It took me a while to figure out exactly to what or to whom Charles Dickens was referring when talking of the Allongers and Marchongers in his novel Little Dorrit. The story opens in Marseilles c. 1826; the penny eventually dropped that the terms were describing soldiers singing Allons! and Marchons! in full voice; and it’s no doubt already clicked with you that this is a reference to the Allons! and Marchons! from the text of the Marseillaise. Now the French National Anthem, it was a product of the French Revolution that ignited in 1789, but wasn’t formally adopted as the national song until 1795. Which reminds us that life in the country took a while to change following Bastille Day, on 14 July 1789, when the explosive blue touch paper started to smoulder.
Just as important a date in the country’s history is today’s, 10 August, used to reference the Storming of the Tuileries in 1792, which effectively marked the beginning of the end of the French monarchy as embodied by Louis XVI. The king was arrested following the attack on his residence; some six months later, he was sent to the guillotine; his wife Marie-Antoinette followed him to the block not long after.
By way of a quick reflection on ’The 10th of August’, as that watershed day is now known, I thought we could hear a selection of pieces related to those troubled times when, curiously, music didn’t get eliminated as an unnecessary ingredient of France’s rather bloodthirsty daily life, but experienced more of an evolution than a revolution. To start, we should step back to pre-1789 and to a set of symphonies Haydn was commissioned to write by a young French nobleman, subsequently known as the Paris Symphonies. Composed during 1785 and 1786, the instrumental resources available for the grand first performances in 1787 were impressive, and included 40 violins and 10 double basses. On hearing them, Queen Marie Antoinette declared that her favourite was the fourth symphony in the set, Symphony No. 85 (8.550387), which subsequently became known as La Reine (The Queen). Here’s the last movement.
The Austrian composer Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799) was a contemporary of Haydn and is perhaps best remembered for his light stage works. His orchestral pieces, however, include a 3-movement symphony reckoned to have been inspired by the storming of the Bastille. Indeed, the piece is subtitled La prise de la Bastille (C10280). The jury is still out as to whether the symphony was written by Dittersdorf or by the Belgian composer Othon-Joseph Vandenbroeck, but the question of provenance can take a back seat as we listen to the first movement that opens in solemn mood before giving a more joyous portrayal of the spirit of the 1789 event. Here’s how the movement concludes.
I don’t think I’m imagining it, but the spirit of Beethoven’s Egmont overture seems to be stirring in the background of that music. There were many other examples Beethoven might well have heard and drawn on as fodder for his revolutionary principles. Under the leadership of Bernard Sarrette, the man who would eventually go on to be director of the Paris Conservatory upon its founding in 1796, the talents of a body of musicians were corralled to produce music as an integral element of the work of the revolutionary French National Guard. These included the composers François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829) and Étienne-Nicolas Méhul (1763-1817); together they managed to replace their lost funding from the ancien régime (the church and the nobility) by gaining state support.
Méhul’s First Symphony (8.555402) was written in 1809 and has a number of striking features, including a pizzicato Menuet that opens the third movement. But Beethoven’s spirit is again apparent in the finale, this time possibly as a received source of inspiration, since Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony had already been completed the year before, in 1808. Robert Schumann detected similarities between the finale of Méhul’s symphony and the opening movement of Beethoven’s Fifth. Do you agree?
Méhul, along with Luigi Cherubini (a contemporary much admired by Beethoven), wrote a number of ’rescue operas’, in which the main character is rescued from dire circumstances to achieve a triumphant denouement. Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, is such a work. The release of captives threads through the operas of André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry, and we can go right back to his Le Magnifique (8.660305), written in 1773, to note the seeds of this theme. The work opens with what is reckoned to be one of the earliest examples of programmatic music. The overture portrays the movements and sounds accompanying a procession of captives and juxtaposes music of different styles to illustrate the spectacle of different participants (prisoners, soldiers, priests).
We’ll end where we began, with those soldiers marching from Marseilles to Paris who picked up a tune by Rouget de Lisle that soon established itself as the Marseillaise. Claude Balbastre (1724-1799) was one of the most famous French composers of his day. Before the revolution, he tutored many members of the nobility, including the ill-fated Marie-Antoinette who was one of his harpsichord students. Maybe he wrote his Marche des Marseillois et l’Air Ça-ira (8.572034-35) to help him transition with impunity from the old to the new order in French society. From that piece for solo harpsichord by Balbastre, here’s the second variation on the Marseillaise, the string-’em-up Ça-ira, and a reprise of the national air. And if you’re inspired to add the occasional Allong! and Marchong!, I’m sure Dickens will be well pleased.