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French holidays: Bastille Day Posted by on Jul 11, 2017 in Culture, History, Music

This Friday (vendredi), le quatorze juillet (July 14), is la fête nationale française, known in the United States and many parts of the world as Bastille Day. And if you’re like many francophiles, you may think this day celebrates the storming of the royal prison of la Bastille on July 14, 1789 … and you’d be right, but only partly so!

Officially established as la fête nationale (the national holiday) by the French Assemblé in 1880, the festivities do indeed celebrate the storming of the Bastille as the start of the revolution, but perhaps more importantly the 14th is also the anniversary of la Fête de la Fédération (a celebration of the ideals of the French Revolution – la liberté, la fraternité, et l’égalité / liberty, brotherhood, and equality – and of the nation) during which Louis XVI himself (before, of course, famously losing his head later!) and other representatives of the young republic swore an oath to the constitution, promising to uphold the laws of the new nation.

The ceremonies of this first Fête de la Fédération were led by the Marquis de LaFayette (whom Louis XVI had named as commander of the troops in Paris after his return from supporting the American colonists in their recent bids to win independence from the other great European monarchy of the day, Great Britain) and took place on the Champs de mars  (named, not for the month of March, but for the Roman god of battle, Mars [Greek: Ares or Aries]) which is framed today by the Eiffel Tower at one end and Hôtel des Invalides at the other.

As today, the early celebrations of the 14th involved local dances and military parades. In 1989, year of the bicentennial celebrations, I was lucky enough to spend juillet in Paris and to participate in three days of bals, defilies, feux d’artifices, and more (balls, parades, fireworks). La nuit du 14 (the night of the 14th), we even went out to a night club after the final fireworks, danced till dawn, and then went back to the Champs-Élysées for le petit-déjeuner au levé du soleil! (breakfast at sunrise) In the clips below you can see highlights from the amazing défilé along the Champs and the world-famous Opera singer, Jessye Norman, performing the French national anthem, La Marseillaise*, from the Place de la Concorde.

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* Did you ever notice that la Marseillaise is a major motif in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture? It shouldn’t be a surprise, I suppose, since the piece was written to celebrate Russia’s defense of its territories against the invading armies of Napoleon. Listen to the horn section that begins here (link will take you to Youtube) for an example.

Image copyrights:
July 14th in the country, 1928, Tadeusz Makowski [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Prise de la Bastille By Jean-Pierre Houël – Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=106405
Fly-over by France’s Alpha Jets by By XtoF – Own work [More at http://www.pixinn.net], CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41593211

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About the Author:Tim Hildreth

Lise: Maybe not always. Paris has ways of making people forget. / Jerry: Paris? No, not this city. It's too real and too beautiful. It never lets you forget anything. It reaches in and opens you wide, and you stay that way. / An American in Paris

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