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Ah! Ça ira, ça ira, ça ira!

By Jenny M Wedgbury, on 1 March 2016

Anonymous Bon, nous voila d’accord (Good, now we are in tune), 1789 Coloured etching, UCL Art Museum

Bon, nous voila d’accord (Good, now we are in tune), 1789
Coloured etching, UCL Art Museum

Ah! Ça ira, ça ira, ça ira! (Oh! it will go well today, it will go well, it will go well!)

On Thursday 25th February, UCL Chamber Music Club performed a special concert of French Revolutionary music for a public audience in UCL Art Museum. The concert was part of the public programme for the exhibition Revolution under a King: French Prints 1789-92. The repertoire comprised pieces by contemporary composers such as François-Joseph Gossec, J. Rouget de Lisle and Th. Desorgues amongst others.

We wanted to bring the prints in the exhibition to life through music. The responsiveness of music for public spectacle and as a tool to reflect sentiment mirrored the use of print as propaganda during the years of the French Revolution. In the print above, The Three Estates are shown playing the same tune, symbolising their agreement. The member of the clergy (First Estate), playing an instrument known as a serpent (whose implication of duplicity would have been clear to contemporary viewers), faces the oboe-playing aristocrat (Second Estate), while the man in the centre representing the Third Estate, playing his violin, eyes him cautiously. All three types are in keeping with what were, at this point, becoming established ways of representing the Three Estates. Despite the theme of consensus, the clergyman is fat and smug, the noble gaunt and haughty, and the Third Estate watchful and wise; soon, as related prints made clear, they would all dance to his tune.

Below are some notes on the pieces played at the concert.


The Ça ira was the most popular of Revolutionary songs.  The tune, by Bécourt, is pre-Revolutionary, appearing as ‘Le carillon national’ in a collection of Airs de danse. During the Revolutionary years it gained various sets of words, often scurrilous.  Its first emergence on the streets is not certain, but it has been associated with the events of 5/6 October 1789, when Parisian women marched to Versailles and forced the royal family to return with them to Paris.  Ironically enough, the original dance tune was apparently a favourite of Marie Antoinette, who enjoyed playing it on the harpsichord.

Ah! Ça ira, ça ira, ça ira! Le peuple en ce jour sans cesse répète;                                                                                    
Ah! Ça ira, ça ira, ça ira! Malgré les mutins tout réussira.
Ah! It will go well! Today the people repeat endlessly; despite the rogues it will all work out.

DOMINE SALVUM (François-Joseph Gosse)

François-Joseph Gossec was a veteran composer and a leading figure in French music by 1789.  He had spearheaded a revival of instrumental music in France, composing symphonies and string quartets, and he held posts at the Opéra.  His sacred music includes the Requiem, a notable influence on Hector Berlioz.  From 1789 he devoted himself to meeting the musical requirements of the Revolution.  On 14 July 1790, the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille was celebrated with the Fête de la Fédération on the Champ de Mars, an event presided over by the King, Lafayette (commander of the National Guard), and Talleyrand (Bishop of Autun).  Gossec provided the music, which included a Te Deum (for 1000 voices and a large orchestra) as well as this brief Domine salvum.  This was perhaps the last occasion on which the unity of the nation, the monarch and the church seemed to be a serious possibility; and indeed two days earlier the National Assembly had voted the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which was to be an important element in fracturing such unity.

LE CHANT DU 14 JUILLET (M-J. Chénier) 

A year later, Marie-Joseph Chénier’s verse for Gossec’s Chant du 14 juillet, while still invoking the ‘God of kings’, is clearly addressed to an Enlightenment deity. The references to Luther, Calvin and the children of Israel remind us that Protestants and Sephardic Jews had been emancipated in 1789 and 1790 respectively (Ashkenazi Jews had to wait until September 1791); the inclusion of Zoroastrians in the text may be surprising, but is not out of line with Enlightenment sympathies.


If the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was one of the crucial factors in determining the direction of the Revolution, another was the Legislative Assembly’s ill-advised declaration of war against Austria in April 1792 (Prussia in turn joining the war on Austria’s side in June). The summer saw military reverses, and culminated in the overthrow of the monarchy on 10 August, the prison massacres of early September, the election of a National Convention and the declaration of a republic. The military situation was transformed by the French victory over the Prussian forces at Valmy on 20 September. Gossec’s Le triomphe de la République, a theatrical divertissement performed in January 1793 (with a libretto by the ever-reliable Marie-Joseph Chénier), celebrates this victory; the work contains the ‘Tambourin’, which today is undoubtedly Gossec’s best-known and most popular piece.

HYMNE À LA LIBERTÉ (J. Rouget de Lisle)                                                                                                             

The name Pleyel is nowadays associated with pianos; but Ignace (or Ignaz) Pleyel, was a prolific composer whose music achieved great popularity during his lifetime. Austrian-born, he settled for some years in Strasbourg, where he held musical posts in the Cathedral. He moved to Paris in 1795, where he established a music publishing company in that year, and set up the piano-making firm in 1807. His output of ‘patriotic’ music was not large, but includes the Hymne à la liberté of 1791 (to words by Rouget de Lisle who was stationed in Strasbourg at the time), and a number of works from 1793-4 which were composed to free him from suspicion of pro-Austrian and royalist sympathies.

HYMNE À L’ÉGALITÉ (M-J. Chénier)                                                                                                                            

Charles-Simon Catel studied under Gossec as a youth. He was a bandsman in the Parisian National Guard, and taught in the Paris Conservatoire from its foundation in 1795. He composed much Revolutionary music, including marches and choruses. The Hymne à l’égalité is a pleasantly lyrical solo song.

HYMNE À LA FRATERNITÉ (Th. Desorgues)                                                                                                               

After his early years in Italy, Luigi Cherubini spent most of his career in Paris, under the ancien régime, the Revolution and Empire, and the Bourbon Restoration. His work was admired by Beethoven, whose Fidelio was influenced by Cherubini’s ‘rescue’ opera Lodoïska (1791). He composed a relatively small number of Revolutionary works; the Hymne à la fraternité sets a text expressing notions of reconciliation following military victory. Under the restored Bourbon régime , Cherubini composed his Requiem in C minor in memory of Louis XVI, which was performed on 21 January 1817, the twenty-fourth anniversary of Louis’s execution.

Ô RICHARD, Ô MON ROI! (M-J. Sedaine)                                                                                                            

André Grétry, Flemish born, resided in Paris from 1767. He was a highly successful composer of operas in the 1770s and ’80s. Later works, such as Guillaume Tell (1791) were aimed at Revolutionary audiences, but ‘Ô Richard, ô mon roi’, Blondel’s song to an imprisoned king from Richard Cœur-de-lion (1784), became extremely popular in royalist circles.

LA CARMAGNOLE                                                                                                                                                    

The Carmagnole is associated with the overthrow of the monarchy in August 1792. Madame and Monsieur Véto were, of course, nicknames for Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI: the constitution of 1791 had allowed the King a ‘suspensive’ veto on legislation; his use of this power roused considerable resentment.


HYMNE À J.J. ROUSSEAU (Th. Desorgues)                                                                                                                       

Any account of the intellectual background to the Revolution must give an important place to Voltaire (1694-1778) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78). Voltaire’s remains were transferred to the Panthéon in July 1791, and Gossec’s Marche lugubre was played on that occasion. (Dating from 1790 it had already been used on at least two State occasions, and it was favoured in funerary and commemorative celebrations throughout the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods.) Rousseau’s pantheonisation, in October 1794, was likewise accompanied by musical tributes, including Louis-Emmanuel Jadin’s Hymne à J.J. Rousseau, whose instrumental coda quotes from one of Rousseau’s own compositions. Jadin came from a musical family – his father, uncle and two brothers were all musicians; his brother Hyacinthe, like Louis-Emmanuel, contributed many works to the Revolutionary repertoire.

LE CHANT DU DÉPART (M-J. Chénier)                                                                                                                        

Étienne Méhul was an important and innovative operatic and symphonic composer, whose work was admired by, among others, Napoleon Bonaparte and Berlioz. His military Chant du départ of 1794, written at a time of victory for the French armies, rivalled the Marseillaise in popularity for a while.

Please go to UCL Chamber Music Club for more information about concerts and how to join.

The UCL Chamber Music Club, inaugurated in 1952, promotes the playing and enjoyment of chamber music and related repertoire in University College London and its associated institutions, through the provision of facilities for its members and the organising of regular concerts. Anyone with an affiliation to the College is warmly invited to join the Club, and uniquely among UCL societies, membership is open to staff (academic, non-academic and retired), students and alumni. While musicians of any kind are an integral part of our membership, we welcome eager listeners as a concert is nothing without an audience!

Concerts are free and open to all. Benefits of membership include the opportunity to perform in our concerts, access to our excellent piano practice room and advance notice of our concerts. We also have a mailing list and a performers list so that members can find other like-minded people to meet and perform with.

For more information about the exhibition, please go to Revolution under a King: French Print 1789-92.

These notes were written by Roger Beeson from the UCL Chamber Music Club.

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