“La Marseillaise” was written and composed by Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle, captain in the Engineering corps garrisoned in Strasbourg during the night of 24 to 25 April 1792 at the behest of the city’s mayor, Baron de Dietrich. The song, originally entitled Hymne de Guerre Dédié au Maréchal de Luckner, became known as Chant de Guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin when it was adopted as the marching song of the National Guard of Marseille. The Marseille troops were singing it as they entered Paris on 30 July 1792, and the Parisians dubbed it the Marseillaise. The anthem is probably the first example of the “European march” style of anthem.
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “La Marseillaise” was also known as the anthem of the international revolutionary movement. In 1871, it was the anthem of the Paris Commune, and many later anarchists took inspiration from the Commune. After the fall of the Czarist government in Russia, when Communism was just starting to be set up, the melody of “La Marseillaise” was used (with different words) by radical socialists during the era of the Provisional Government, until “The Internationale” gained more popularity, and started to replace “La Marseillaise” as the anthem of leftist revolutionaries.
Under the First Republic, “La Marseillaise” was one of the civic songs that contributed to the success of the Revolution, and thus was given official status (along with “Chœur de la Liberté”, with words by Voltaire). However, it has not been continuously used since the Revolution; both Empires, the Restoration and the Second Republic passed over it in favour of other songs, with links above. During these times, however, “La Marseillaise” still remained quite popular with the people, especially the republicans, these other anthems were created in an attempt to quell the popularity of “La Marseillaise” (especially during the times of the restored monarchy and empire, when a republican government was against the aims of the current governmental type.)
Not until the Third Republic was the Marseillaise restored to its rank of national anthem on all occasions at which military bands were called upon to play an official air. After the fall of the Third Republic and the occupation of northern France by Germany, the Marseillaise remained the official anthem of both the Vichy government (the Nazi puppet state set up in unoccupied southern France) and the Free France forces, who were against the Vichy government and sought its removal. Both factions also had unofficial anthems in popular use as well, the Vichy government used a song dating from 1847 entitled “Maréchal, nous voilà!” (written and composed by André Montagard and co-composer Charles Courtious), and the Free French “Le Chant des Partisans” composed by Anna Marly (music) and French words by Maurice Druon and Joseph Kessel, customarily sung as the anthem. The Marseillaise was made the official national anthem by the constitutions of the Fourth and Fifth Republics (Article 2 of the Constitution of 4 October 1958). In 1974, President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing had it modified in accordance with earlier scores and slowed the tempo. Since 1981 however, the anthem has once again been performed according to the scores and tempo in use until 1974. While there are seven verses of the song, only the first (and sometimes the sixth and seventh) are sung, along with the chorus.
The lyrics, speaking of bloody battles and a call for citizens to take up arms, have been debated endlessly whether to alter the words to suit the more peaceful times that France currently enjoys, but the original words, capturing the spirit of the French revolution, remain. This is probably due to the fact that “La Marseillaise” is now inexorably linked to France in the mind of the world.
The anthem has become one of the most recognized in the world. Tchaikovsky used a piece of it in his “1812 Overture”, which was a chronicle of the war between Russia and France of that year. (The Russian “God Save the Czar” was also used in his work, but, interestingly, neither anthem was used as the national anthem in 1812! They were, however, both used as the respective countries’ national anthems in 1882, which was when the piece was written.) Also, until the adoption of “The Internationale” in Russia around 1918 as the Russian (later Soviet) national anthem, “La Marseillaise” was used by many communist, socialist, and left-leaning groups as an anthem.
Special thanks to: “Erwan” and “Daniel” for some of this information.