Republic or Death Travels in Search of National Anthems (Alex Marshall, 2015)Republic or Death!: Travels in Search of National Anthems

Alex Marshall
Random House, 27 août 2015 – 368 pages

Présentation de l’éditeur

National Anthems have been sung for hundreds of years, inspired patriots and rebels, armies and athletes. Each one has its own story. And yet most of us know almost nothing about them … until now.

In Republic or Death!, Alex Marshall takes to the road on an adventure that includes cycling the route French revolutionaries marched as they first sang ‘La Marseillaise’; entering a competition for the best singer of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’; and attempting to bribe his way to an audience with the deposed King of Nepal in order to uncover the story behind the only national anthem written on a Casio keyboard.

As he encounters everyone from presidents and anthem composers to the sports fans and revolutionaries from whom these songs evoke such a wide range of emotions, he brings the incredible stories behind the world’s anthems to life, as well as revealing what they mean to us today.


France : The greatest anthem of them all (Table des matières)
France : The greatest anthem of them all (Table des matières)





You can’t argue with French women. You just can’t. Even when they seem to be trying to get you to take illegal substances.

Tu dois acheter des drogues,’ says Catherine, a forty-something in a yellow dress and shades who’s stopped her car to check that the person collapsed on a bike by the side of the road, his sweat pooling around the wheels, is actually alive.

‘You should buy some drugs,’ she repeats, laughing. She’s got a point. I’m starting to realise just why the Tour de France has so many scandals. EPO. human growth hormone, nandrolone, amphetamines – right now, any of them would be welcome, as long as it helped me up this hill. This bloody hill. She roots around in her car and gives me a half-drunk bottle of water. ‘Will this do instead?’ she says. 1 can still hear her laughing as she drives off.

You’re not supposed to look bedraggled in Provence. Country­side like this is meant for sitting outside cafes wearing a white suit and a wide-brimmed hat, a carafe of wine on the go. Sweat’s not supposed to come into it. From where I’m standing, halfway up this hill, I can look down over that countryside for miles. It’s all family-owned vineyards and dry, dirt fields, with tractors rolling around in them throwing up dust clouds. There’s sunlight glaring off the white-walled, orange-roofed farmhouses, and there are plane trees leaning over every driveway making even the poorest places look stately. It’s stunning, and yet this view makes me realise I’ve perhaps made a mistake. I’ve been travelling only a few hours now and only twenty minutes of that uphill, but I’m already a wreck. I still have 500 miles to go before I reach the Jardin des Tuileries in the centre of Paris. I’ve never cycled more than 12 miles in a day before; I’ve given myself a week. Yes, I think 1 was rather optimistic with my calculations too.

There’s a good reason I’m doing this though. I’ve set out to cycle the route of ‘La Marseillaise’, the most famous national anthem of them all. It’s a song you can sing from Argentina to Bhutan and everyone will know it. They might not speak French, but they can certainly shout its boisterous tune. It’s a song that pushes you to get louder, to pump your fist higher, with every line. It’s really the closest an anthem ever gets to a pop song: a melody so simple you can’t get it out of your blood after the first time you’ve heard it. You could play it on a French horn, a violin or even a tambourine and it’d be unmistakable.

Soon after it was written, an English historian wrote. ‘The sound of it will make the blood tingle in men’s veins, and whole armies will sing it, with eyes weeping and burning, with hearts defiant of death, despot and evil.’ A French general used to say it was worth 1.000 extra men in battle. A German poet once wrote that it was responsible for the death of 50.000 of his countrymen. Everyone from Wagner to the Beatles has stolen that melody, and it’s popped up, translated, in the US, Brazil and Russia. It symbolises France to the world, even if much of France apparently hates it. A lot of people here see it as vicious and violent – and to be fair to them, they’re right. ‘La Marseillaise’ is a seven-verse call to arms, trying to encourage people to fight by telling them invaders are coming ‘to slit the throats of our wives and children’. There’s even a children’s verse so kids can sing about hoping to share their dad’s coffin. It’s not the world’s most violent anthem by a long way – Western Sahara’s repeatedly urges people to ‘cut ofT the head of the invader’; Vietnam’s to build the path to glory …


You only have to look at other anthems to realise that. Dozens were written in similar circumstances – when a country was under threat or at war – but none match ‘La Marseillaise’ as they should if songwriting was such an easy task.

I don’t just mean famous anthems like The Star-Spangled Banner or China’s ‘March of the Volunteers’ (more on both in later chapters). Take Bulgaria’s ‘Dear Motherland’, written by a teacher, Tsvetan Radoslavov, as he marched to defend his country from a Serbian invasion. ‘Bulgarian brothers, let’s go /… a heroic battle is approaching, / for freedom, justice,’ read the lyrics to a plodding tune that can’t make up its mind whether it’s a hymn or a march. It’s hardly ‘Aux armes, citoyens!’

Romania’s ‘Wake Up, Romanian!’ fares somewhat better. It was written by a poet, Andrei Mureianu, during his country’s 1848 revolution against the Habsburg Empire – the same empire Rouget had been about to fight. ‘Now or never, make a new fate for yourself, / To which even your cruel enemies will bow,’ goes the first verse, and Andrei goes on to repeat that trick of using an insistent ‘now’ again and again. Now the cruel ones are trying … / To take away our language,’ goes a later verse. ‘Now or never, unite in feeling,’ adds one more. ‘“Life in freedom or death!” shout all.’ It’s stirring, certainly – it apparently caused thousands to rebel – but it was commonly known as ‘the Romanian Marseillaise’ and that says it all. If it were anywhere near as good as what Rouget created, no comparison would have been needed.

No, what Rouget did on the night of 25 April is unparalleled among anthems.

The next morning Rouget took the song to Mayor Dietrich. He loved it. Just as importantly, Mayor Dietrich’s wife loved it and worked up a proper arrangement on her clavichord. That night the mayor sang it at another gathering. Everyone there loved it too. Before Rouget had time to think, the song was printed up, and put in the hands of newspaper editors and town criers to ensure it reached the armies along the front. Just days after he’d written it, the song was out of Rouget’s hands for ever, spreading all over France, and down to Marseilles where it found its way into the welcoming arms of 517 men in particular. That doesn’t explain why Rouget’s name has disappeared from history, of course. Thar require a whole list of reasons, which could fairly be titled “Rouget’s Many, Many Mistakes”

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