Claude Lê Anh



Music as an art links leisure and personal enjoyment with the social good

Cover Interview of

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.

“Music and concert life helped people to negotiate the gap between political ideals and political realities.”

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.

July 3, 2009

A close-up

The book can be read like parts of a puzzle. Although some themes (education, history, progress, and national identity) permeate the entire book, one can start anywhere depending on one’s interests—be those philosophy, the legacy of the monarchy or the Revolution, protectionism or colonialism, high art or popular entertainment, Wagner or the French avant-garde.

I’d recommend starting with the walking tour of Paris, for experiencing the city is like an overture to its music. The city’s grandeur, like much of the music, keeps alive memory of past greatness and testifies to the importance many French ascribe to history and what they share as a people. The urban environment attests to the overwhelming nature of state power in France, yet any promenade in the city invites us to acknowledge the fleeting as well as the durable aspects of culture, popular as well as elite expression, and to find meaning in both. The structure of Paris — its grand vistas, monuments, and bridges alongside its charming cafés, sinuous alleys, and hidden-away treasures — suggests a model for thinking about the structure of the musical world. It also encourages us to think about the kinds of networks music needs to thrive, and the sense of national fraternity as well as personal empowerment to which music can contribute.

Chapter 3 explores music’s contribution to republicans’ most pressing need, forming individuals who could think as well as act like citizens. Music not only teaches skills and serves as outlets for personal expression, contributing to people’s self-discipline and self-esteem; it also provides opportunities to learn judgment, a critical aspect of citizenship. Listening could involve rational processes like discrimination and empirical comparison and call on the imagination for the interpretation of meaning. Learning critical judgment through making comparisons, distinguishing aesthetic differences, evaluating their meaning, and forming opinions, connects art to politics, active listening to active citizenship.

This kind of listening became particularly valuable in concerts that juxtaposed la musique ancienne et moderne. By suggesting the relevance of both Revolution and the Ancien Régime to the present, these concerts offered listeners a means of confronting their political differences as well as any underlying ambiguities, ironies, and paradoxes. They also gave listeners opportunities to see value in conflicting ideals and provided arguments for tolerance and reconciliation over the nature of French identity.

Chapter 8 begins with a description of a particular performance. To prepare for a concert its employees offered to friends, family, and customers on 28 November 1885, the Bon Marché department store cleared out the merchandise on its main floor and installed a platform for 400 performers at one end of it. The date was chosen to coincide with the exhibition of new coats just before the end-of-year sale. The concert itself was the fruit of the music courses the Bon Marché provided for its employees, showing them what could be gained from hard work and discipline. For this occasion, the organizers invited stars from the Opéra and the most popular café-concerts to perform between their choruses and wind-band fantasies, a practice begun in 1883. With art songs and operatic excerpts juxtaposed with comic ditties, and marches placed alongside romances, the result was eclectic in the extreme. In this sense, they resembled the experience of the city and its department stores. Since Bon Marché employees typically performed in at least half the works put on in the store’s concerts, performance was a way of mediating class and cultural differences among professionals and amateurs and among rich and poor on stage and in the audience.

Over 100 period photographs, drawings, concert programs, and sheet music covers as well as 34 examples from popular songs and art music illustrate the book’s many themes. Shown here is a fragment from Félix Régamey’s cartoon The political situation in France, from November 1873, reproduced in the book on page 207.

“Learning critical judgment through making comparisons, distinguishing aesthetic differences, evaluating their meaning, and forming opinions, connects art to politics, active listening to active citizenship.”


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
Jann Pasler Composing the Citizen: Music as Public Utility in Third Republic France University of California Press 817 pages, 6 x 9 inches ISBN 978 0520257405
Claude Lê Anh

Musicologist, pianist, documentary filmmaker, and professor at UC San Diego since 1981, Jann Pasler has written widely on French music and cultural life in Paris in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Besides Composing the Citizen, she recently published Writing through Music (Oxford University Press, 2008), and is currently working on a new book, Music, Race, and Colonialism in France, 1880-1920. Her article, “The Utility of Musical Instruments in the Racial and Colonial Agendas of Late Nineteenth-Century France,” (Journal of the Royal Musical Association, Spring 2004), won the 2005 Colin Slim award from the American Musicological Society for the best article by a senior scholar.

Cover Interview of
July 3, 2009