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.


















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