Jann Pasler


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

Cover Interview of July 02, 2009


For too long, historians have left music out of their stories, and, in doing so, they have left out an important part of who we are as individuals and members of society.  Musicologists, seeking to elevate music to the highest of the arts, have often looked to German idealism as a way to understand music’s value.  Composing the Citizen challenges both positions.  As the current French Minister of Culture described the worldwide Fête de la musique in 2006, music has the power to “foster self-knowledge and the formation of groups” and to “reconcile the imaginary and the political through musical performance.”

Such were also republican ideals.  But rather than concentrate on ideology or public policy, I examine the circumstances underlying specific performances and the contingencies of meaning tied to specific moments, as might an ethnographer.  It is in these contexts, I argue, that music helped the French come to grips with not only their political and social differences, but also with their identity as a hybrid people, the product of both assimilation and resistance.  By the end of the book, French culture emerges as an important model for national identity—not as homogeneous, but as complex and dynamic.

As such, French culture is an alternative to both the ethnic model of identity found in Germany and Japan and that based on shared philosophical ideals such as in the United States.  This is particularly valuable in today’s world.  If there is coherence in the French nation, it derives from both a certain sense of the public interest—that which anything of public utility serves—and shared culture.

As differences of class increase in our globally interconnected, finance-driven world and as religious practices drive deepening wedges in our societies, this book reminds us that music’s broad accessibility makes it possible to create dialogue, as it did between monarchists and republicans in the late 19th century.  Music helps to establish community, the social bond that makes it possible for humans to live together.  With Composing the Citizen, I suggest what we in the twentieth-first century can learn from this Republic and its music, not only people struggling in emerging democracies, but also those living in the most modern of cultures.

© 2009 Jann Pasler