Songs of the Revolution

Music and singing were fundamentally important parts of the revolutionary experience. Amateurs and formally trained composers alike produced thousands of songs and hymns to celebrate or criticize the Revolution. Men and women sang during revolutionary festivals, in bars, cafés, and theaters, and they fought with others who dared to sing royalist or reactionary songs. Theater audiences struck up enthusiastic choruses when news of military victories were announced, and mothers taught the latest tunes to their sons and daughters.

For clarity, we may divide these thousands of compositions into two rough categories: hymns and songs. Hymns were more formal in both composition and performance. Each hymn had its own music, which was usually orchestrated, and learned, memorized poetic lyrics. Further, hymns were most often performed during festivals. Songs, on the other hand, were casual compositions that consisted of new verses rhymed (often poorly) to a well-known tune. These compositions were most popular among amateurs, who sang them in streets, parks, cafés, and public squares. What hymns and songs had in common was their ability to circulate political information and opinions through a society that was only partly literate. Catchy tunes helped listeners remember instructive or polemical lyrics as they inspired political passions and military fervor.

The meaning and content of hymns and songs changed repeatedly throughout the 1790s, reflecting and helping to shape the political currents of the Revolution. Hymns were the first to receive explicit attention from revolutionaries, who had several reasons to consider their pedagogic potential soon after the taking of the Bastille: not only had hymns played an important part in royal and religious ceremonial, but Enlightened philosophes claimed that music stirred and possibly even exalted the emotions. But revolutionaries were not solely looking backward; deputies to the new National Assembly also recognized that hymns could circulate ideas among the thousands gathered in open-air arenas, where rhetoric might be lost on the slightest breeze. Thus the first great ceremony of the Revolution—the Festival of Federation, held on 14 July 1790—had music especially composed for it by Joseph Gossec. Like so much else during the early phase of the Revolution, Gossec's Te Deum married old and new: he used a traditional, liturgical Latin text, and he set that text to music scored for wind instruments and drums rather than organ, so that it might more easily be heard outdoors.


While hymns were quickly adapted and adopted by revolutionaries, informal songs had a more complex career. Street songs had been a widely shared means of entertainment and political expression under the old regime, but educated commentators scorned them, arguing that songs could only express popular passions and were incapable of true seriousness. Such prejudice lingered after 1789 among journalists and legislators, who hoped that "the people" would find less frivolous means of expression. This attitude began to change in the summer of 1790, when revolutionaries adopted a new anthem called Ça ira. Catching on during preparations for the Festival of Federation, most versions of the song (there were several) were hopeful and claimed that tensions between members of the former estates would simply fade away as revolutionary change took place.


Social and political tensions did not disappear, however. Rather, as they intensified, royalists adopted their own anthem: O Richard, ô mon Roi. O Richard was an operatic aria that claimed the king had been abandoned by all but the most faithful. Meanwhile, revolutionaries throughout France continued to perform Ça Ira under all kinds of political circumstances, often in direct opposition to royalists singing O Richard. Used in increasingly contestatory ways, Ça ira's cheerily optimistic lyrics gave way to a verse that exhorted listeners to "hang the aristocrats"; such performances encouraged pro-revolutionary, educated elites to reconsider their disdain for popular singing. Many began to express a new faith in the ability of street songs to arouse and sustain revolutionary fervor.

When war was declared in the spring of 1792, revolutionaries began to search for a more serious composition to accompany soldiers into battle. Although Jean-Claude Rouget de Lisle composed the famous Marseillaise (originally known as "The War Song of the Army of the Rhine") in April, it did not become popular until troops from Marseilles brought it to Paris that summer. Renowned for their revolutionary enthusiasm and their contribution to the insurrection of 10 August, the volunteers from Marseilles taught others the rousing new anthem, whose title would evoke their role in its popularization.

As revolutionaries embarked on the republican experiment after the August overthrow of the monarchy, musical culture reached its zenith. The Marseillaise, with its learned lyrics and martial tune, lent new seriousness to popular singing practices; this was one of the few compositions of the Revolution that was equally successful as both hymn and popular song. Meanwhile, republican celebrations of the sans-culottes raised the status of all kinds of "popular culture." Singing and song-writing were practiced widely. Sans-culottes sang in clubs and popular societies; private citizens composed songs that celebrated republican virtues; booksellers claimed that simply to buy their revolutionary songbooks was a patriotic act; theaters organized performances of music that commemorated revolutionary events or celebrated republican "martyrs," such as Jean-Paul Marat and Michel Le Pelletier. Hymns also reflected the concerns of the new era by celebrating current events and by shedding the liturgical associations of earlier years. Hymns, like the one Ponce-Denis-Echouard Lebrun composed to celebrate the first anniversary of the King's execution, now evoked the example of the ancients or a deist Supreme Being rather than delivering thanks to a traditional Christian god.

By this time, almost all revolutionaries praised singing as an ideal means to rouse republican enthusiasm. Songs and hymns allowed performers to proclaim revolutionary ideals and unified audiences; singing was available to literate and illiterate alike; the simplest tune could carry a sense of the Revolution into the most mundane tasks of daily life. And because singing could also be a group activity, it helped to affirm the collective solidarity of those participating. But even in the midst of this musical frenzy, some officials worried about certain aspects of popular songs. In particular, moderate deputies to the National Convention who hoped to normalize political life and demobilize popular activists in the winter of 1793–94, worried that singing encouraged the very activism they were trying to quell. 

Concerns about the relationship between singing and unofficial activism only intensified after Robespierre's fall on 9 Thermidor. As growing numbers of people expressed anger at the political extremes of a period they were coming to call "the Terror," a new song emerged: The Alarm of the People [Le Réveil du Peuple]. The Alarm became the anthem of young reactionaries who called themselves "gilded youth." A highly visible presence in many cities, the "gilded youth" terrorized café and theater owners whose establishments still displayed symbols of radical republicanism. That such episodes of popular violence were often accompanied by performances of The Alarm of the People, or by battles between singers of The Alarm and singers of the Marseillaise or other patriotic songs, seemed proof positive to anxious officials that singing was an incitation to lawlessness and violence.

As battles over The Alarm of the People and the Marseillaise dragged on through the spring and summer of 1795, the deeply divided National Convention wavered, throwing its weight behind one composition and then the other. The Directory brought the battles decisively to an end in the winter of 1796 by arresting singers of The Alarm and requiring nightly theatrical performances of the Marseillaise and other republican music that finally bored audiences to silence. Now, revolutionary music culture began to lose its vigor. Common people abandoned the public arena in the wake of famine and the bitter defeat of the popular insurrections of Germinal and Prairial, Year III. The Directory swept away the last pockets of royalist and radical republican activism during the first eighteen months of its tenure, severing the tie between singing and activism by repressing all but the most formal kinds of political activity.

The final years of the Revolution witnessed a depoliticization of songs and hymns that paralleled the declining political activism of most French men and women. At the upper reaches of society, educated poets and composers produced pastoral, romantic, or comic songs purged of any trace of political opinion. Working people gathered in bars and cafés to sing drinking songs or revolutionary songs that were simply old favorites. In all popular arenas, the only topical songs were those that celebrated France's victorious armies and the increasingly famous General Napoleon Bonaparte.

The government continued to organize festivals for which it subsidized music composition and hymn writing, but here, too, politics seemed to have been pushed aside. Rather than celebrating the execution of the King or the fall of Robespierre, as they had once done, revolutionary hymns became increasingly allegorical, commemorating youth and age, marriage or birth. Almost the only topical hymns were those that, like popular songs, praised military men or celebrated the making of war and peace. For the next two generations, overtly political compositions would once again be sung on the sly, as they had been under the old regime.

Music as a Historical Source

Only a few generations ago, historians might have divided hymns and songs into categories of "elite" and "popular" culture, asserting that each form would help us to better know distinct social groups. Hymns, such an argument might have run, were written by learned men and women who combined poetic lyrics with unique musical compositions; thus they might provide evidence of "high" and official revolutionary culture. Popular songs, on the other hand, which consisted of nothing more than new words rhymed (often poorly) to a well-known tune, might offer insight into the ideas and aspirations of ordinary men and women about whom little historical evidence remains.

In the past twenty years, however, scholars have abandoned rigid distinctions between "elite" and "popular" culture, and they have ceased to argue that form or content alone can give us a full picture of the society in which music (or any other cultural form) was produced. It is now more common to ask how different kinds of culture were shared across social boundaries. And, indeed, upon inspection, revolutionary musical culture was highly accessible to all. Certainly, some popular songs seem to have been composed by ordinary citizens who left no more than a name and perhaps occupation or residence—"Bellrose, singer," or "Derant the Younger, in Saint-Germain-en-Laye"—but others were produced by government bureaucrats, journalists, or theatrical authors whose learning was equal to that of composers of hymns. Even more to the point: what are we to make of a composition like the Marseillaise? Composed by a reasonably well-educated army captain, possessed of a relatively complex tune and quite learned lyrics, this piece of music crossed all social barriers: performed as a hymn at festivals and on the stage, it was also adopted as a popular song in parks and cafés and taught by republican mothers to their young sans-culottes.

If the form and content of music can no longer be presumed to give us sufficient information about revolutionary culture and society, what then can we learn from music? As the example of the Marseillaise suggests, we can learn a great deal by considering how, where, and why it was performed. During the Revolution, as today, music did not necessarily become popular because it adhered to objective aesthetic standards. Songs became popular because they spoke to a current mood, or because they recalled a symbolically important event, or because they seemed to express a keenly felt political aspiration. Singers revealed such associations in a variety of ways, using particular kinds of performances or specific arenas to make their meaning as clear as possible. So, for example, when revolutionaries sang Ça Ira as they assisted in preparations for the Festival of Federation, they expressed not only their hopes for the future but their commitment to the revolutionary cause. When they performed that song in a café, they were warning royalists to stay away from what was now their territory. And when, after Thermidor, young toughs sang The Alarm of the People against soldier's choruses of the Marseillaise, onlookers knew that the singers were defending competing interpretations of the Republic's past and the Revolution's future.

What makes musical culture especially significant is the accessibility of singing. Although there were many other ways to express political opinions or revolutionary aspirations, alone and collectively—speeches, pamphlets, newspapers, festivals, cartoons—only singing was available to everyone. Whether revolutionary or royalist, one needed neither government contacts, publishers, nor even literacy to publicly express an opinion through song. One needed only the knowledge of a tune and a quick memory for new lyrics. Music and singing practices highlight different political opinions and the ways in which even the meanest citizen could contribute to the creation of revolutionary culture, and they illuminate the tensions between different governments and the unruly populace that were so fundamental to the revolutionary process.