In memory of Pierre Degeyter (8 October 1848- 26 September 1932)

by lapostina

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He died in Saint-Denis, France. Around 50 thousand people attended his funeral. The Communist community of Saint-Denis erected a monument of a marble book opened on the page with the music notes of the Internationale and a cube reproducing the hammer and sickle, a symbol of the USSR.

In 1928 Degeyter visited the USSR, he was invited to Moscow for the 6th Congress of the Comintern. In the spring on 1928, he was contacted in Saint-Denis by members of the Soviet National Society for Cultural Relationships with Foreign Countries, at the time he was living with his granddaughter. Degeyter did not even know of how honoured and respected he was in the USSR.

The Soviet Government offered Pierre Degeyter to stay in the Soviet Union. He was given to stay in the House of veterans of the Revolution. However, the local climate was unbearable for the 80 year old. Degeyter had no choice but to return to France.

Not long before Degeyter left back to France, he said in an interview to a correspondent for Vechernyaya Moskva : “I am happy that your anthem, the anthem of revolutionary Russia is the Internationale, the song which gives shivers to those who build their wealth on the exploitation of others. I believe that revolutionary Russia is the prelude to the great change which will have the red flag shine all over the world. The revolution will bring genuine peace, the basis of which was laid by the people of the Soviet Union. Long live the workers’ Internationale!”

On the 20th of August, the Sovnarkom (Council of People’s Commissars) of the USSR awarded the composer with a lifetime pension, which became his only source of income in his last years.

Originally from Belgium and a former soldier of the Franco-Prussian war, Pierre Degeyter tried to make his way to Paris and join the Communards. However, he was captured and was sent to Lille by the Germans, where he stayed. After getting a qualification as a metal turner, Degeyter settled to work in a factory. At this time, he was interested in music. From 16 years of age he attended evening classes at the Music Academy. Subsequently, Degeyter became the first leader of the Lille music group, called Workers’ Lyre.

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In June 1888 Gustave Delory, the mayor of Lille and founder of the Workers’ Lyre  approached Degeyter to write music for the poems of Eugene Pottier, written in 1871, to be the anthem of the French Workers’ Party. This was how the Internationale  was born. The Workers’ Lyre’s first performance of the songwas in the summer of 1888 at the Congress of the News-workers’ Trade Union. To prevent himself from possible prosecution, the composer asked to have just “Degeyter” written on the title page. Nonetheless, the composer’s full name was revealed. Degeyter was fired and blacklisted.

As a result of a work related injury, Pierre Degeyter lost the ability to work and began to work on editing the Internationale for the piano. However, the composer was accused of plagiarism when he started negotiating with the publishing house, as it turned out that the Internationale was already published under his brother Adolf Degeyters name, along side his portrait. As by that time, Degeyter left the Socialist Party (he became a Communist afterwards), a socialist Gustave Delory had acquired all rights for the music for the party needs, and therefore supported Adolf Degeyter. Thus, Degeyter could not prove his authorship. In 1914, the lawsuit ended and Adolf Degeyter was recognised as the composer of the music. After his death, in 1920 a monument was erected in Lille for Adolf Degeyter as the composer of the Internationale.

However, the unexpected happened: in 1916, while staying at an occupied territory, Adolf Degeyter ended his life. In the deathbed letter to his brother, he asserted that the lawsuit was unleashed under pressure from Delory. Here is the letter:

Lille, 27th April, 1915.

Dear brother, in the terrible storm we are experiencing, it is unknown what will happen to us. I am passing this letter on to your brother-in-law, with a statement that I would’ve made in person if I had come to Paris on time for your trial.

Here it is:

I have never written music, especially the International. Even though I did sign the paper compiled by Delory, who came to my workshop, you know that I work for the town and since Delory was the mayor, I did not dare refuse as I was scared to lose my job. Signing the paper, I did not know I was doing wrong. He didn’t even tell me what it was for. If I am writing this to you, then it is because, it am not sure of what can happen. Do not be mad at me, for this. If i could give this to you myself, I would be happy.

Adolf Degeyter

Since Pierre was in the unoccupied state of France at this time, he received the letter only when the war was over. In 1922, by court order, Pierre Degeyter was finally acknowledged as the composer of the Internationale. Delory appeared in court ill, recalled all his claims and soon after died.The lawsuit, lasting two decades was over.

Vladimir Lenin on the Internationale:

This song has been translated not only into all European languages, but also into many others…In whatever country a conscious [class and politically] worker would find himself in, whatever his fate would take him, how much of a stranger he would feel, without the language, without friends, far away from home, he can find comrades and friends with the familiar tune of the International.