Home > Free Essays > History > Western Europe > French Revolution: Role of Propaganda and Music

French Revolution: Role of Propaganda and Music Dissertation

Exclusively available on IvyPanda Available only on IvyPanda
Updated: Jul 10th, 2022


The use of propaganda has been an integral part of human history and though the public played no direct part they were still seduced and instructed by different forms of media. Back to ancient Greece for its philosophical and theoretical origins. Used effectively by Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, and the early Christians, propaganda became an integral part of the religious conflicts of the Reformation. The invention of the printing press was quickly adopted by Martin Luther in his fight against the Catholic Church and provided the ideal medium for the widespread use of propagandistic materials.

Each new medium of communication was quickly adopted for use by propagandists, especially during the American and French revolutions and later by Napoleon. By the end of the nineteenth century, improvements in the size and speed of the mass media had greatly increased the sophistication and effectiveness of propaganda.

The history of propaganda is based on three interweaving fundamentals: first, the mounting need, with the growth of civilization and the rise of nation-state, to win the battle for people’s minds; second, the increasing sophistication of the means of communication available to deliver propagandistic messages; and third, the increasing understanding of the psychology of propaganda and the commensurate application of such behavioral findings. Throughout history, these three elements have been combined in various ways to enhance and encourage the use of propaganda as a means of altering attitudes and for the creation of new ideas or perspectives.

Revolution is a religious faith (Billington, 1980). The modern revolutionary faith was born, not in France, but in 18th-century Germany. Frederick the Great, the antichristian occultist who turned his kingdom of Prussia into the foremost military machine of Europe, Legan to develop a philosophy of revolution as a secular, redemptive convulsion which would radically transform the world. Frederick’s ideas were then imported into France where. they were translated into action in the French Revolution, one of the most crucial turning points in history.

It was “the hard fact” of the French Revolution which “gave birth to the modern belief that secular revolution is historically possible” (Billington, 1980, p. 20). In many ways, the French Revolution set precedents for those which were created in its image. Beginning ostensibly as a revolution for ‘democracy” in the name of “the People,” it soon revealed the irresistible drive toward centralization that is the hallmark of modern revolutions.

This paper is designed to look into the aspects of propaganda played in bringing about a people’s Revolution, how the masses were made aware and a public opinion was created through music. And analysing the role music played in creation of propaganda and public opinion. In doing so we have followed the work of Constant Pierre, Musique des fetes et ceremonies de la revolution francaise: oeuvres de Gossec, Cherubini, Lesueur, Mehul, Catel, etc, (1899) where he has documented the compositions along with their nature of writing by different composers during the revolution. We will do this in the form of identifying the kind of music that was played and the eminent composers whose works moved the masses. The different ways in which the music was brought to the people i.e. press and performance and the effect of both.

Revolution and Propaganda

French Revolution

1789–1799 saw the end of the monarchy in France. The revolution was initiated to establish a constitutional monarchy, where the powers of the king would be limited by a parliament. By late 1792, however, demands for long-pending reforms resulted in the proclamation of the First Republic and the death sentence of King Louis XVI. The republic was weakened to a great extent due to violence of the revolution, attacks by other nations, and bitter factional struggles, riots, and counter-revolutionary uprisings across France. This aided to bring the extremists to power, and the Reign of Terror followed. French armies then succeeded in stopping the foreign invaders and one of the generals, Napoleon Bonaparte, seized power in 1799.

In the decades prior to the French Revolution, France was occupied in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) and the American Revolution (1775–1783. The price of these wars was financial crisis in France. The French government borrowed large sums of money at high interest to finance them. By 1787 the French monarchy and government was bankrupt, and King Louis XVI and his government were forced to seek fresh remedy to their problems.

In 1788 King Louis XVI summoned the States General (three ‘estates’ of clergy (first), nobles (second), and commons (third)) in order to raise taxes. By calling the States General, King Louis XVI was admitting that the monarchy was in a distressed position, leaving him at the pity of his enemies in France.

The States General met in 1789. it was in this meeting that the representatives of the third estate (all the people of France who were neither nobles nor Catholic priests) insisted that the three estates should be merged into a single national assembly. The demand was intended to force the king to recognize the rights of the French nation and people. Priests from the first estate too joined the deputies of the third estate, along with many liberal-minded nobles from the second estate.

Louis was forced to back down and accept the existence of the National Assembly. But at the same time large numbers of soldiers were gathering on the hills surrounding Paris. The combination of the attempt to stop the formation of a national assembly and the presence of troops around Paris created a tense atmosphere in Paris by the second week of July 1789.

These actions of Louis led to the storming of the Bastille prison by the Paris mob on 14 July 1789. The Bastille was the symbol of the tyrannical power of the monarchy. This was followed by the creation of a revolutionary city government in Paris, known as the Paris Commune, and a number of peasant uprisings outside Paris.

In August the National Assembly introduced the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’, which contained the ideas of liberty and equality. The king refused to agree to the Declaration, however, and in October there were more uprisings in Paris. In 1791 the royal family attempted to flee the, but Louis XVI was captured and was later forced to accept a new constitution.

The new constitution established a constitutional monarchy. It reduced Louis’s powers and gave authority to the National Assembly over lawmaking and financial matters. Power had passed from the hands of the monarchy to the representatives of the French people. Under the constitution, France was reorganized into 83 départements. This was for the purposes of efficiency and to mark a break with the past. The constitution also reformed the court system by abolishing the old parliaments which had been dominated by the nobility. It also gave government control over the Roman Catholic Church by requiring both judges and priests to be elected to office, as well as extending religious tolerance to Protestants and Jews. The National Assembly also took ownership of much of the Catholic Church’s vast lands and property, which were sold off in order to pay off the nation’s debts.

During this period a segment of the aristocracy moved abroad, and tried to plead other nations to fight against the revolutionary government. Many of these aristocrats settled in Prussian (German) towns in the Rhineland. They used their fortunes to raise armies and produce propaganda pamphlets against the revolution. They wanted to get the Prussians and Austrians to launch a war to restore Louis XVI and the monarchy to its pre-1789 position in France. The émigrés were particularly confident of getting the Austrians to attack the revolution, as the Austrian emperor, Joseph II, was the brother of Marie Antoinette, the French queen.

The revolution’s supporters outside France were also suffering increased attack, and France eventually went to war with Austria and Prussia (who supported Louis XVI) in April 1792. The Austrian and Prussian armies invaded France, and for a time the war threatened to destroy the revolution. The armies of the revolution lost every battle they fought with the Austrians and Prussians, and it seemed inevitable that Paris and the revolution would soon fall. By 2 September 1792 the Austrians had captured the fortress at Verdun and the road to Paris was open to them.

However, on 10 August the Paris mob had stormed the Tuileries Palace, where Louis XVI had been living, and had imprisoned the king and his family. The constitutional monarchy established by the 1791 constitution was brought to an end. On 20 September 1792 the French won a crucial victory at the Battle of Valmy and effectively saved the revolution. A National Convention had been formed by election and, on 21 September, the Convention abolished the monarchy and declared France a republic. Louis XVI was put on trial, found guilty of treason, and executed at the guillotine on 21 January 1793.

After Louis XVI’s death, there arose a struggle for power within the National Convention between the moderate Girondins and the more radical Jacobins, led by Maximilien Robespierre, Georges Jaques Danton, and Jean Paul Marat. The Jacobins arrested the Girondin leaders in June 1793, and control of the country was passed to the infamous Committee of Public Safety, which was headed by Robespierre, Lazare Carnot, and Bertrand Barère. The committee announced a policy of terror against all those seen as rebels or opponents of the revolution, supporters of the king, and Girondin sympathizers. During the Reign of Terror, thousands of citizens were sent to the guillotine and many more died in prison without being formally brought to trial. One of the more famous victims of the Terror was Marie Antoinette, the widow of Louis XVI.

Propaganda during French Revolution

Propaganda first became associated with politics during the French Revolution. The revolutionaries used propaganda as a means to propagate the system of equality of liberty. This, as in so many other things, the French revolutionaries was replacing religion with politics. In 1792, French radicals called fro the Propagators of Reason, who would form the cadres of ‘la propagande revolutionnaire’. Propaganda in political sense was part of a programme of public instruction that aimed at total regeneration of the French people. All possible means was mobilised in an effort to produce a people of virtue: festivals, songs, medals, ribbons, speeches, newspapers, prints, posters, even the design of plate ware and playing cards could carry the revolutionary gospel.

At the beginning of the Revolution, there were no systematic plans for public instruction in revolutionary virtue. What is interesting about this early period is the spontaneous way in which new symbols and images were created.

During the Revolution, propaganda and promulgation of political ideas among the common people played a major role in initiating a mass uprising. Some historians believe that the ideological reason behind French revolution was enlightenment, including both mainstream enlightenment and intellectually iconoclastic and highly influential through works like that of Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Though some historians like Robert Darnton (Darnton 1971) suggests that the writings of the philosophes never called for social or political revolution. He rather emphasized on the frustration and embittered writers, who were lured to Paris by the success of the philosophes, were disillusioned and hence took to writing pamphlets attacking the social and the political. But it is widely believed that it was the pamphlets, newssheets, foreign based newspapers and other underground literature encouraged the French people against the establishment and the elites (Maza 1993). David Hudson has shown that the courtier and the minister hired their own pamphleteers to rebut their adversaries (Hudson 1974). Hence a re-evaluation of the origin of the Revolution shows:

  • Its main source was not enlightenment alone.
  • The attack on socio-political status quo was far more complex than just a simple division of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’.

Research has shown that it was from the nascent report of the public sphere – the salons, the academies, coffee houses – gave birth to a Republic of Letters, which laid down the blueprint of a democratic public sphere. Due to its commercialized birth to socio-political status quo it formally adhered to principles of equality and inclusiveness and commoditised products of the cult-works of art, music, literature and philosophy thus developing elite public sphere.

The public was used as a connotation for a ‘court of law’ in such phrases as Le tribunal de la nation. Print as such by putting and applying forward varied events and functionalized issues to the lay readers became a powerful tool in propagating the need to reform. Its political impact was such that it called upon ‘public opinion’ to perform a function once invested in the king (or the Bureaucratic government).

Music as a means of Propaganda

Music and singing were fundamentally important parts of the revolutionary experience. Amateurs and formally trained composers alike produced thousands of songs and hymns to celebrate or criticize the Revolution. Men and women sang during revolutionary festivals, in bars, cafés, and theatres, and they fought with others who dared to sing royalist or reactionary songs. Theatre audiences struck up enthusiastic choruses when news of military victories was announced, and mothers taught the latest tunes to their sons and daughters.

Songs, Anthems, Hymns

Revolutionary music was highly accessible to all. Certainly, some popular songs seem to have been composed by ordinary citizens who left no more than a name and perhaps occupation or residence—”Bellrose, singer,” or “Derant the Younger, in Saint-Germain-en-Laye”—but others were produced by government bureaucrats, journalists, or theatrical authors whose learning was equal to that of composers of hymns. Marseillaise composed by a reasonably well-educated army captain, possessed of a relatively complex tune and quite learned lyrics, this piece of music crossed all social barriers: performed as a hymn at festivals and on the stage, it was also adopted as a popular song in parks and cafés and taught by republican mothers to their young sans-culottes.

If the form and content of music can no longer be presumed to give us sufficient information about revolutionary culture and society, what then can we learn from music? As the example of the Marseillaise suggests, we can learn a great deal by considering how, where, and why it was performed. During the Revolution, as today, music did not necessarily become popular because it adhered to objective aesthetic standards. Songs became popular because they spoke to a current mood, or because they recalled a symbolically important event, or because they seemed to express a keenly felt political aspiration. Singers revealed such associations in a variety of ways, using particular kinds of performances or specific arenas to make their meaning as clear as possible.

So, for example, when revolutionaries sang Ça Ira as they assisted in preparations for the Festival of Federation, they expressed not only their hopes for the future but their commitment to the revolutionary cause. When they performed that song in a café, they were warning royalists to stay away from what was now their territory. And when, after Thermidor, young toughs sang The Alarm of the People against soldier’s choruses of the Marseillaise, onlookers knew that the singers were defending competing interpretations of the Republic’s past and the Revolution’s future.

What makes musical culture especially significant is the accessibility of singing. Although there were many other ways to express political opinions or revolutionary aspirations, alone and collectively—speeches, pamphlets, newspapers, festivals, cartoons—only singing was available to everyone. Whether revolutionary or royalist, one needed neither government contacts and publishers, nor even literacy to publicly express an opinion through song.

One needed only the knowledge of a tune and a quick memory for new lyrics. Music and singing practices highlight different political opinions and the ways in which even the meanest citizen could contribute to the creation of revolutionary culture, and they illuminate the tensions between different governments and the unruly populace that were so fundamental to the revolutionary process.

With the mass departure of the aristocracy, who were the patrons of the artists, after the Revolution, the economic base of thousands of French musicians was removed. No longer did they have stable writing or playing minuets for the nobility. On the other hand there was the new democratic Republic, surrounded by enemies, and engaged in a desperate struggle for survival.

The Jacobin government realized that if victory was to be achieved, then all the people would have to be enlisted and inspired with the conviction that the nation’s deliverance was his own personal salvation, that it must use every possible means of firing the whole nation with that heroic enthusiasm without which the unarmed, untrained people’s army could not defeat the paid, armed, professional force of the Prussian and Austrian invaders. Not the least of these means was music. From among the people themselves came militant songs—mass songs such as La Marseillaise, the Carmagnole, Ca Ira, Le Chant du D´epart, etc.

For the Festivals of the First Republic the people wanted music of an almost religious character, exalted, pompous and impressive. It was thought that in these solemn and fervent patriotic hymns music was recurring to its original state as an expression of the common feeling of the people. The people themselves took part in the performance of Le Chant du D´epart, La Marseillaise, and L’Hymn du Aˆout. Here we see the most important quality of the music of the French Revolution – the use of massive musical effects.

For instance, Mehul conceived a chorus of 300,000 voices to take part in a Fete de l’Etre Suprme, and in the final chorus, the trumpets having given the signal, the crowd would with one impulse join its 300,000 voices to those of the musicians, while 200 drums would beat and formidable cannon shots would resound, representing the national vengeance and announcing to the republicans that the day of glory has arrived.

Composers such as Gossec, Mehul, Lesueur and Cherubini set to work for their new patron, the State, writing marches, symphonies, hymns, joyful and funereal odes, cantatas and great pageants expressing the feelings of the people as a whole. These were performed on the Champ de Mars before huge audiences. Given an entirely new function, music assumed a completely new form, structure, orchestration; it became an instrument of national life, a representation and a weapon in the hands of the revolutionary bourgeois state.

The revolutionary leaders took music seriously – they realised it is a very useful tool for changing the way people think and feel, in other words a useful means to ignite people. In 1795 a school was set up to train bands for the new army, the National Guard. A new law was passed forcing audiences to sing republican hymns in theatres before operas were performed. Composers were encouraged to write revolutionary songs – and between 1789 and 1800 more than 1300 songs were written. The most famous of these was called Le Marseillaise, which is still the French national anthem.

Songs were written to be sung aloud or performed for others, and this oral transmission made their circulation among the illiterate possible. During the Old Regime songs facilitated the dissemination of critical lyrics otherwise likely to attract the attention of the police. In addition, public performances facilitated the exploitation of a song’s suggestive possibilities. The interaction of these oral traditions with the medium of print created the dynamic revolutionary-song culture.

Newspaper publication of the songs rose dramatically during the period 1789-90 and declined steadily to reach a nadir during the Terror, the printing of songs gained momentum with the progress of the Revolution, reaching a zenith at the same moment the journals seemed to disappear. The increased production of songs was the most striking because royalist song writers, who had been responsible for almost a third of the songs written in 1790-91, had almost entirely disappeared by 1792. This can be found in the work of Constant Pierre, Hymns et chansons de la Revolution francaise (1904).

Between July 1789 and July 1790 the popular practices of singing were very much those of the Old Regime – only the subject matter of the songs had changed. Popular songs written in 1789 – “composed” by setting new verses to an already well-known tune – celebrated noteworthy event receded into the past. A few older songs, deemed relevant to current events, were also revived and played, or sung, at various celebrations and popular gatherings. Among these were the opera aria “Ou peut-on etre mieux qu’au sien de sa famille?” (“Where is the one better off than in the bosom of his family?”), played in the honour of the Royal family and the Mayor of Paris.

Although, almost all songs written in 1789 celebrated the Revolution, a few politicians who noticed them considered popular singing a generally suspect activity. The Abbe Faucet claimed that “while partisans of the old order and old ways amuse themselves with songs, epigrams, and slander, the friends of the Constitution and of the habits that are appropriated of a newly liberated people produce writings that are serious, austere, and just.” (Fauchet, 1790)

Then in the mid-1790s the street songs underwent a change. In the first fete of the Federation a new song was sung by all that was called Carillon national. Everyone sang ca ira, ca ira, ca ira. (Chronicle de Paris, 9-July-1790)

While hymns were quickly adapted and adopted by revolutionaries, informal songs had a more complex career. Street songs had been a widely shared means of entertainment and political expression under the old regime, but educated commentators scorned them, arguing that songs could only express popular passions and were incapable of true seriousness. Such prejudice lingered after 1789 among journalists and legislators, who hoped that “the people” would find less frivolous means of expression.

This attitude began to change in the summer of 1790, when revolutionaries adopted a new anthem called Ça ira. Catching on during preparations for the Festival of Federation, most versions of the song (there were several) were hopeful and claimed that tensions between members of the former estates would simply fade away as revolutionary change took place.

“Ca ira” was an extremely popular song, which needed to retain only its melody and the refrain. The verses could be, and were, altered with great frequency. This song was hopeful about the future of the Revolution and sought conciliation between social orders.

The printed version of the song is:

Ah! Ca ira, ça ira, ça ira

Réjouissons nous le bon temps viendra

Les gens des Halles jadis a quia

Peuvent chanter alléluia.

The English translation is as follows:

Oh! Things will work out

Let’s rejoice that the good times have come

The market people, once down and out

Can sing Hallelujah. (Journal des Halles no. 1, 1790)

The Chronique de Paris, in describing the work at the fete added, “We can’t repeat all the songs that were being sung…; it’s enough to say that the aristocrats were not spared.” (10 July 1790).

For the next two years “ca ira” was the emblematic song of the various parties of the Revolution, distinct from traditional songs and singing practices that continued to hold their place in revolutionary culture. It was sung to demonstrate political positions and attitude towards the Revolution.

Revolutionaries saw the singing of “ca ira” as a sign of faith in the progress of the “Revolution, and of hostility toward a recalcitrant clergy and aristocracy.”(Chronicle de Paris, 9 November 1790). Royalists on the other hand saw it as a sign of a popular, blind commitment to demagogues: “CA IRA: trivial refrain with which the fanatics of a misguided liberty have defended an ignorant people, who repeat it mechanically.” (Dictionnaire laconique, 1792) and both the parties saw it as a gauge of the advance, o retreat, of the Revolution.

What is of special importance in this context is that the lyrics of “ca ira” remained almost radically an element of oral culture. This predominantly oral transmission of “ca ira” gave the song a topical and ideological flexibility that was central to its continuing popularity during the early years of the Revolution.

As France prepared for a sustained crisis of foreign war in 1792, there was a rising question regarding the song that would/could lead the army of the Revolution. It was Rouget de Lisle who wrote “Marseillaise”, which was a unique and powerful song. According to Monsieur Rouge the tune of the song has a character that is at once touching and warlike. The singing of “Marseillaise”, like “ca ira”, became a symbol of unity and attachment to the Revolution (Dictionnaire laconique 1792, p. 260). These songs helped to create unity that stretched throughout the nation as the Parisians knew that they sang the same songs as the French soldiers had taken to the front.

Songs were drafted during this period to create republican citizenry. In this context songs were turned to variety of ends: disseminating republican principles and morals, commemorating the martyrs of the Revolution and celebrating the decade and existence of the Supreme Being. Then a debate arose between the two differing conceptions of what the meaning and goal of the Revolution should be. The “ca ira” had been able to encompass orally, if not in print, differing conceptions of the Revolution. But, in a society that had experienced the violence of both Terror and Reaction, the explicit intertwining of songs and politics and the complex of hopes and fears about the implications of political positions had made peaceful co-existence impossible at either levels.

Performance dominated during the period of uncertainty and debate about the Revolution’s direction. For singers of “ca ira” before 1792, as well as fro singers of the “Marseillaise” and “Reviel du ira” in 1795-96, popular cultural invention and popular violence became ways of establishing symbolic models and thus of laying claim to the meaning of the Revolution. During the first years of the revolution (1792-95), uncertainty and debate were silenced, and cultural production was channelled in very specific directions.

But the intensity of the efforts to propagate republicanism and prosecute the war created new means of cultural growth and preservation, and revolutionary-song texts flourished. Both were closed by the final years and the official songs of the revolution were decreed.

The revolutionary leaders built huge new parade grounds in the major cities, and organised massive musical ceremonies with names like Festival of the Supreme Being. Composers like Mehul, Gossec and Lesueur wrote marches and huge choral cantatas for these occasions. They used massive orchestras of wind instruments, which were more suitable for outdoor use.

A typical example of French revolutionary music is Gossec’s Hymn for Thermidor. This and other momentous pieces had a big influence on the French romantic composer Berlioz. He used similar massive forces in his big public works, like the Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale.

For clarity, we may divide these thousands of compositions into two rough categories: hymns and songs. Hymns were more formal in both composition and performance. Each hymn had its own music, which was usually orchestrated, and learned, memorized poetic lyrics. Further, hymns were most often performed during festivals. Songs, on the other hand, were casual compositions that consisted of new verses rhymed to a well-known tune.

These compositions were most popular among amateurs, who sang them in streets, parks, cafés, and public squares. What hymns and songs had in common was their ability to circulate political information and opinions through a society that was only partly literate. Catchy tunes helped listeners remember instructive or polemical lyrics as they inspired political passions and military fervour.

The meaning and content of hymns and songs changed repeatedly throughout the 1790s, reflecting and helping to shape the political currents of the Revolution. Hymns were the first to receive explicit attention from revolutionaries, who had several reasons to consider their pedagogic potential soon after the taking of the Bastille: not only had hymns played an important part in royal and religious ceremonial, but enlightened philosophes claimed that music stirred and possibly even exalted the emotions.

But revolutionaries were not solely looking backward; deputies to the new National Assembly also recognized that hymns could circulate ideas among the thousands gathered in open-air arenas, where rhetoric might be lost on the slightest breeze. Thus the first great ceremony of the Revolution—the Festival of Federation, held on 14 July 1790—had music especially composed for it by Joseph Gossec. Like so many songs during the early phase of the Revolution, Gossec’s Te Deum married old and new: he used a traditional, liturgical Latin text, and he set that text to music scored for wind instruments and drums rather than organ, so that it might more easily be heard outdoors.

Social and political tensions did not disappear, however. Rather, as they intensified, royalists adopted their own anthem: O Richard, ô mon Roi. O Richard was an operatic aria that claimed the king had been abandoned by all but the most faithful. Meanwhile, revolutionaries throughout France continued to perform Ça Ira under all kinds of political circumstances, often in direct opposition to royalists singing O Richard. Ça ira‘s cheerily optimistic lyrics gave way to a verse that exhorted listeners to “hang the aristocrats”; such performances encouraged pro-revolutionary, educated elites to reconsider their disdain for popular singing. Many began to express a new faith in the ability of street songs to arouse and sustain revolutionary fervour.

In one account of a festival Pierre has pointed that in one counts five hearing for three hymns (the Song of the Victories by Mehul, Hymns of liberties of Gossec, etc.), and seven for the fine Clumt ih. Juillct by Gossec. The Marseillais figured sixteen times on the program, and the Song of the Depart had twenty executions (Pierre, 1899).

When war was declared in the spring of 1792, revolutionaries began to search for a more serious composition to accompany soldiers into battle. Although Jean-Claude Rouget de Lisle composed the famous Marseillaise (originally known as “The War Song of the Army of the Rhine”) in April, it did not become popular until troops from Marseilles brought it to Paris that summer. Renowned for their revolutionary enthusiasm and their contribution to the insurrection of 10 August, the volunteers from Marseilles taught others the rousing new anthem, whose title would evoke their role in its popularization.

The revolutionaries embarked on the republican experiment after the overthrow of the monarchy, musical culture reached its zenith. The Marseillaise, with its learned lyrics and martial tune, lent new seriousness to popular singing practices; this was one of the few compositions of the Revolution that was equally successful as both hymn and popular song. Meanwhile, republican celebrations of the sans-culottes raised the status of all kinds of “popular culture.”

Singing and song-writing were practiced widely. Sans-culottes sang in clubs and popular societies; private citizens composed songs that celebrated republican virtues; booksellers claimed that simply to buy their revolutionary songbooks was a patriotic act; theatres organized performances of music that commemorated revolutionary events or celebrated republican “martyrs,” such as Jean-Paul Marat and Michel Le Pelletier. Hymns also reflected the concerns of the new era by celebrating current events and by shedding the liturgical associations of earlier years. Hymns, like the one Ponce-Denis-Echouard Lebrun composed to celebrate the first anniversary of the King’s execution, now evoked the example of the ancients or a deist Supreme Being rather than delivering thanks to a traditional Christian god.

By this time, almost all revolutionaries praised singing as an ideal means to rouse republican enthusiasm. Songs and hymns allowed performers to proclaim revolutionary ideals and unified audiences; singing was available to literate and illiterate alike; the simplest tune could carry a sense of the Revolution into the most mundane tasks of daily life. And because singing could also be a group activity, it helped to affirm the collective solidarity of those participating. But even in the midst of this musical frenzy, some officials worried about certain aspects of popular songs. In particular, moderate deputies to the National Convention who hoped to normalize political life and demobilize popular activists in the winter of 1793–94, worried that singing encouraged the very activism they were trying to quell.

Concerns about the relationship between singing and unofficial activism only intensified after Robespierre’s fall. As growing numbers of people expressed anger at the political extremes a new song emerged: The Alarm of the People (Le Réveil du Peuple). The Alarm became the anthem of young reactionaries. A highly visible presence in many cities, these reactionaries terrorized café and theatre owners whose establishments still displayed symbols of radical republicanism. That such episodes of popular violence were often accompanied by performances of The Alarm of the People, or by battles between singers of The Alarm and singers of the Marseillaise or other patriotic songs, seemed proof positive to anxious officials that singing was an incitation to lawlessness and violence.

All these hymns were combinations of simplicity and ideals, had an object to glorify virtues, both moral and civic, the valiant actions, as the commemoration of events which were historic, political and social in nature. Thus invoking the masses to turn to the Fatherland, or pay homage to courage of the heroes who died as victims of the public cause; they excite the worship of the laws and the glory of the Republic (Pierre, 1899).

As battles over The Alarm of the People and the Marseillaise dragged on through the spring and summer of 1795, the deeply divided National Convention wavered, throwing its weight behind one composition and then the other. The Directory brought the battles decisively to an end in the winter of 1796 by arresting singers of The Alarm and requiring nightly theatrical performances of the Marseillaise and other republican music that finally bored audiences to silence. Now, revolutionary music culture began to lose its vigour.


French fondness for public spectacles was gratified when the Revolution by the inauguration of magnificent national festivals, fro which music was provided by composers like Gossec, Mehul, Catel, Le Sueur and Cherubini, largely in from of huge coral numbers and hymns to be sung by the empire populace (Grout and Williams 2003, p.335). Following the revolution, Parisians were able to enjoy a great variety of theatrical events. They produced grand opera along with ballets and other types of dramatic spectacles.

The French Revolution of 1789 was a cultural watershed. What was left of the old tradition of Lully and Rameau was finally swept away, to be rediscovered only in the twentieth century. The Gluckian school and opéra comique survived, but they immediately began to reflect the turbulent events around them. Established composers such as Grétry and Dalayrac were drafted in to write patriotic propaganda pieces for the new regime. A typical example is Gossec’s Le triomphe de la République (1793) which celebrated the crucial Battle of Valmy the previous year. A new generation of composers appeared, led by Étienne Méhul and the Italian-born Luigi Cherubini.

They applied Gluck’s principles to opéra comique, giving the genre a new dramatic seriousness and musical sophistication. The stormy passions of Méhul’s operas of the 1790s, such as Stratonice and Ariodant, earned their composer the title of the first musical Romantic. Cherubini’s works too held a mirror to the times. Lodoiska was a “rescue opera” set in Poland, in which the imprisoned heroine is freed and her oppressor overthrown. Cherubini’s masterpiece, Médée (1797), reflected the bloodshed of the Revolution only too successfully: it was always more popular abroad than in France. The lighter Les deux journées of 1800 was part of a new mood of reconciliation in the country.

The final years of the Revolution witnessed a de-politicization of songs and hymns that paralleled the declining political activism of France. At the upper echelon of society, educated poets and composers produced pastoral, romantic, or comic songs purged of any trace of political opinion. Working people gathered in bars and cafés to sing drinking songs or revolutionary songs that were simply old favourites. In all popular arenas, the only topical songs were those that celebrated France’s victorious armies and the increasingly famous Napoleon Bonaparte.

Eminent Composers

The power of music as a propaganda tool was not lost on the leaders of the French revolt. “During the violent phases of the Revolution,” Donakowski, “musicians enjoyed relative peace if they seemed willing top promotes the doctrines of the new covenant” (72, p.48). Many were willing. As a result, countless songs and instrumental pieces were written to commemorate specific battles and heroes, to carry the message of the Revolution to every member of the largely literate populace, and generally to keep the flames of enthusiasm burning bright.

Jean-Francois Le Sueur (1760-1837), was one of the well known composers who leaped to the call with hymns and other music for the great revolutionary festivals. Others were Gossec, Catel, Mehul and Cherubini. These men included leading composers of France’s favourite musical genre: opera. Here, too they proved to be men of hour, reflecting the spirit of the times with spectacles on patriotic themes.

The interface between music and politics during the transition between the Ancien Régime and the modern world, pivoted around the French Revolution, forms the background of this section. The musical selections include several works by François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829) that embody a clear political message, as well as works that have a tangential connection with the contemporaneous political climate. The career of Gossec was entangled with politics from a very early period. In fact, his biography in The New Grove Dictionary of Music is divided into two phases: before and after the French Revolution. Gossec was particularly successful in exploiting the theatricality of music through spectacular sound effects, creating bombastic textures that could evoke national pride in his audience.

He was at the forefront of musical activities in France during the revolutionary period, helping to create a type of civic music through songs, wind symphonies, and choral music intended for outdoor performances involving massive forces. (Pierre, 1899) The Suite d’airs révolutionnaires, as well as the Trois hymnes à la liberté, are clear examples of music that is politically motivated. Gossec’s feeling for the power of instrumental color is evident in this excerpt from a review by Fétis, published in 1829, regarding Gossec’s Tuba mirum:

The audience was alarmed by the dreadful and sinister effect of the three trombones together with four clarinets, four trumpets, four horns and eight bassoons, hidden in the distance and in a lofty part of the church, to announce the last judgment, while the orchestra expressed terror with a muted tremolo in all the strings.

The son of a small farmer, Gossec was born at the village of Vergnies, in Belgian Hainaut. Showing an early taste for music, he became a choir-boy in Antwerp. He went to Paris in 1751 and was taken on by the great composer, Jean-Philippe Rameau. He became the conductor of a private band kept by La Popelinière, a wealthy amateur, and became gradually determined to do something to revive the study of instrumental music in France.

Gossec’s own first symphony was performed in 1754, and as conductor to the Prince de Condé’s orchestra he produced several operas and other compositions of his own. He imposed his influence on French music with remarkable success. He premiered his Requiem in 1760, a piece ninety minutes in length, which made him famous overnight.

Gossec founded the Concert des Amateurs in 1770 and in 1773 he reorganised the Concert Spirituel together with Simon Leduc and Pierre Gaviniès. In this concert series he presented and conducted his own symphonies as well as those by his contemporaries, especially works by Joseph Haydn, whose music became more and more popular in Paris, and finally even superseded Gossec’s symphonic work. In the 1780s, Gossec’s symphonic output decreased and he concentrated on operas.

He organized the École de Chant in 1784, together with Etienne Méhul, was conductor of the band of the Garde Nationale at the French Revolution, and was appointed (again with Méhul and Luigi Cherubini) inspector of the Conservatoire de Musique on its creation in 1795. He was an original member of the Institut and a chevalier of the Legion of Honour. In 1815, after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, the Conservatoire was closed for some time by Louis XVIII, and the eighty-one year-old Gossec had to retire. Until 1817 he worked on his last composition, a third Te Deum, and was supported by a pension granted by the Conservatoire.

Some of his techniques seem to have anticipated the innovations of the Romantic era: he wrote a Te Deum for 1200 singers and 300 wind instruments; several oratorios include instructions for physical separation of multiple choirs, including invisible ones behind the stage. He wrote several works in honor of the French revolution, including Le Triomphe de la République, and L’Offrande à la Liberté.

He was little known outside France, and his own numerous compositions, sacred and secular, were overshadowed by those of more famous composers; but he was an inspiration to many, and powerfully stimulated the revival of instrumental music.

Obviously, this was the kind of music intended to have the greatest possible impact on a large audience, by pulling together all their feelings of collectivity, communal togetherness, and national identity. Conversely, other selections in the program (such as the works by Mozart and Beethoven) address a more subjective aspect, elaborating on the feelings of the individual as part of a community. In this way, tonight’s program articulates the dynamics between the private and the public, the subjective and the collective, which is always at the center of political upheavals and revolutionary changes that have shaped much of our history.

Charles-Simon Catel was one of the founding members of the Conservatoire. His contribution to band music along with Gossec is immense. Two of his works, Lisle, Yode patriotique by Catel were songs t celebrate triumph for the fete of the vendemiaire (Pierrre, 1899).

Maria Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), a Florentine who had studied under Sarti, proved to be a master counterpoint, an excellent church musician, and a gifted composer fro the theatre. He had successfully produced a number of serious and comic operas.

Etienne Henri (or Nicolas) Méhul (June 22, 1763 – October 18, 1817) was a French composer, “the most important opera composer in France during the Revolution.” He was also the first composer to be called a Romantic. Cherubini, according to Pierre, had written around 9 compositions. Some historians like M. J. Drop believes that he has written 22 hymns and Lebrun believes ha has come up with 12 (Pierre, 1899)

Méhul composed a number of songs for the festivals of the republic cantatas, and five symphonies in the years 1797 and 1808 to 1810.The First Symphony was revived in one of Felix Mendelssohn’s concerts with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1838 and 1846 to an audience including Robert Schumann, who was impressed by the piece. In his mature symphonies, Mehul continued the path Haydn (the Paris Symphonies, 1785-86, for example), Mozart (Symphony No. 40, K.550, 1788) had taken, two composers who enjoyed great popularity in France in the early 19th century (Pierre, 1899). The Symphony No.3 and 4 was only rediscovered by Charlton in 1979.


The relationship between music and politics, albeit a strong one, has been always difficult to pinpoint. Music, as a non-objective art, has a tremendous power to awaken instinctive responses in the audience. Through this study we enumerate that it can be justly termed as a tool for political and propagandist manipulation at several junctures in history, and it can also give voice to genuine feelings of national identity and pride. In fact, for much of its history, music has been at the service of political or religious classes, as it provided those in power with a convenient and highly effective means of ideological indoctrination.

One has only to take a cursory glance at the myriad functions that music fulfilled in the Baroque courts or in the politically charged environment of the Enlightenment to understand how much of what was composed at the time was motivated by political needs. On a whole we can conjecture that music had played a vital role during French Revolution in creating public opinion through political propaganda and had shown a way to the revolutionaries of the world the way to reach the masses and ignite their feelings.


Darnton, R 1971, ‘In Search of Enlightenment: Recent Attempts to Create a Social History of Ideas’, Journal of Modern History, vol. 43.

Maza, S 1993, Private Lives and Public Affairs, University of California Press.

Hudson, D 1973-4, In Defence of Reform: French Government Propaganda during the Maupeou Crisis, French Historical Studies VIII, pp. 51-76.

Billington, J 1980, Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith, Basic Books.

Mongredien, J 1996, French Music from the Enlightenment to Romanticism 1789-1830, Amadeus Press.

Kennedy, E 1989, A cultural history of the French revolution, Yale University Press.

Doyle, W 1990, The Oxford history of the French revolution, Oxford University Press.

Pierre, C 1904, Hymns et chansons de la Revolution francaise, Imperial Nationale, Paris.

Pierre, C 1899, Musique des Fêtes et Cérémonies de la Révolution Française, Imprimerie Nationale.

Grout, D J, Williams, H W 2003, French Opera during French Revolution, Columbia University Press.

Mason, L 1996, Singing the French Revolution: Popular Culture and Politics, 1787-1799, Cornell University Press.

Smith, R L and Potter, C 2006, French Music since Berlioz, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Johnson, J H 1995, Listening In Paris: A Cultural History, University of California Press.

Grout, D J, Williams, H W 2003, A Short History of Opera, Columbia University Press, Ch. 17, p. 335.

Christensen, T S 2003, The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory, Cambridge University Press, pp. 61-62.

Donakowski, C 1978, ‘A Muse for the Masses: Ritual and Music in an Age of Democratic Revolution, 1770-1870’, The Journal of Religion vol. 58:4, p. 48.

Fauchet, A 1790, Journal de Paris.

Chronicle de Paris, 1790.

Chronicle de Paris, 1790.

Chronicle de Paris, 1790.

Journal des Halles vol. 1, 1790.

Dictionnaire laconique, 1792.

This dissertation on French Revolution: Role of Propaganda and Music was written and submitted by your fellow student. You are free to use it for research and reference purposes in order to write your own paper; however, you must cite it accordingly.
Removal Request
If you are the copyright owner of this paper and no longer wish to have your work published on IvyPanda.
Request the removal

Need a custom Dissertation sample written from scratch by
professional specifically for you?

801 certified writers online

Cite This paper
Select a referencing style:


IvyPanda. (2022, July 10). French Revolution: Role of Propaganda and Music. https://ivypanda.com/essays/french-revolution-role-of-propaganda-and-music/


IvyPanda. (2022, July 10). French Revolution: Role of Propaganda and Music. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/french-revolution-role-of-propaganda-and-music/

Work Cited

"French Revolution: Role of Propaganda and Music." IvyPanda, 10 July 2022, ivypanda.com/essays/french-revolution-role-of-propaganda-and-music/.

1. IvyPanda. "French Revolution: Role of Propaganda and Music." July 10, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/french-revolution-role-of-propaganda-and-music/.


IvyPanda. "French Revolution: Role of Propaganda and Music." July 10, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/french-revolution-role-of-propaganda-and-music/.


IvyPanda. 2022. "French Revolution: Role of Propaganda and Music." July 10, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/french-revolution-role-of-propaganda-and-music/.


IvyPanda. (2022) 'French Revolution: Role of Propaganda and Music'. 10 July.

Powered by CiteTotal, best essay citation maker
More related papers