Chant du 9 Thermidor

Program Note by D. Kern Holoman

On 27 July 1794—by the French Republican calendar "9 Thermidor, an II de la République"—the architect of the Reign of Terror, Maximilien de Robespierre, was declared an outlaw by the National Convention. After an unsuccessful attempt at suicide—he shot himself in the mouth—Robespierre was arrested at the Paris Hôtel de Ville and next day was guillotined, with twenty-one followers, before a wild crowd in the Place de la Révolution, now the Place de la Concorde. This conjuration ("exorcism") de Robespierre seemed to many a turning point in the long struggle to establish a workable republican government; the Reign of Terror would subside, and France would be rid of a leader who had come to be perceived as a demagogue.

Among those released from political detention in the wake of 9 Thermidor was Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle, and in gratitude for his liberty, he set pen to paper in a Hymne Dithyrambique sur la conjuration de Robespierre et la Révolution du 9 Thermidor. It was presented before the National Convention on the following 18 Thermidor (6 August), just over a week after the events it treats. The published score of that year gives a melody line, a rudimentary bass line, and eight couplets of text.

It was probably owing to the success of Berlioz's arrangement of the Marseillaise in late summer 1830 that he orchestrated this second hymn of Rouget de Lisle. We know little more of the genesis, except that Berlioz's source was not the 1794 score but rather the piano-vocal version found in Rouget's Cinquante Chants français (Paris, 1825), pp. 105-09, from which the title, tempo marking, introduction, and basic character of the accompaniment clearly come. (There are several reasons to imagine that Berlioz owned a copy of this edition.) The arrangement remained unpublished; I doubt that Berlioz's publisher, Maurice Schlesinger, could heve been interested in a work with such a dated text.

The autograph manuscript of the Chant du neuf Thermidor is on paper similar (identical, I suspect) to a paper used for portions of the Symphonie fantastique autograph of enrly 1830 and the orchestral fantasy on Shakespeare's Tempest later in the year. Thus we can confidently place the Chant du neuf Thermidor in the last half of 1830, probably in late August. Berlioz has improved on many details of Rouget's original, and of course provided his own orchestral effects, from the modal eruption at "crime" in the refrain to the use of harps to suggest God's benevolent gaze over the fatherland.