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The 'second Marseillaise' from Surrey.

FIFTY years ago the words of the most famous of French Resistance songs were written at Coulsdon, Surrey. For a few months, during the final year or so of the German occupation, 1943-44 -- the Chant des Partisans, matched the Marseillaise as the supreme musical symbol of French nationhood and resistance to the invader.

You can also put an exact date to the writing of the Marseillaise. It was on 25 April 1792 that Mayor Dietrich of Strasbourg suggested to one of his guests, Captain Rouget de l'Isle that what the French Rhine army needed was its own battle hymn. The song Rouget composed was sung in Dietrich's salon the following evening, and within a few days the words and music had been printed. By June, it was well-known in Marseilles, and it was the 5,000 Marseillais volunteers who gave it its definitive title as they marched through France to take part in the Paris riots and massacres of August and September 1792.

The origins of the Chant show rather less feverish creativity. Rouget wrote both the words and music of the Marseillaise; several talents are involved in the production of the Chant. (It actually took longer to have the words of the Chant published in France -- in the autumn 1943 number of the underground magazine Cahiers de la Liberation -- than it did La Marseillaise, 150 years earlier.) But the Chant was media-driven: almost immediately, the BBC began broadcasting it twice a day on the programme Honneur et Patrie beamed to the members of the Resistance in France. Soon it became widely known in France as |Ami, entends-tu?', from the first line. To whistle a few bars in Occupied France was to make a political statement. It is possible, from the memoirs of the time, to piece together the following story.

The melody, supposedly based on a Slavonic folk-tune, was composed by Anna Marly, a guitarist and lyricist in her twenties, of Russian parentage, but a long-time resident of Paris, who besides entertaining the troops in Britain with her songs and improvisations, was also the life and soul of many a French expatriate party. It's the melody, together with the dark images of the text -- |black flight of crows'; |black blood' -- that create the peculiar nocturnal ambiance of the Chant, with its suggestion of men moving purposefully across country on a moonless night. It is both timeless, and very much of its time, the war-time London world of the Free French pubs and clubs, with its ever-changing mix of the politicians, military, journalists and broadcasters around Charles de Gaulle, together with new arrivals, including resistance leaders, from occupied France.

Anna Marly knew them all. When Henri Frenay, the head of the Resistance network known as |Combat, met her in London, in 1942, she was already playing the theme that became the Chant as a party piece, with her own words. It was Emmanuel d'Astier de Vigerie, head of another Resistance network, who took the new words back with him to France after 30 May, 1943.

So, the situation that Sunday was that a whistled version of Marly's theme was being broadcast daily over |Honneur et Patrie', one of the whistlers being Maurice Druon. In the meantime, Alberto Cavalcanti, the Brazilian film director working for the Crown Film Unit, and Germaine Sablon, one of the most stylish French singers of the Thirties, had appeared on the scene. Sablon was then a member of the French Army's Womens' Services; she had just come to London, and had made contact with her friend Cavalcanti. Cavalcanti was making a film, eventually called Why We Fight, for which he needed two Resistance songs, one of which Sablon undertook to supply. Together with Druon and Joseph Kessel, she went to spend the weekend of the 29/30 May at the Ashdown Park Hotel in Coulsdon, since demolished. The hotel was run by a Frenchman, Monsieur Hulin, and was widely used by the Free French colony in London.

Druon was then twenty-five; Kessel twenty years older. After the war, Druon emerged as a novelist with Les Grandes Familles, a sombre saga of the |200 families' who were supposed to have ruled and ruined France between the wars, and a vast historical series about the French monarchy called Les Rois Maudits, a version of which once appeared on British TV. He was also, briefly, Minister of Culture under Georges Pompidou. The memory of Kessel, a special correspondent turned novelist, lingers in the credits of films like Armee des Ombres, Belle de lour and The Lion.

After lunch, the three settled down to produce the Resistance song for Cavalcanti. Sablon wrote down what she remembered of the Marly theme, while Druon and Kessel threw ideas at each other, which Druon recorded in an exercise book bought at a local store. By four o'clock, when Hulin's daughter brought tea, it was finished, and Sablon sang it for the first time. (There is an apocryphal story, that another French guest put his head round the door and said: |Done your Marseillaise, then?' |Certainly', Kessel is quoted as saying that evening: |This will outlast whatever else we do'.)

The Marseillaise keeps cropping up, so it is perhaps worth comparing the two. The Marseillaise consists of eight verses of ten lines each -- though only the first is usually sung; the Chant of 16 verses of three lines. Rouget's song is a generalised call to all |enfants de la patrie' to rise up and repel the invader (Austrian/Prussian), while the Chant speaks to a divided France: it is specifically aimed at the Marxist social category of workers and peasants who at the time were thought to be free -- unlike the |200 families' -- of the taint of collaborating with the occupying power. The men who knew how to use their hands would know what to do with guns and dynamite. Again, the Marseillaise calls on Frenchmen to be magnamimous towards the hapless enemy conscripts; the Chant -- thus illustrating the general rule that the farther from the front the more blood-thirsty the sentiments -- calls on men of the Resistance to |kill quickly', with |hatred urging them on', so that the enemy will know the |price of blood and tears'. Rouget de l'Isle belongs to the 18th century, which could still distinguish between the leaders and the led, though the revolutionary fervour which he trumpets will soon be creating the era of total war which Druon and Kessel find perfectly normal.

After the war, the Chant des Partisans became the official |hymn of the Resistance', often played alongside the Marseillaise. Just as Berlioz produced his formidable version of the French national anthem, the Chant appeared in sumptuous orchestrations, with massed choirs; by now, the smoky rooms of blitzed London, and Anna Marly's obsessive guitarchords were embedded in an unimaginable past. In the atmosphere of today's Europe, its open incitement to kill is seen as at best absurd, at worst hugely reprehensible. Irredeemably outdated it might be, fit only for the soundtracks of historical documentaries, and for misting the eyes of survivors, it can still recreate a unique mood, and evoke a truly appalling time, as nothing else can. It will stand like the recently unveiled statue of de Gaulle in London -- so far the only one in the world -- as a tribute to an heroic struggle.
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Title Annotation:'Chant des Partisans,' composed at Coulsdon, Surrey, during the last years of German occupation
Author:Wright, J.B.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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