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Friday, 8 February, 2002, 19:27 GMT
Jazzing up the Marseillaise
Marseillaise music and CD
The CDs aim to bring the Marseillaise up to date
By Hugh Schofield in Paris

France's education ministry is going back to basics in a bid to revive the civic spirit.

Schools are about to receive 72,000 copies of a new CD featuring the country's national anthem, the Marseillaise.

Serge Gainsbourg
Serge Gainsbourg recorded his own, irreverent version
But not just the traditional version with orchestra and warbling soprano. The disc includes 15 interpretations - from jazz, Arabic and house to an irreverent parody by late cult rocker Serge Gainsbourg.

According to Education Minister Jack Lang, it will be used as a teaching aid to encourage new reflections on history, music, society and international affairs.

"The Marseillaise is not just our national anthem, it is also an international hymn to liberty and deserves to be better known and understood by all our pupils," he said.

The Marseillaise was written in 1792 by a captain in the engineers, Joseph Rouget de Lisle. Originally entitled the "War Song for the Army of the Rhine", it was meant to whip up French revolutionary fervour against the invading royalist armies.

The political left has always loved it, but the right has been more ambivalent.

Charles de Gaulle
Charles de Gaulle sang the traditional version on the liberation of Paris
Napoleon preferred an anthem entitled "Let's Look after the Health of the Empire", and in 1940 the pro-Nazi Vichy government banned all public renditions.

Only when Charles de Gaulle sang the Marseillaise at the liberation of Paris - and a circular went round all schools ordering children to do likewise - did the anthem fully take on its patriotic flavour, and today the far-right National Front belts it out with the rest of them.

A booklet accompanying the CD is an insight into France's self-appointed role as a light unto the progressive nations.

My grandfather could sing all seven verses, my generation knows three, my children just know the first

Historian Michel Vivelle
According to the ministry, the Marseillaise has been sung at every key moment of popular history in the last one hundred years - from Lenin's arrival in St Petersburg in 1917, to the proclamation of the Spanish republic in 1931, to revolutionary camp fires in south America and the collapse of Communist regimes in eastern Europe.

"Appropriated by the peoples of the world struggling for their liberty, the song is international - it is part of the heritage of humanity," said Mr Lang.

But the decision to reintroduce the country's children to the song reflects concern that its message is becoming blurred.

"The erosion of memory, the decline of teaching about the revolution in schools, the weakening of the civic sprit in our youth - these are worrying," writes historian Michel Vivelle.

Jack Lang
Jack Lang: Loves the grand geste
"My grandfather could sing all seven verses, my generation knows three, my children just know the first."

The new CD is meant to reawaken interest by placing the song in a variety of contexts.

Included are Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture - in which the anthem is reprised at length - a jazz version by Stephane Grapelli and Django Reinhardt and an experimental classical interpretation by Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Gainsbourg's reggae dub, entitled "Aux Armes etc," is featured, as well as translations into Arabic and Portuguese and a dance take called "Marseill'house."

Sadly the most famous pop sampling - at the start of the Beatles' 1967 hit "All You Need is Love" - is left out for copyright reasons, though there are copious notes in the accompanying book.

There we learn that the Marseillaise was intended to "accentuate the international dimension of the (Beatles') message of peace."

The CD initiative is a classic "Lang-ism." The flamboyant minister - a former favourite of Francois Mitterrand - loves the grand geste, especially in pursuit of a worthy cause.

To arms, citizens! Form into battalions! Let us march, let us march! And may their impure blood irrigate our fields!

However there is some criticism of the timing of the move - two months ahead of presidential elections - with the Socialist-led government accused of cashing in on the patriotic vote.

One other group unlikely to be impressed are the long-standing campaigners for a new set of lyrics for the Marseillaise, on the grounds that the traditional ones are too blood-thirsty to be sung by children.

The existing words do after all include: "Can you hear the ferocious soldiers bellowing in the fields? They have come to our very doors to slit the throats of our sons and women.

"To arms, citizens! Form into battalions! Let us march, let us march! And may their impure blood irrigate our fields!"

Marseillaise Disco
French education CD
Marseillaise Experimental
French education CD
Marseillaise Reggae
French education CD
Marseillaise Traditional
French education CD
See also:

01 Dec 00 | Media reports
Anthems out of tune with people
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