Jann Pasler


On her book Composing the Citizen: Music as Public Utility in Third Republic France

Cover Interview of July 02, 2009

In a nutshell

Composing the Citizen explores how and why music is deeply valuable to society, how music helps people fulfill their human potential as individuals and members of communities.

The Third Republic in France (1870-1940) was a time when politicians, intent on creating a lasting democracy, saw music as integral to the public good, a way to help “compose” citizens otherwise exhausted and demoralized after war, civil strife, and destruction.  Music taught critical judgment and inspired national pride.  It helped people forget the past and voice conflicting aspirations.  Much was at stake when republicans were battling monarchists for control, reforming education, rethinking French traditions, debating colonialist expansion, and trying to build new alliances amid anarchist attacks and the Dreyfus Affair.  Music’s associations with race, gender, and class both enabled and complicated the search for a coherent French identity.  Concentrating on productive tensions between the political and the aesthetic, I show how music and concert life helped people to negotiate the gap between political ideals and political realities.

My hope is that reading this story of how music helped forge French citizens under highly contentious but evolving political circumstances will stimulate reflection on some critical issues in our own times.  Three ongoing concerns hark back to this period: the desire to assure accessibility to the arts for all citizens, the use of music and musical practices to build community and help people explore what they value as a people, and faith in music’s capacity to revitalize and help us imagine change because we have heard it.

To understand these, the book looks beyond elites and the histories their agendas have dominated.  Composing the Citizen shows the importance of studying the musical tastes and practices of amateurs as well as professionals. In my view, the everyday life of the past—its performances—are as important and meaningful as the past’s monumental masterpieces.

With music embraced not as a luxury or a distraction but for its “public utility,” the early Third Republic laid the foundations for public support of the arts—an achievement from which many societies, including our own, has much to learn.