Friday, October 27, 2006

Brothers In Arms - The Story of The Internationale

Among Belgium's lesser-known sons is Pierre Degeyter, who composed one of history's greatest anthems, writes Paul Stump
originally from The Bulletin, 7.7.05

Arise ye starvelings from your slumbers!/Arise ye criminals of want!

These days it's a 40-minute spin on the motorway from Ghent to Lille. It took a bit longer in 1857 when the working-class Degeyter family upped sticks from the East Flanders capital and moved to the inky-dark industrial wen of France's Nord département in search of work. Their nine-year-old son Pierre began labouring in a textile mill almost as soon as they arrived.

The boy showed an aptitude for music and won a place at Lille's conservatory, where he studied woodwind and composition. In his young adulthood he joined and later directed La Lyre des Travailleurs, a working men's choral society with close links to the Workers' Party (POF). In 1888, at a meeting in Lille's Cafe Liberté, Degeyter hit upon the idea of setting the words of L'Internationale, a revolutionary poem by Paris Commune poet Eugène Pottier (1816-1887) to music (originally, it had been intended to be sung to the tune of La Marsellaise). His singers were enthused, and the song's fame spread through France's socialist circles.

In 1896, so legend has it, French patriots, incensed to find Germans at a socialist congress in Lille, stormed the proceedings only to be beaten back by workers singing Degeyter's anthem. The song spread across the Rhine and in 1910 a Socialist International in Paris adopted it as the official anthem of the Socialist movement. Alas, it had also become the subject of some most unseemly bickering.

The original editions of Internationale give the composer's name simply as 'Degeyter' , Pierre having had second thoughts about signing the inflammatory text (the line about shooting generals led to demands that the author be tried for incitement to murder). He was to regret the decision: Lille's notorious syndicalist mayor Gustave Delory had already wangled ownership of Pottier's words from the English songwriter GB Clement, who had bought them from the poet's widow. The piece's growing popularity tempted Delory to make a grab for the music too.

With Pierre Degeyter now living in paris, his younger berother Adolphe was strong-armed by Delory into claiming that he, rather than Pierre, had written the anthem and that rights would revert to Delory and the POF. Adolphe, who worked for Lille's municipalité, and, indirectly, for Delory himself, agreed. The elder Degeyter was horrified and hurried back to Lille. He took the matter to court, splitting the family down the middle - and lost.

Adolphe was overcome with remorse and in 1915 wrote to his brother, confessing all. "I have never written any music," he admitted, "still less L'Internationale." He would commit suicide less than a year later. His letter, though, was evidence in Pierre's court case to reclaim the rights to his great piece - although World War One delayed that process until the early 1920s and Degeyter was in his mid-70s and would have less than a decade to enjoy the fruits of his long struggle and the belated fame it brought him.

He was made a delegate of the French Communist Party to the Sixth International in Mosciw in 1928. The USSR had made L'Internationale its national anthem and gave Degeyter a hero's welcome (just as well, as they'd never paid him a penny in royalties).

They at least offered him political asylum but he declined and returned to his home in St-Denis where he survived on a state pension and a small Soviet stipend. He died - by all accounts, a frustrated, crotchety old man - in 1932.

Nine years later, the USSR dropped Degeyter's anthem - after all, it was, ipso facto, inimical to Stalin's ethos of 'socialism in one country'. But this most stirring of all 19th-century anthems lives on wherever leftists gather, and stirs hope and faith every time it is sung. Long may it prosper - and long may Pierre Degeyter be remembered.


Kerenza said...


Great blog! Have been reading it for ages instead of packing which is what I should be doing - we are off on tour tomorrow as Elaine Paige's support act. A first for a string quartet! I have managed to persuade them to let us get some real classical music in there anomgst the music theatre numbers - we even have some Borodin!!
It would be wonderful if you could write something for the Strad about us - let me know if it would be a possibilty.
I am so impressed with your blog, I am now too embarrassed to write on mine!


Paul Stump said...

Hi Kerenza, I emailed you at the myspace site. Thank you very much for your kind comments... we try our best at Stump World HQ.