Did you know that the composer of 'The Internationale' was Belgian?
Everyone has heard of The Internationale, the militant anthem of the socialist movement. What is less well known is that the music was written by a Belgian. Pierre De Geyter composed the melody in 1888.
Pierre De Geyter was born in 1848 on Kanunnik Street in Ghent. When his father, a textile worker, lost his job during the crisis, he moved to Lille with his family in 1855. Both father and son found work there, despite child labour being outlawed since 1841. Pierre became a thread maker at Fives Locomotive Works. He learned to read and write at the workers' evening classes, later taking drawing classes at Lille Academy and, from 1864, also music lessons. He even won first prize in woodwinds and played a number of instruments, including the saxophone! In 1887, Pierre became the conductor of La Lyre des Travailleurs, the socialist choir that met at the premises of La Liberté in the Rue de la Vignette, founded by Gustave Delory, who later became the mayor of Lille. Pierre joined the musical society of the French Workers' Party (POF) in Lille, which would march through the workers' neighbourhoods playing music during strikes, election campaigns etc.
In 1888, Gustave Delory asked Pierre De Geyter to compose a militant anthem for the Lille chapter of the nascent POF, of which he was chairman. He gave him a copy of the Chants Révolutionnaires poetry collection by Eugène Pottier, one of the pioneers of the Paris Commune, the revolutionary socialist government in 1871. Pierre was tasked with setting the poem The Internationale, written that same year, to music. De Geyter's The Internationale was first sung in July 1888 and sold in pamphlet form to bolster the party coffers of Lille. The song took Lille and the rest of France by storm, and the rest of the world ten years later.
This penning, however, was to be the beginning of a long ordeal for him. Although only named as 'Degeyter' (no space) on the pamphlets, to avoid repression by employers and the authorities on the grounds of insurgency, Pierre was identified as the composer and lost his job. He encountered financial difficulties and moved to the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis in 1901. He also became embroiled in painful legal proceedings with his younger brother Adolphe over his copyright, which was only settled in his favour in 1922. To make matters worse, Delory even took Adolphe's side during those proceedings! Pierre became a communist and his music was relegated to obscurity in France. He worked as a lamplighter for the township of Saint-Denis from then on.
Meanwhile, The Internationale had become the national anthem of the Soviet Union. In 1927, the 79-year-old Pierre was invited to attend the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution at the Red Square in Moscow, in the grandstand for the honoured guests. It is said that tears rolled down his cheeks while his anthem was played.
Pierre De Geyter died in 1932 in Saint-Denis, where he was buried. A statue of him was erected in his birthplace of Ghent in 1999, in the front garden of the Museum about Industry, Labour and Textile (MIAT).