Nations), written for the 1862 London Exhibition.

There are a couple of more likely reasons why few famous composers write anthems. The first is that most people – even egotistical composers – believe anthems are immovable. Replacing them is thought impossible, like altering a country’s flag or changing its very soil. It’s untrue, of course – most countries change their anthems so frequently you wonder how people keep up (France has had three besides the Marseillaise) – but it’s a belief that’s unshakable.

Then there is the biggest reason of them all: politics. If you write an anthem, there is a strong chance that the very next day it will be sung by people you don’t like, or in a context you can’t bear. Like all music, as soon as you write an anthem, it is out of your hands forever. When Haydn wrote Gott Erhalte Franz den Kaiser, he wasn’t to know that it would become the anthem of Nazi Germany, a melody Hitler would describe as “holiest to us Germans.” Would he have composed it if he had known? Maybe, but most composers today wouldn’t take the risk.

As a bonus, here’s the five anthem-quoting works, BBC Music Magazine’s staff think you should hear:

Puccini, Madam Butterfly

It’s near the beginning of Puccini’s 1904 opera that we hear the opening of the US anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, shortly before the loathsome Pinkerton launches into his ‘Dovunque al mondo’ aria. The tune becomes his signature throughout the opera.

Schumann, Hermann und Dorothea

The two most famous works to quote la Marseillaise both reveal a dubious command of history. When Tchaikovsky used it to represent Napoleon in his 1812 overture, he was apparently unaware that the French emperor had banned it. And the event portrayed here in Schumann’s Goethe-inspired overture – the arrival of French immigrants at the Rhine in 1743 – predates the anthem’s composition by some 50 years…

Debussy, Hommage à S Pickwick Esq

Those hearing Charles Ives’ 1891 Variations on America for organ may be surprised to hear God Save our Gracious Queen blasting out of the pipes – the tune was, at the time, also widely popular in the US and competed for anthem status. Twenty years later, Debussy also used the tune in a fond dig at British formality in this, the ninth of his Préludes, Book II.

Stockhausen, Hymnen [This is awful – Alex]

Divided into four ‘Regions’, Stockhausen’s lengthy electronic work from 1966-7 consists of recordings of national anthems from around the world, with live performers if so wished. Those whose anthems are featured include Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Russian and a number of African countries.

Elgar, Polonia

In 1915, Elgar was asked to compose a work to support the Polish war effort. The resulting 20-minute orchestral overture was premiered at a concert to raise funds for Polish Victims Relief soon after. Consisting of music from the Polish national anthem, plus themes by the likes of Paderewski, Chopin and Elgar himself, it deserves to be better known today.

Time for Corsica to change its tune

Corsican flag celebrations

During France’s regional elections earlier this month, one fact seemed to get missed amid the noise around Marine Le Pen and her Front Nacional: that in Corsica, the vote was won by a party that actually wants independence from France.

Yes, you read that right: independence.

The ‘For Corsica’ party won over 35% of the vote, which explains why their leader, Gilles Simeoni, looks so happy in the picture at the top of this post.

So should the people of the Mediterranean island stay part of the motherland or seize the day and go it alone?

Well, this blog believes there’s only one way to decide a matter of such importance: by looking at whose national anthem is better! And sorry, Corsicans, but your ‘anthem’ is not a shade on la Marseillaise. In fact, it’s awful.

Here, for those who don’t know it [everyone outside Corsica], is Dio vi salvi Regina:

If will hopefully take you all of about 5 seconds of listening to that to realise it’s a monastic hymn and an ancient one at that.

It was written in 1675 by a young Italian, Francis of Geronimo, and is meant as a love letter to the Virgin Mary. Here’s its first verse:

God bless you, Queen
And universal mother
By which one rises
Until paradise

What’s that got to do with Corsica? Absolutely bugger all! But there were a lot of Corsicans in Naples back then and they one day turned it into a bizarrely religious and solemn cry for independence – most likely due to its final verse which asks the Virgin to “give us victory over our enemies”.

So yes, it has been inspiring people for several hundred years. Gilles Simeoni even sung it to celebrate his win. But that doesn’t mean it’s worth keeping. It doesn’t have the excitement of la Marseillaise. It doesn’t have that anthem’s great melody either. It doesn’t even have its gore or its blood. There is no contest. Corsicans, find a new one quick!

La Marseillaise: has France’s controversial anthem finally hit the right note?

This week’s poignant renditions may finally allow the martial song to shed its troubled past and become a rallying cry for solidarity and hope

[The below piece originally appeared in an abridged form in The Guardian]

Flag Wembley

The Marseillaise has always been one of the world’s most contested songs. Within weeks of it being written in 1792, its composer, Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, was thrown in prison suspected of being a royalist, a move that almost took the anthem down with him (he only escaped the guillotine by writing another song about Louis XVI having his head chopped off).

It was written as a call to arms to inspire people against an Austrian invasion – hence the chorus: “To arms, citizens … Let’s water the fields with impure blood.” But the interpretation of the lyrics quickly changed, and it would latterly be seen as dangerously anti-establishment and, paradoxically, a tool of the elite.

A few years after that, Napoleon disowned it completely, both because he had seen its power and did not want it inspiring a revolution against him, and, slightly more prosaically, because he hated its composer who had probably had an affair with his wife.

It had a brief recovery in 1830 after the then king, Charles X, was overthrown in the ‘Three Glorious Days’ uprising, but soon it sunk back into disrepute – a song you would only sing if you were old-fashioned and did not realise musical times had changed.

It did not really regain its initial meaning of defiance and unity – of a nation confronting “tyranny’s bloody banner”, to quote the first verse – until the First World War when it became a rallying cry once more. Back then, Rouget de Lisle’s remains were even paraded through the streets of Paris in an effort to inspire, ironically ending up in Invalides, the home of the French military, just yards from Napoleon’s tomb.

The Marseillaise meant everything to the French again during the Second World War (it was sung by the resistance having obviously been banned by the Vichy government). Afterwards it somehow kept that vitality, becoming a rallying cry to rebuild the devastated country, its chorus’s cry of “To arms, citizens” turning out to be just as useful in motivating bricklayers as it had been soldiers.

But since then, there is no denying that it has just become awkward, especially because of how often it was sung during France’s occupation of Algeria and its brutal, eight-year-long war of independence. The Beatles’s use of it in All You Need is Love and Serge Gainsbourg’s brilliant reggae cover – the hilarious Aux Armes et cetera – gave it a brief respite from that image, even for a few years making the anthem cool, but the fact French nationalists tried to beat up Gainsbourg for his cheek tells you more the real direction where things were heading.

If you want to understand the full extent of how controversial it became, you only have to look to football. In 2001, French-Algerians booed it in the first-ever match between the two countries. In 2002, Corsicans booed it at a cup final so loudly that the then president Jacques Chirac stormed out and the match was only allowed to restart after he calmed down. The booing has not really stopped since.

A couple of years ago, I spent a fortnight in France researching the anthem for a book I was writing about the history of these songs. I asked dozens of people what they thought of the Marseillaise, and that controversy – that uncomfortableness – was surprisingly what came through most. Everyone said they liked the music, of course – who couldn’t fall for a melody as stirring as that, one which has grabbed everyone from Tchaikovsky to Debussy? – but the words? That was a different matter. Everyone from teenagers to old women would bring up the chorus and its climax: “Let’s water the fields with impure blood.” They all knew when it’d been originally written, but they also knew it had been hijacked by both its colonial legacy and by the far-right – Le Pen’s National Front – people who seemed to hear the words “sang impur” – “impure blood” – and take it as referring to the country’s immigrants.

I got the strongest reactions from the French-Algerians and French-Tunisians I met. Most could only bring themselves to give the most dismissive answers when I asked them what they thought of the song. “It’s the national anthem,” they would say with a curt laugh, and that was it, no matter how many follow up questions I tried. “Why would you even ask me about that?”

I would point out all anthems are deep down like this, songs written at times of war with their meanings changing over time – Algeria’s at one point says, “Oh France, the day of reckoning is at hand” – but it did not change their views.

You could see that awkwardness even after the Charlie Hebdo shootings. In January, the Marseillaise was sung by France’s politicians just like it was this week, but when they got to the chorus, they seemed to look at each other as if to say, “Are you sure we should be singing this?”

But today, now, something has changed. This moment somehow seems different. As the anthem has been sung around the world, played so much it is almost inescapable, it is as if all those past associations have disappeared, as if the song is being reinvented and reclaimed before is. It is like everyone, in France as much as outside it, is once again seeing it for how it was originally written.

You only have to look at the French parliament’s rendition of the anthem this time to see that. The volume never dropped; the words were never anything but punched out. Tonight at Wembley everyone will sing too, with joy and fun as much as respect and solidarity (you can’t not have fun while singing the Marseillaise). And it’s because of that this moment marks a genuine chance to take the song back from the far-right and make it a symbol of France today, united and defiant, combating tyranny both within its own borders and without.

The Marseillaise could one again become an example to all countries of the importance anthems can have, of being able to inspire people to act in extraordinary ways, something remarkably few anthems achieve (could you imagine people turning to God Save the Queen in a similar moment here?).

But I admit this feeling could only be fleeting. How the Marseillaise will be viewed in a month, six month’s, a year’s time will be entirely dependent on whether French politicians see this as a moment to unite or whether they clampdown on the country’s Muslim population in a way that will only be further divisive. If they do the latter, the Marseillaise will revert to being a contested symbol, one for the far-right only and no one else. You could soon find the Marseillaise being booed again, its current status as an icon of global unity gone in an instant, and everyone who sings it tonight wondering what on earth went wrong. That may fit the song’s history, but it shouldn’t – mustn’t – happen.

[Apologies for that being quite heavy reading. I did a far more to-the-point and celebratory piece for the BBC here. I suggest you read that too even if I clearly wrote it too quickly as there’s far too many ‘but’s!]

National plagiarism 2: plagiat national!

In a piece for the BBC this week, I wrote about the insane number of national anthems that seem to be plagiarised.

But I stupidly forgot to mention the biggest example of them all: la Marseillaise. The omission was all the more bizarre since I write about it in my book, so sorry about that!

Where did la Marseillaise’s music come from? Below is a piece by the Italian violinist, Giovan Battista Viotti written in 1781 – 11 years before Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle wrote France’s anthem. You only have to listen to it for a moment to hear the resemblance.

Some people claim it wasn’t written by Viotti either, but by Jean-Baptiste Grisons in 1787. That I don’t understand since it’s six years later, but here’s his Oratorio d’Esther anyway.

Yes, it’s the same again.

Did Rouget steal one of these tunes? Here’s a quote from Frédéric Frank-David, former director of the Memorial de la Marseillaise, and the man who should know:

“There is a certain amount of probability that Rouget had been inspired by Viotti’s tune, be it consciously or unconsciously…”

So there you go!

But the problem I have with calling Rouget a plagiarist is it takes away from his achievement. Even if he stole it, “just choosing that melody – knowing that it was the one to inspire – there’s art in that too” (to narcissistically quote my own book!). There’s more art in that than most songs you can name, in fact.

Plus, the rest of Rouget de Lisle’s life was such a disaster, I think he should be given this one thing. Read my book for more on that. It’s a story that’s frankly unbelievable at times, but I promise I haven’t plagiarised it from any novel.