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.












1 2