The Importance of Popular Song in Revolutionary France

by KathleenDuffy

During the French Revolution of 1789 popular songs were vital to lifting the spirits of the sans-culottes, or working poor, of Paris.

As events changed, new lyrics were created using popular sentiments of the day. Often these lyrics would be printed and pasted up on walls and lampposts for the literate to read. The songs not only let others know which side they supported but even warned enemies to stay away from their area.

The Revolution inspired great paintings and books, thousands of leaflets were pasted onto the walls of Paris, and great music was composed. But for the sans-culottes of Paris popular song was perhaps the most significant creation of all.

Here are three of the most well-known Revolutionary songs:

Ça Ira - A Popular Song of Early Revolutionary Paris

A street singer called Ladré put lyrics to a popular tune of the day, Ça Ira, when he discovered that Ça Ira, or 'We Will Win',was Benjamin Franklin's favourite phrase during the American Revolution. It became extremely popular. These were the early days of the Revolution. The year was 1789 and the Bastille had fallen.

Hopes were high for a bright future.

 

When the Revolution lost sight of its original intentions, the lyrics to Ça Ira changed ominously. The people felt that the Revolution was in danger and new lyrics reflected their anger.

In spite of the traitors all will succeed.

Let's string up the aristocrats on the lampposts!

We will win, we will win, we will win. 

La Marseillaise - The French National Anthem

This song became popular with French soldiers in Marseille. Its composer was a well-educated army captain called Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle, a Royalist. When he composed the song in 1792 he called it War Song of the Army of the Rhine, but his rousing anthem was taken up by the volunteer Marseille soldiers who sang it as they marched into Paris to support the Revolution.

Ye sons of France, awake to glory!

Hark! Hark! The people bid you rise...

March on, march on, all hearts resolved

on liberty or death.

Unlike Ça Ira, which specifically targeted an aristocratic class as the enemy, La Marseillaise appeals to emotional needs, protection of families, peace, and liberty from tyranny. Therefore, it was popular with various groups involved in the Revolution.

As for Mr Rouget de Lisle, he was thrown into jail as a Royalist enemy, even though most of Paris was singing his song!

Today  La Mareillais is the French National Anthem.

La Réveil du Peuple - Pacifist French Revolutionary Song

Whilst La Marseillaise was being sung all over Paris, the Revolution had turned extremely violent. The King himself was executed on January 21st 1793.

Two people who were not in favour of violence and terror, the playwright J M Souriguieres and his friend, actor Pierre Gavaux, wrote La Réveil due Peuple (The Alarm of the People).

French people, people of brothers,

Can you watch, without shuddering in horror?

As crime unfurls its banners

Of carnage and terror?

Gangs of youths roamed the streets of Paris singing La Réveil du Peuple. If they heard the sound of The Marseillaise coming from any public place they would enter armed with clubs.

Soon there were public battles between the two groups of singers. Eventually, those found singing La Réveil du Peuple were arrested.

Popular Revolutionary Songs Reflect Change

All music reflects the times - from folk music right through to rap people have felt the need to speak through music, to say something that preserves the times they are witnessing, often trying to change society.

What is so interesting about the popular French revolutionary songs of the street  is that these songs themselves changed so quickly in order to adapt themselves to new situations. 

Whether it was the lyrics that changed, or the types of people who ended up singing them - these songs make excellent historical documents. They give us an insight into events on the ground as they were happening, in a period of dramatic historical change.

 

c. K Duffy

Updated: 05/29/2014, KathleenDuffy
 
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