The Marseillaise is universally considered the greatest and best known National Anthem of the world. But few people know that the music was actually already in existence when it was put down on a score, on 25 April 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle.
France at that time was at war with Austria and the mayor of Strasbourg had lamented during a dinner that France had no National Hymn. Rouget de Lisle went back straight to his quarters and during the night he put down the words and the music. The piece was first called "A chant de guerre pour l'Armee du Rhin" that is "A War Song for the Army of the Rhine." The words were and indeed still are moving and charged with strong nationalistic emotions, and blending wonderfully with the music, which Rouget de Lisle added, claiming to have composed it.
That melody soon became very popular among the troops and later was transformed into the rallying cry of the French revolutionaries. It became known as "La Marseillaise" only after it was sung on the streets in Marseilles by some volunteers, who later participated to the storming of the Bastille Tuileries Palace in Paris on 10 August 1792.
Rouget de Lisle had enlisted into the Royal French army reaching the rank of captain, but in 1793 he refused to join the revolution and in 1793 he was jailed, going very close to having his head cut off on the guillotine. He was freed at the end of the Terror, retiring in the countryside.
Napoleon I was not a fan of the Marseillaise and put it aside during the Empire and it was banned outright by King Louis XVIII. With Napoleon III coming to power Marseillaise was not resurrected, because by then the French national hymn was Partant pour la Syrie ("Departing to Syria") which sounds eerily modern in our days. The Marseillaise bounced back during the days of the Paris Commune in 1871 and was then declared France's National Anthem in 1879.
Who, then, was the real composer of the music? I think that there are no doubts on this matter. The author was the Italian violinist and composer Giovan Battista Viotti who wrote it in 1781, 11 years before Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle.
We don't want to blame Rounget de Lisle - who was a very principled man who had died in great poverty because of his political convictions - but I am afraid that it is not just a casual resemblance: it is exactly the same thing, note after note. It is indeed strange and regrettable that France has never fully recognized and accepted this fact by giving Viotti his due, at least mentioning his name. Here's is what Frederic Frank-David, former director of the Memorial de la Marseillaise, has to say:
"There is a certain amount of probability that Rouget had been inspired by Viotti's tune, be it consciously or unconsciously."
This is true but it is indeed difficult to think that it was "unconscious". If one compares the two tunes, one will understand that they are the same!
Giovanni Battista Viotti was born at Fontaneto Po in 1755 and died in London in 1824. He the director of the King's Theatre in London for a few years , then he moved to Germany for two years (1798-1800); then he returned to London for 20 years, only moving for a couple of those years to Paris, where he was the director of the The- tre des Italiens and of the Opera, before retiring in London. Viotti is considered one of the greatest violinists that ever existed, as well as a great composer. Among several songs and arias written, he was also the author of 29 concerts.