Jann Pasler


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

Cover Interview of July 02, 2009

The wide angle

As a pianist who loved to perform the music of Debussy, Ravel, and Fauré, and as a modernist who studied Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Mallarmé, I grew up inspired by their bold artistic visions.  The symbolist imagination fascinated me, as did music’s power to reveal the dynamism of the mind, correspondences among the arts, and abstractions without expressive signification.

But when the ideology of progress and the avant-garde itself came increasingly into question, the postmodern world reminded us that culture informs the subjectivity expressed by music, that politics and socio-cultural circumstances are part of the creation as well as the reception of all art, and that what we know is often linked to what those in power want us to know.  Today, the image of these trinities as representative of the Belle Epoque has tended to skew our experience of late nineteenth-century France, causing us to miss much of its important legacy.

In Composing the Citizen, I turn to history to write it anew.  Using the French concept of utility, long ignored by historians, sociologists, and musicologists, I both interrogate history from a new perspective and examine music as an art linking leisure and personal enjoyment with the social good.

In the seventeenth century, this notion emerged when, after centuries of monarchy and a society based on inequalities, Enlightenment philosophers began to consider what it would take for human beings to live together as equals.  From this came the radically new idea that people had needs and desires distinct from those of the king, and that a government should focus on them.  Anything that served those needs was considered useful.  Underlying usefulness for the French, therefore, is a social relationship, an ethical position, and a political belief that, through addressing shared needs, one can build shared interests.

As the public domain expanded and people evaluated the hierarchy of their needs, utility in France articulated the site of contention where conflicting interests inevitably clashed—the space of negotiation for everything political.  Utility served as a way of navigating the tensions between individual and collective interests, even as it could also mask market forces, conformism, and habit capable of influencing people’s perception of their needs and desires.  As such, utility helps those who espouse democracy to address society’s needs and respond to them—and this is important—in a dynamic fashion.

When it came to music, what has been uniquely French about this idea was not that music could be socially useful—an idea going back to Plato and Horace—but that public institutions, and to a certain extent the French public itself, would regard music’s utility as having important ideological stakes and therefore treat music as a significant object of public policy.

As they looked for ways to shape democratic moeurs in the country and lay the foundation for republican values, Republicans looked to music—an art, a form of sensibility, a kind of knowledge, and a practice—to contribute to the mise en forme and the mise en scène of the new society.  Critics continued to foreground music’s aesthetic qualities.  But, in engaging and reflecting individual as well as public taste, and in having personal as well as social meaning, music supported the duality characteristic of democracies—individual freedom together with collective action.  Music can thus be integral to the evolution of a society.

Focus on music’s public utility and the public nature of musical taste entailed decentering conventional histories, giving voice to a broader range of cultural participants than just social, intellectual, and musical elites and taking seriously not just musical works, but also concert programming as significant in determining musical meaning.  This led me to study a wide variety of genres, musical venues, and performance groups never before regarded as interconnected, to compare elite and popular ensembles, and to interrogate the ephemeral as well as durable aspects of musical life.

As a result, Composing the Citizen throws into question some of our most cherished assumptions: namely that in the past, only elites had access to or an interest in serious art music; that serious and popular domains were distinct; that early mass culture had a necessarily deleterious effect on musical progress; and that art music performances by the major orchestras increasingly presented music by dead composers.  None of this was true in France.  Third Republic France thus offers a model for us to rethink not only music histories, but also the value and role of music in Western society.