Singing traditions

Discover in music and images a tradition of student songs that is still very much alive today.

Poster and program for the shadow play, March 1897 (1897) by Jacques Théodore SaconneyÉcole Polytechnique

Singing and studying

The tradition of student songs probably dates back to the Goliards. The Goliards were students in the Middle Ages, known as the authors of satirical songs or drinking songs. As soon as Polytechnique was created, singing and music masters gave lessons to students outside of class time. Shows were given, at first simply musical, which were then enriched with new forms of performance, calling on the talents of the students' songwriters. Whether singing about teachers and supervisors (shadow puppetry songs) or about a former student, or evoking student life, the song of the Ecole polytechnique still exists today. But more than a mere tradition, music has a direct relationship with mathematics: According to Pierre, who was a clarinetist in the orchestra in 2016, "A score is dissected to construct music and give it that irrational beauty, just as how in mathematical research, we try to make the irrational rational, and in this sense mathematicians are artists too."

Death of the polytechnician Vaneau (1891) by Georges Moreau de ToursÉcole Polytechnique

A Living Tradition

The singing tradition still exists today. Since 2012, the École polytechnique has had an official hymn, the music for which was composed by the music professor The lyrics were written by a student. This song commemorates the death of student Louis Vaneau (school year 1829), during the Revolution of July 1830.

Ode to Vaneau (2016) by Marc Nègre, Patrice Holiner, and Atelier des OndesÉcole Polytechnique

In a chaos of broken bodies, Paris is bleeding.
Its children fight through the smoky alleyways.
The cries of the people under the canons call for a hero
Suddenly the brave Vaneau appears on the barricades.
Take up your weapons and look away,
Follow this man
Defying the death of his proud maintenance !
After our fathers
Let's not hesitate anymore
And be proud
To carry in our young souls the immense value
From a heritage of humanity, justice and greatness.

The sword brandished by the reckless announces the assault.
The workers regaining confidence cheer Vaneau!
Here is the charge of liberty breaking the dam,
These upright men arm themselves without blinking an eye.
Take up your arms with passion
Forget your heart
In the momentum of our nation!
For this France
That we love,
Let's unite!
Let's serve together, guided by his name !
History engraves in its bosom the honor of those whom duty brings together.

From the pale forehead of the student breathes ardor.
His ideals valiantly guide his arm and his heart.
but suddenly a detonation stops the momentum!
In a fall at the feet of the soldiers runs his blood.
Take this body and raise it up!
Come celebrate
The sacrifice of the brave!
In remembrance,
Dear comrades,
Let's sing Vaneau!
Enhanced by the life given to his tomb,
For the Homeland, Science and Glory, these will be our watchwords!

Song in honor of Arago (2017) by Guillaume Lévy-LambertÉcole Polytechnique

To your health let's have a drink.
And let's repeat this cheerful refrain.
Long live Arago, that great human.
Long live Arago, number one.

Song for the inauguration of the statue of Arago in the garden of Paris Observatory (2017)

Model for a project of a statue of Arago (2020) by Jérémy BarandeÉcole Polytechnique

Any event at the École Polytechnique is also an opportunity for some students to write a song, such as the commemoration of a former student.

E. Lemoine: conductor in night cap with violin in hand (1862) by Émile Michel Hyacinthe LemoineÉcole Polytechnique

Music for Engineers

From the beginning, the École Polytechnique has been more than just a place for scientific study; it also offers opportunities in other disciplines such as grammar, belles-lettres, and even drawing (a vital tool for engineers before computers were invented.) Even though music was not a part of the curriculum, it has always been a popular choice amongst students, as an extracurricular pursuit. But music is also a truly intellectual pursuit: "It's very romantic to think that music is just about feelings, but it's not very honest. It takes research, intellectual effort, and a lot of listening to conduct an orchestra. That is particularly true when you are working with musicians as cultured as these young players from the Grandes Ecoles," says Emmanuel Calef, Ecole Polytechnique alumnus and orchestra conductor.

The artists' room. Ensemble Music (1884) by Alfred Quesnay de BeaurepaireÉcole Polytechnique

Classes and Concerts

The school's militarization by Napoleon in 1804 turned it into a boarding school. This meant that the music teachers, who until then had given lessons at their homes, had to be granted permission by the successive generals to enter the school.

The circle of music (1894) by Gaston ClarisÉcole Polytechnique

Rehearsals in Exam Halls

Concerts are performed in the chemistry lecture hall, to which women were invited until their right to enter was revoked in 1813. Music rehearsals took place in empty exam halls and on certain special occasions an orchestra was put together: the grading session, the shadow ceremony, the General's concert, Point Gamma.

Program for the rating ceremony, year group 1895–1897 (1897) by Émile Henri Laurent DelerotÉcole Polytechnique

Grading Session

The grading session is a traditional student ceremony, accompanied by music, to conclude the integration of new students within the École polytechnique. During this grading session, second-year students dress up and give nicknames to the new students. For example, students ranked number 100 are called cent. The most boastful student of their name or wealth is called pose and those a little too eager to show off their uniforms on the boulevards are called unif.

Poster for the shadow play, 1907 (1907) by Maurice Henri Louis LécorchéÉcole Polytechnique

Shadow puppetry Ceremony

The shadow puppetry ceremony has been a tradition at the school since 1818, during which shadow puppets are projected onto a white sheet in a pitch-black physics lecture hall. The only remnants of this tradition are booklets of Shadow Songs and a few posters. Each caricatured shadow is accompanied by a song, a poem, or a speech that is often mocking or irreverent. All school staff attend: the general, the colonel, the captains, and all members of teaching and administration staff.

Acoustic instruments at the École Polytechnique museum

Shadow puppetry songs: Cornu Drawing and score (1898) by Émile Louis Auguste HilaireÉcole Polytechnique

Point Gamma brochure (1936) by AnonymousÉcole Polytechnique

Point Gamma

The Point Gamma ball began as a costume party organized by the students at the spring equinox, and references Aimé Laussedat's astronomy course: the name refers to one of the two points where the celestial equator intersects the ecliptic. This celebration is also the continuation of a much older party stopped in 1848: the dried fruit ball.

Saint Barbara musical review (1922) by MicÉcole Polytechnique

The Saint Barbara Review

Saint Barbara is, amongst other things, the patron saint of artillerymen, firefighters, metallurgists, and the École polytechnique. She protects against lightning and sudden death. She is celebrated on December 4. The Barbara Review was an opportunity for students to perform a comedic piece of theater, or musical theater, about their school.

Concert of the General brochure (1921) by AnonymousÉcole Polytechnique

The General's Concert

The General's Concert began in 1893 when General Gebhart (school year 1852), head of the École polytechnique, allowed students to give a concert in front of women (whose presence had been banned since 1813). These women were usually the wives of the general and other senior leadership staff at the school. It took place in spring, before Point Gamma.

Ball of the Ecole polytechnique booklet (1932) by Louis MarcoussisÉcole Polytechnique

The X Ball

The first X Ball took place on February 22, 1879 in the private rooms of the Minister of War, General Gresley (school year 1838). This minister played an important role in the adoption of the Marseillaise as France's national anthem. The objective of the ball was to organize and increase the benefit funds from the alumni relief fund. Organized by the alumni association, the ball was never organized within the school but students would attend nevertheless. It was thanks to Jacques Rouché (school year 1882), director of the Opéra-Garnier, that this ball could take place from 1920.

Chevé's amphitheater (1895) by Gaston ClarisÉcole Polytechnique

Chevé Father and Son

Singing was taught at the time of the Restoration and received its claim to fame from the teaching of Emile and Amand Chevé, father and son, who succeeded each other as singing teacher from 1854 to 1907 and left their mark on generations of students.

Charles Koechlin and the orchestra of the class of 1887 (1889) by Aron GerschelÉcole Polytechnique

Charles Koechlin, sitting cross-legged in the first row, who entered the university as a student in 1887, was an important composer in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century.

Pierre Schaeffer (1931) by G.L. Manuel FrèresÉcole Polytechnique

Pierre Schaeffer, a student who entered the university in 1929, carried out numerous studies on listening and acoustics in radio and television services. A composer, he invented musique concrète with La Symphonie Pour Homme Seul, for which Maurice Béjart created the choreography in 1955.

Poster of the "Styx" party (1996) by AnonymousÉcole Polytechnique

STYX Night

The move of the Ecole polytechnique from Paris to Palaiseau, coinciding with the growing post-1968 reforms, erased some of these events. Some traditions remained, such as Point Gamma, and new fashionable musical activities also popped up. STYX, for example, is the École Polytechnique association responsible for providing the music and lighting for all student parties organized by the students themselves. Every year they organize a big night called STYX Night.

Night of the Styx (2013) by Ecole polytechniqueÉcole Polytechnique

SpinH in concert at the Point Gamma party (2017) by Binet Photo PolytechniqueÉcole Polytechnique

The Waves Studio

The Waves Studio (Atelier des Ondes, or A.D.O.) was set up at the École Polytechnique in the 1990s. The association’s initial goal was to allow interested students to develop their knowledge of studio recording techniques. After acquiring the equipment, the A.D.O. was able to provide a rehearsal space for groups of students from the school and could also open the studio for musicians from outside the school to record. The A.D.O also takes care of running concerts, along with STYX, organized in the school bar.

Rendez-vous (2018) by Spin H and Atelier des OndesÉcole Polytechnique

This song evokes for the members of the band the good time spent getting together ("rendez-vous") to rehearse together. The clip, made in 2018, allows to discover the different places of the Polytechnique campus: the students' rooms, the main courtyard, the central hall, the basements.

Credits: Story

©Ecole polytechnique / Historical Resources Center/Mus'X, Atelier des Ondes, JTX 2016, Guillaume Lévy-Lambert, Marc Nègre, Patrice Holiner, the members of the band SpinH, the students of the class of 2016.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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