Singing the French Revolution: Popular Culture and Politics, 1787-1799

Singing the French Revolution: Popular Culture and Politics, 1787-1799

Singing the French Revolution: Popular Culture and Politics, 1787-1799

Singing the French Revolution: Popular Culture and Politics, 1787-1799

Synopsis

Laura Mason examines the shifting fortunes of singing as a political gesture to highlight the importance of popular culture to revolutionary politics. Arguing that scholars have overstated the uniformity of revolutionary political culture, Mason uses songwriting and singing practices to reveal its diverse nature. Song performances in the streets, theaters, and clubs of Paris showed how popular culture was invested with new political meaning after 1789, becoming one of the most important means for engaging in revolutionary debate. Throughout the 1790s, French citizens came to recognize the importance of anthems for promoting their interpretations of revolutionary events, and for championing their aspirations for the Revolution. By opening new arenas of cultural activity and demolishing Old Regime aesthetic hierarchies, revolutionaries permitted a larger and infinitely more diverse population to participate in cultural production and exchange, Mason contends. The resulting activism helps explain the urgency with which successive governments sought to impose an official political culture on a heterogeneous and mobilized population. After 1793, song culture was gradually depoliticized as popular classes retreated from public arenas, middle brow culture turned to the strictly entertaining, and official culture became increasingly rigid. At the same time, however, singing practices were invented which formed the foundation for new, activist singing practices in the next century. The legacy of the Revolution, according to Mason, was to bestow new respectability on popular singing, reshaping it from an essentially conservative means of complaint to an instrument of social and political resistance.

Excerpt

Revolutionary Scholarship
and Popular Culture

Were it possible to endow books with soundtracks, this one might begin with a simple, unaccompanied performance of the Marseillaise.

Allons enfants de la patrie
Le jour de gloire est arrivé;
Contre nous de la tyrannie
L'étendard sanglant est levé

The tune, like the lyrics, is inviting; it declares itself simply and proudly. Upon hearing it, one can scarcely doubt that "the day of glory" has, in fact, arrived. Then, suddenly, the voice sinks, to ask in a tone of outrage that barely skirts fear:

Entendez-vous dans les campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats?
Its viennent jusque dans vos bras
Egorger vos fils, vos compagnes.

Finally, it rises again, to swell into a celebratory and determined chorus: Aux armes, citoyens!

But this is too much a twentieth-century conception of revolutionary singing: a single voice performing, with almost classical poise, the almost classical song that we now remember as the hymn of the French Revolution. Few revolutionaries sang so formally or with such well-trained voices, and none could possibly be certain what their anthem would fi-

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