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Composed: 1792; 1830
Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 cornets, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani (3), bass drum, mixed chorus, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 14, 1989, David Alan Miller conducting
Originally the “Chant de guerre pour l’armée du Rhin” (War Song for the Army of the Rhine), Rouget de Lisle’s stirring ode to strife and striving became known as the “Marseillais’ Hymn” from its use by the Marseilles Volunteer Battalion, and then as simply “La Marseillaise.” It became the national song of revolutionary France, but it dropped from favor during the Empire and the Restoration.
The song returned to popularity during the July Revolution in 1830, and Berlioz had a hand in that, arranging the piece for double chorus and orchestra, and writing in the margin: “For all who have voices, hearts, and blood in their veins.” (Berlioz also arranged Rouget de Lisle’s “Chant du neuf Thermidor” at the same time.)
Rouget de Lisle was certainly touched by the arrangement. “I should… thank you for the honor you have done my poor little creature by clothing its nakedness with the brilliance of your imagination,” he wrote to Berlioz in December 1830.
Hugh Macdonald is general editor of The New Berlioz Edition and a professor of music at Washington University in St. Louis.