Revolutionary Sounds: A Bastille Day Music Mix The streets of Paris might have been in chaos in 1789, but music still rang out. Commentator Miles Hoffman leads a guided Bastille Day tour through the music of the French Revolution.

Revolutionary Sounds: A Bastille Day Music Mix

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If the year were 1789 and you were waking up this morning in Paris, you might hear an angry mob outside your window about to storm the hated prison known as the Bastille.


Tonight the mobs in Paris will be happy, celebrating Bastille Day, which marks the beginning of the French Revolution and the beginning of the end of French royalty.

MONTAGNE: Let's join the crowd by way of a little music, with the help of commentator Miles Hoffman.

MILES HOFFMAN: Hello, Renee, or bonjour. Actually, I think for Bastille Day I'm going to call you Rene Montagne. Is that all right?

MONTAGNE: I think that's an excellent idea. Let's stick with that for the next....

HOFFMAN: Bonjour, Rene Montagne.


MONTAGNE: And let's be French here for a minute and imagine we could've strolled the streets of Paris in the days leading up to the French Revolution. Now if we had peeked into some drawing room or perhaps a concert hall, what music might we have heard?

HOFFMAN: It would depend, Renee, on which concert hall, which drawing room you peeked into. There was an enormously active musical scene, musical life in Paris in the decades before the revolution and as a matter of fact during the revolution itself. So you could've heard Italian opera, you could've heard French opera, orchestral music, choral music. Interestingly enough, the French music you would've heard would have been by composers who today aren't really terribly well known.

The most important composers in France at that time were foreigners, Christoph Gluck. His operas were performed in France and one of the composers who was very well known in Paris at the time of the revolution or just before was Joseph Haydn.

MONTAGNE: A name that of course we all would recognize. But he was in Paris at that time?

HOFFMAN: No, he wasn't in Paris but his music was. He had been commissioned to write six symphonies that became known as the Haydn's Paris Symphonies. And one of them, as a matter of fact, was nicknamed The Queen, or La Reine. And it was so nicknamed because it was a particular favorite of Marie Antoinette.


MONTAGNE: It sounds silken. It sounds aristocratic. You can just see the drawing room or maybe a ballroom, and expect to hear this music. What happened to classical music during the revolution, or after it began? I mean, was it associated with royalty and the aristocracy?

HOFFMAN: Not as much as you might think. What's interesting to me, Renee, is what didn't happen to music during the revolution. Music was not suppressed. The theaters and the opera houses weren't shut down. The people who were in power, especially to begin with, many of them were aristocrats themselves, or at the very least members of the upper middle class, lawyers and so forth. So they didn't necessarily have an allergy to high culture. What they did was they co-opted classical music.

They inspired or directed the important composers of the time to write great ceremonial pieces for big outdoor celebrations. So music became, in a sense, a tool of the revolution, and it became very grandiose.


HOFFMAN: That's from the "Hymne a la Victoire," or "Hymn to Victory" by Luigi Cherubini, a celebratory piece from 1796, during the French Revolution.


MONTAGNE: We've been talking about the aristocracy. Let's get to the masses. When they marched in the streets, they were certainly singing something. I mean, we know of course of the "Marseillaise," but what else was in the mix?

HOFFMAN: There were something like 3,000 popular songs written during the revolutionary period, Renee. One of the most famous songs that was sung in the street by the masses was a song called "Ca ira," which means, it'll be fine. And that was a phrase that was popularized actually by Benjamin Franklin during the American Revolution, when he was in Paris. Because when people asked him how things would go, or were going in the American Revolution, he would say, Ca ira, it'll be fine.

So there was a song that was written in 1790 that instantly became very popular. And later on, after the French Revolution got more violent, there were more violent words written, like aristocrats to the lampposts, we'll hang them. If we don't hang them, we'll break them. If we don't break them, we'll burn them.

This got pretty nasty, and there's a great recording we can listen to Edith Piaf singing a version of "Ca ira."


EDITH PIAF: (Singing in French)

MONTAGNE: So jaunty, puts me right in the mood to string up some aristocrats.


HOFFMAN: Well, especially if Edith Piaf sings it, you want to follow wherever.


MONTAGNE: I'm right behind her.


HOFFMAN: The most important song really was "La Marseillaise," which was written by an army engineer named Rouget de Lisle, and it was written in 1792. It was picked up by soldiers from Marseille, these volunteer soldiers who were going to Paris to volunteer for the revolution in these revolutionary wars. And they sang it all the way on the way to Paris and by the time they got there, everybody knew it. And it became the unofficial anthem of the revolution. In 1795 it became the official national anthem of the country.

MONTAGNE: Miles, how did the spirit of the French Revolution live on in music? Politically, this period in France and elsewhere changed the world. How, what ways did it change music, if at all?

HOFFMAN: Well, one of the obvious ways is the spirit of grandiosity. That became more common. The thing is that bombast, when it's not tied to genius, is just loud and gives you a headache. When it is tied to genius, it can be, as it was in Beethoven and later Berlioz, they took some of these ideas of grandiosity and they turned it into great music, music that was great in itself and music that influenced great composers who came afterward.

MONTAGNE: Then Miles, let's go out on a piece by Berlioz. What would you say is the most appropriate piece we could go out on on this Bastille Day?

HOFFMAN: Well, let's go out with Hector Berlioz's fabulous, bombastic, over- the-top arrangement of "La Marseillaise." A happy Bastille Day to you, Renee, and I hope to talk to you again soon.

MONTAGNE: Merci beaucoup.

HOFFMAN: Okay, Renee.

MONTAGNE: We're gearing up for a big finish here. But first, let me tell you that was music commentator Miles Hoffman. He is violist of the American Chamber Players and Dean of the Petrie School of Music at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.


MONTAGNE: You can hear more music for Bastille Day, at our Web site,

And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News, I'm Rene Montagne.


INSKEEP: Oh, that makes me sound boring. I'm just Steve Inskeep.

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