Rouget de Lisle

1760-1836
Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle. 1792 © BnF

Born in Lons-le-Saunier on 10 May 1760, Claude-Joseph Rouget played the violin and composed instinctively from an early age. He added his grandfather’s “de Lisle” to the end of his name in order to get into the École du Génie in Paris aged 16.

Six years later he graduated as a lieutenant and, after three postings, in 1791 was sent to Strasbourg where, with other officers, he was received into the salons of mayor Dietrich. Tired of hearing “it’ll be fine, it’ll be fine” (the words of the revolutionary song Ça ira !), Dietrich asked the young captain, who already had something of a reputation as a composer, to write a patriotic song. Surprised, Rouget tried to wriggle out of it, but at the insistence of the mayor and officers, he eventually agreed.

On returning home, he took up his fiddle and ran through some arpeggios, while his head pounded with the words he had heard that evening. Gradually a melody took shape and the lyrics were fitted to the music. Exhausted, the composer fell asleep. At daybreak, he went to see the mayor who, astonished by his speed, sat down at the harpsichord and played through the piece. He called the officers who had been present the previous evening and, in a booming voice, sang: “Arise, children of the motherland!” All heartily approved, and Rouget was delighted.

After the proclamation of the Republic, he was reinstated and joined the Army of the North, but was suspended from his captain’s duties and became a target of suspicion. Arrested and imprisoned, almost certainly for criticising the execution of the former mayor of Strasbourg, he wrote a memoir. With the death of Robespierre, he was released.

The decree of the Thermidorian Convention of 26 Messidor Year III (in the Republican Calendar), which chose the Marseillaise as a “national song”, was never implemented.

 

livret Marseillaise

 

Reinstated in the army, Rouget de Lisle resigned from his post to devote himself to poetry and music. On 10 Vendémiaire Year IV, his work was performed at the Opéra and the Opéra Comique. Bonaparte asked Rouget to compose him a song, but it was not to his liking and he rejected it. Mortified, Rouget wrote him an arrogant letter. He would never serve the Empire, and once again became an object of suspicion. In 1812, he went to live in the family home in Montaigu (Jura), and compose; in 1817, he moved to Paris where, in 1825, he published a collection of 50 Chants français (French songs).

The Duke of Orléans, an old comrade-in-arms, awarded Rouget de Lisle three pensions, which freed him of any financial worries. He was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour. Upon his death, in Choisy-le-Roi, at the age of 77, little did he know that his song would become the national anthem of France in 1879. He was buried in the cemetery of Choisy-le-Roi, and his ashes were transferred to Les Invalides on 14 July 1915.

Marie-Louise Jacotey - Historian

Transfer of Rouget de Lisle’s ashes to Les Invalides, 14 July 1915 © BnF, Distribution RMN-Grand Palais / Photo BnF