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Among the Great Masters of Music: Scenes in the Lives of Famous Musicians
Rouget de Lisle
by Walter Rowlands


During the great English revolution of 1688, Lord Wharton, as Macaulay says, wrote "a satirical ballad on the administration of Tyrconnel. In this little poem an Irishman congratulates a brother Irishman, in a barbarous jargon, on the approaching triumph of popery, and of the Milesian race. The Protestant heir will be excluded. The Protestant officers will be broken. The Great Charter, and the praters who appeal to it, will be hanged in one rope. The good Talbot will shower commissions on his countrymen, and will cut the throats of the English. These verses, which were in no respect above the ordinary standard of street poetry, had for burden some gibberish which was said to have been used as a watchword by the insurgents of Ulster in 1641. The verses and the tune caught the fancy of the nation. From one end of England to the other, all classes were constantly singing this idle rhyme. It was especially the delight of the English army. More than seventy years after the revolution, a great writer delineated, with exquisite skill, a veteran who had fought at the Boyne and at Namur. One of the characteristics of the good old soldier is his trick of whistling 'Lillibullero.'

"Wharton afterward boasted that he had sung a king out of three kingdoms. But in truth the success of 'Lillibullero' was the effect, and not the cause, of that excited state of public feeling which produced the revolution."

The English revolution had its "Lillibullero," the French Revolution its "Marseillaise." The former is never heard now; the latter, in which spirited words are wedded to inspiring music, is undying. Lamartine said, "Glory and crime, victory and death, are mingled in its strains." Sir Walter Scott called it "the finest hymn to which Liberty has ever given birth." Heine exclaimed, "What a song! It thrills me with fiery delight, it kindles within me the glowing star of enthusiasm;" and Carlyle pronounced it "the luckiest musical composition ever promulgated."

In the spring of 1792, a young officer of artillery was in garrison at Strasburg. His name was Rouget de Lisle, and his talents as poet, singer, and musician had rendered him a welcome guest at the house of Dietrich, the mayor of the city. Famine reigned in Strasburg, and one day, when the Dietrich family could offer but a scanty repast to the youthful soldier, Dietrich produced a bottle of wine, and said, "Let us drink to Liberty and to our country. There will soon be a patriotic celebration at Strasburg; may these last drops inspire De Lisle with one of those hymns which convey to the soul of the people the intoxication from whence they proceed." The wine was drunk and the friends separated for the night. De Lisle went to his room and sought inspiration, "now in his patriotic soul, now in his harpsichord; sometimes composing the air before the words, sometimes the words before the air, and so combining them in his thoughts that he himself did not know whether the notes or the verses came first, and it was impossible to separate the poetry from the music, or the sentiment from the expression. He sang all and set down nothing."

In the morning De Lisle wrote down the words and music and went with them to Dietrich's house. The old patriot invited some friends, who were as fond of music as himself, to listen, and his eldest daughter played the accompaniment, while Rouget sang. "At the first stanza all faces turned pale; at the second tears ran down every cheek, and at the last all the madness of enthusiasm broke forth. The hymn of the country, destined also to be the hymn of terror, was found. A few months afterward the unfortunate Dietrich went to the scaffold to the sound of the very notes which had their origin on his own hearth, in the heart of his friend, and in the voices of his children."



It was on April 25th that De Lisle's hymn was sung at Dietrich's house. The next day it was copied and arranged for a military band, and on April 29th it was performed by the band of the Garde Nationale at a review. On June 25th, a singer named Mireur sang it with so much effect at a civic banquet at Marseilles that it was at once printed and distributed to the volunteers of the battalion just starting for Paris, which they entered by the Faubourg St. Antoine on July 30th, singing their new hymn. It was heard again on August 10th, when the mob stormed the palace of the Tuileries. From that time the "chant de guerre pour l'armée du Rhin," as it had been christened, was known as the "Chanson" or "Chant de Marseillais," and finally as "La Marseillaise." The original edition contained only six couplets; the seventh was added by the journalist Dubois.

Rouget de Lisle's authorship of the music has been often contested, but it is proven by the conclusive evidence contained in the pamphlet on the subject, by his nephew, published in Paris, in 1865. Schumann has used the "Marseillaise" in the overture to "Hermann and Dorothea," and also in his song of the "Two Grenadiers."

Its author, Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, was born at Montaigu, Lous-le-Saulnier, in 1760. Entering the school of Royal Engineers at Mezières in 1782, in 1789 he was a second lieutenant and quartered at Besançon. Here, a few days after the fall of the Bastille, on July 14th, he wrote his first patriotic song to the tune of a favourite air. The next year found him at Strasburg, where his "Hymn to Liberty," set to music by Pleyel, was sung at the fête of September 25, 1791. One of his pieces, "Bayard en Bresse," produced at Paris in 1791, was not successful. Being the son of royalist parents and one of the constitutional party, Rouget de Lisle refused to take the oath to the constitution abolishing the crown, and was therefore cashiered, denounced, and imprisoned, not escaping until after the fall of Robespierre. It is told that as he fled through a pass of the Alps he heard his own song. "'What is the name of that hymn?' he asked his guide. 'The Marseillaise,' was the peasant's reply. It was then that he learned the name of his own work. He was pursued by the enthusiasm which he had scattered behind him, and escaped death with difficulty. The weapon recoiled against the hand which had forged it; the Revolution in its madness no longer recognised its own voice."

De Lisle afterward reëntered the army, made the campaign of La Vendée under Hoche, was wounded, and at length, under the consulate, returned to private life at Montaigu. Poor and alone, he remained there until the second Restoration, when, his brother having sold the little family property, he came to Paris. Here he was unfortunate and would have starved but for a small pension granted by Louis XVIII., and continued by Louis Philippe, and for the care of his friends, the poet Béranger and the sculptor David d'Angers, and especially M. and Madame Voiart. At the house of the Voiarts in Choisy-le-Roi, Rouget de Lisle died in 1836.

His other works include a volume of "Essais en vers et en prose," issued in 1797, "Cinquante Chants Français" (1825), and "Macbeth," a lyrical tragedy (1827). He also wrote a song called "Roland at Roncesvalles," and a "Hymn to the Setting Sun."

Two statues, if no more, have been erected to him in France, - one at Lous-le-Saulnier, from the hand of Bartholdi, and another at Choisy-le-Roi.

Pils, to whom we owe the picture of Rouget de Lisle singing his immortal chant, was a French artist, who died in 1875, at the age of sixty-two, having gained many medals and a professorship of painting at the Paris School of Fine Arts. His fame was mostly won by pictures of the war in the Crimea, notably by his "Battle of the Alma," now in the gallery at Versailles. The "Rouget de Lisle," painted in 1849, belongs to the French nation. Pils decorated the ceiling over the grand staircase in the Paris Opera House.

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