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The "Marines' Hymn" Mystery

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The "Marines' Hymn" Mystery

Postby kickassclassical » Sat Aug 30, 2008 4:39 pm

The "Marines' Hymn" is the oldest official song in the U.S. Armed Forces, and one of the most recognized anthems in the world.

So how did it come to borrow its tune from a song about weak, corrupt law enforcement? Read on...

The tune to the "Marines' Hymn" comes from a song in an opera by French composer Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880). By the way, he's the same composer who is responsible for the most famous version of the "can-can."

Offenbach debuted a two-act opera called "Geneviève de Brabant" in Paris in 1859. It was an "opéra bouffe," a style of opera featuring comedy, satire, parody and farce. The opera became so popular that Offenbach expanded it into three acts in 1867.

The newly revised opera included a duet between two French policemen, commonly called "gendarmes" (or "gensd'armes," plural of the French "gent d'armes" meaning "armed man.") The duet was titled "Couplets Des Deux Hommes d'Arms" (Song Of Two Men-At-Arms) or sometimes "Duo Des Deux Gendarmes."

In 1871 Henry Brougham Farnie translated the opera to English for British audiences to enjoy, and titled the song "Gendarmes' Duet." Listen to it here, and follow along with Farnie's original lyrics, directly from an 1872 "Geneviève de Brabant" script:

Verse 1:
We're public guardians bold yet wary,
And of ourselves we take good care.
To risk our precious lives we're chary,
When danger looms we're never there,
But when we meet a helpless woman,
Or little boys that do no harm,

Chorus:
We run them in, we run them in,
We run them in, we run them in,
We show them we're the bold gendarmes.
We run them in, we run them in,
We run them in, we run them in,
We show them we're the bold gendarmes.

Verse 2:
Sometimes our duty's extramural,
Then little butterflies we chase.
We like to gambol in things rural,
Commune with nature, face to face.
Unto our beat then back returning,
Refreshed by nature's holy charm,

Chorus:
We run them in, we run them in,
We run them in, we run them in,
We show them we're the bold gendarmes.
We run them in, we run them in,
We run them in, we run them in,
We show them we're the bold gendarmes.

(The first two verses are the only "official" verses in the original script, but the song was such a show stopper that the producers often added multiple encore verses - a dozen per performance was not uncommon - which commented on the hot social and political topics of the day. This encore verse is the one commonly added today.)

Encore Verse:
If gentlemen will make a riot,
And punch each other's heads at night,
We're quite disposed to keep it quiet,
Provided that they make it right,
But if they do not seem to see it,
Or give to us our proper terms,

Chorus:
We run them in, we run them in,
We run them in, we run them in,
We show them we're the bold gendarmes.
We run them in, we run them in,
We run them in, we run them in,
We show them we're the bold gendarmes.

Here are a few definitions that might make the lyrics more clear:

"Chary" - Cautious or wary
"Extramural" - Outside the bounds of an institution or community, as in "extramural activities"
"Gambol" - To leap playfully, skip, frolic

And if you're really interested, here's a precise translation of Offenbach's original French lyrics.

At this point it's clear. The song is about two effeminate, cowardly, corrupt police officers who bully the weak and innocent. Not exactly the most complimentary song about men who wear uniforms and carry weapons and who are sworn to protect citizens.

So how did this song become the tune of the "Marines' Hymn" - the theme for the most noble, elite fighting force in the world?

That's the mystery.

The lyrics to the "Marines' Hymn" were written around 1850. The tune was appropriated between 1867 and 1891 (from when it first appeared to when it was first copyrighted by the Marines). But neither the author of the words nor the person who connected them to Offenbach's tune have ever been identified.

Perhaps the person was a serviceman who didn't speak French, saw the opera "Geneviève de Brabant" before it was translated into English, and assumed the tune was in support of men-at-arms.

Perhaps he heard the tune second-hand, whistled by a crewmate. Remember, opera was the popular music of its day.

Or maybe the mystery man liked the tune so much that he didn't care about its original meaning.

It's certainly to the credit of the United States Marine Corps that they have so strongly established ownership of the tune that its connection to Offenbach's farcical song has been all but lost.

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Re: The "Marines' Hymn" Mystery

Postby kickassclassical » Sun Aug 31, 2008 11:09 am

If you're interested in further reading, here are a few footnotes from our research. These clear up a few minor misconceptions from other web sites and blogs.

1.
As far as we can tell, the English translated title of this song has never been "The Bold Gendarmes." It may be referred to casually in this way, by people who assume that others know what they mean, but it's not the actual title.

2.
Also as far as we can tell, the actual French title of the song was never "Les Deux Gendarmes." Again, maybe casually.

3.
"The Gendarmes Duet" has nothing to do with and was never written by Gilbert & Sullivan. Some people might be getting it confused with another song sung by cops, "When A Felon’s Not Engaged In His Employment," from Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Pirates Of Penzance."

4.
Here's a cute lil' sheet music cover that refers to the song as the "Gendarmes' Galop."

(The "galop" was a lively dance popular in the late 1820s in Paris, Vienna, Berlin and London. It was the forerunner of the polka, which became popular in the 1840s. Those crazy kids and their fads.)

5.
As far as we can tell, the lyrics to the song have never included the words "beaux gendarmes." It's our bet that this is a commonly misheard lyric due to the singing style of the bloated, self-important gendarmes characters in the opera. They punch the first part of the word "bold" with such emphasis that the "d" sound at the end gets a bit lost.

Interesting to note - the adjective "beaux" (pronounced "boh") certainly fits the meaning of the song. The French word "beaux" is plural for "beau," meaning a man who is vain or fancy - a "dandy" or "pretty boy." So it's understandable why some would assume the word "beaux" instead of "bold."

Other misheard words that might arguably fit are "two" and "deux."

6.
For reference, here is a published copy of the third (encore) verse from a 1905 manuscript.

7.
We feel that the third (encore) verse would make infinitely more contextual sense if the last two lines were changed:

From...

We're quite disposed to keep it quiet,
Provided that they make it right,
But if they do not seem to see it,
Or give to us our proper terms,

We run them in...

To...

But if they do not seem to see fit,
To give to us our proper terms,

See that? Change two small words and the idea is stated much more clearly. The change takes the ambiguity away from the word "it," and more effectively carries the idea from the two preceding lines ("we'll keep it quiet if they make it right") into the following chorus ("if they don't see fit to pay us, we run them in.") It's more specific, more precise.

This also portrays the gendarmes as slightly more sinister, as the qualification for throwing people into the slammer changes from passive observation (that the person doesn't see "it") to active judgment (determining the "fitness" of the person to pay them off).

In fact, for these reasons we will be so bold (beaux?) as to suggest that these quite possibly were the original lyrics - before they were traded from one performance to the next, then committed to regular performance, and then to paper as the generally agreed-upon encore verse.

Please, feel free to propagate this change in future productions of the opera. All that we require is 10% of house receipts ;)

8.
For the record, today the "Marines' Hymn" is a reverent reminder of the sacrifice and courage shown by the Marine Corps. Every Marine stands at attention when it is played, and can recite these three stanzas by heart:

From the Halls of Montezuma,
To the shores of Tripoli,
We fight our country's battles,
In the air, on land, and sea.
First to fight for right and freedom,
And to keep our honor clean,
We are proud to claim the title,
Of United States Marine.

Our flag's unfurled to every breeze,
From dawn to setting sun.
We have fought in every clime and place,
Where we could take a gun.
In the snow of far-off Northern lands,
And in sunny tropic scenes,
You will find us always on the job,
The United States Marines

Here's health to you and to our Corps,
Which we are proud to serve.
In many a strife we've fought for life,
And never lost our nerve.
If the Army and the Navy,
Ever look on Heaven's scenes,
They will find the streets are guarded,
By United States Marines.
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