The 'Second Marseillaise' from Surrey

By Wright, J. B. | Contemporary Review, September 1993 | Go to article overview
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The 'Second Marseillaise' from Surrey

Wright, J. B., Contemporary Review

FIFTY years ago the words of the most famous of French Resistance songs were written at Coulsdon, Surrey. For a few months, during the final year or so of the German occupation, 1943-44 -- the Chant des Partisans, matched the Marseillaise as the supreme musical symbol of French nationhood and resistance to the invader.

You can also put an exact date to the writing of the Marseillaise. It was on 25 April 1792 that Mayor Dietrich of Strasbourg suggested to one of his guests, Captain Rouget de l'Isle that what the French Rhine army needed was its own battle hymn. The song Rouget composed was sung in Dietrich's salon the following evening, and within a few days the words and music had been printed. By June, it was well-known in Marseilles, and it was the 5,000 Marseillais volunteers who gave it its definitive title as they marched through France to take part in the Paris riots and massacres of August and September 1792.

The origins of the Chant show rather less feverish creativity. Rouget wrote both the words and music of the Marseillaise; several talents are involved in the production of the Chant. (It actually took longer to have the words of the Chant published in France -- in the autumn 1943 number of the underground magazine Cahiers de la Liberation -- than it did La Marseillaise, 150 years earlier.) But the Chant was media-driven: almost immediately, the BBC began broadcasting it twice a day on the programme Honneur et Patrie beamed to the members of the Resistance in France. Soon it became widely known in France as |Ami, entends-tu?', from the first line. To whistle a few bars in Occupied France was to make a political statement. It is possible, from the memoirs of the time, to piece together the following story.

The melody, supposedly based on a Slavonic folk-tune, was composed by Anna Marly, a guitarist and lyricist in her twenties, of Russian parentage, but a long-time resident of Paris, who besides entertaining the troops in Britain with her songs and improvisations, was also the life and soul of many a French expatriate party. It's the melody, together with the dark images of the text -- |black flight of crows'; |black blood' -- that create the peculiar nocturnal ambiance of the Chant, with its suggestion of men moving purposefully across country on a moonless night. It is both timeless, and very much of its time, the war-time London world of the Free French pubs and clubs, with its ever-changing mix of the politicians, military, journalists and broadcasters around Charles de Gaulle, together with new arrivals, including resistance leaders, from occupied France.

Anna Marly knew them all. When Henri Frenay, the head of the Resistance network known as |Combat, met her in London, in 1942, she was already playing the theme that became the Chant as a party piece, with her own words. It was Emmanuel d'Astier de Vigerie, head of another Resistance network, who took the new words back with him to France after 30 May, 1943.

So, the situation that Sunday was that a whistled version of Marly's theme was being broadcast daily over |Honneur et Patrie', one of the whistlers being Maurice Druon. In the meantime, Alberto Cavalcanti, the Brazilian film director working for the Crown Film Unit, and Germaine Sablon, one of the most stylish French singers of the Thirties, had appeared on the scene. Sablon was then a member of the French Army's Womens' Services; she had just come to London, and had made contact with her friend Cavalcanti. Cavalcanti was making a film, eventually called Why We Fight, for which he needed two Resistance songs, one of which Sablon undertook to supply.

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