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Marche lugubre

François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829)

Marche lugubre

In June 1789, the civic officials of Paris suspected that Louis XVI planned to use his troops to dissolve France’s newly-formed National Assembly by force. In response to this threat, they established a people’s militia under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette, an upper-class liberal who had already fought for the cause of liberty in the American War of Independence. Among the many regular soldiers who defected to the National Guard was the 23 year-old Bernard Sarrette, who was quickly given responsibility for training 45 musicians to play in a band which would arouse revolutionary fervour by performing at all civic festivals and demonstrations. Gossec was appointed musical director shortly afterwards, and wrote and conducted many Revolutionary hymns and instrumental pieces, while Sarrette concentrated on administration and instrumental design.

Among Sarrette’s inventions was the tuba corva, an instrument with a limited range but a loud and resonant tone which was well-suited to the outdoor performance of Gossec’s Marche lugubre. This was written for a Revolutionary fête which was held at the Champ de la Fédération on 20th September 1790 in honour of the ’spirits of the victims of Nancy’, where many of the Royal army had recently had recently mutinied. The fête was an emotive occasion: Gossec’s Marche, with its ’crashing tam-tam , brass and drums, alternating with silence moved the soul to despair’. Such passion ensured the work’s continued popularity, but its most notable performances came in 1791, when it was played both at Mirabeau’s funeral, and at the ceremony marking Voltaire’s reburial in the Panthéon, the mausoleum for national heroes.

© John Humphries

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