Sunday, November 29, 2009

Composing the Citizen: Music as Public Utility in Third Republic France.

By Jann Pasler.

Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, July 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-520-25740-5, $60.00. 817 pages.

Review by Reba Wissner, Brandeis University

There is no better summary of Jann Pasler’s Composing the Citizen than the one she herself writes: “In Composing the Citizen, I investigate how French citizens thought music could contribute to the formulation and health of their democracy, and why they embraced musical progress as emblematic of national progress. I explore the musical education they envisaged, from thinking a child’s first intellectual efforts should involve singing to devoting a significant place to music in the Universal Exhibitions. I examine the shifting beliefs and conditions that led to and then mitigated the pervasiveness of republican ideology in French culture” (31). Pasler examines the roots, implications, and consequences of music as public utility in Third Republic France (1870-1940), “a time when politicians intent on creating a lasting democracy in France saw music as integral to the public good—a way to imagine the future voice diverse aspirations, and discover shared values,” examining social practices across cultures through the lens of music’s usefulness (xii).
The author’s main argument is that “music, musical instruments, performing situations, and images of these—often associated with race, ethnicity, class, gender, and culture—helped people become aware of their positions in the debates about identity and nation” (645). She argues throughout that music helped to form a commonality and establishment of a national identity within French society, through its “public utility,” since “generally speaking, in France, the useful in music is what links sound to society, music to the community” (83). The study is motivated by the author’s personal interest as a woman of French descent who spent a great deal of time working in the French archives, a biographical aspect which I feel is useful in order to understand the incorporation of the fruits of her copious research.

Pasler’s book is an in-depth explanation of utilité publique and the government’s role in it, identifying that “the idea that the social utility of goods and services should take priority over their personal utility, provides a key to understanding French notions of government up to the present” (70). The study includes plentiful discussion of French history, politics, law, and philosophy, to place the concept of utilité publique within proper context, while outlining music and the establishment of community, as well as the types of music important in the revolutionary tradition and the challenges presented to composers to write such music. There is a heavy emphasis on French conceptions of both moral and musical progress, as well as the author’s notion of composing the citizen. Music as resistance is also an important component of the book, including an appropriation of music’s utility for non-republican purposes. The role of Wagner’s music for this purpose is examined in detail, but the book also concentrates on the role of composers such as Delibes, Saint-Saens, Massenet, Satie- composers that we don’t typically equate with music and political activism. The role of opera, its prohibitions and characteristics, are discussed at length, as well as the use of older—or as she deems them, “ancient”—forms of music in modern compositions is also discussed at length. In total, the book serves as a gateway to the author’s next books, providing an introduction to their subjects and as a result examines on a broad basis “how, through their music, the French, particularly at the end of the century, engaged with identity from the perspective of race, class, and gender” (645) and focusing on what music has done and what the Third Republic has shown us. Pasler concludes the book by connecting her research of this period to its applications in modern France and our globally interconnected, finance-driven world.

Pasler’s study is divided into four parts consisting of twelve chapters plus an introduction and coda, and three appendices. Part I: Forming Public Spirit and Useful Citizens, Part II: Shaping Judgment and National Taste, Part III: Instituting Republican Culture, and Part IV: Shifting Notions of Utility: Between the Nation and the Self, together create a chronological study of the use of music in France during this seventy-year span. Quotes of varying size are interwoven throughout the work and in between the pictures and musical examples. Both the abundant illustrations and musical examples featured throughout the book are helpful to the reader, though it is not necessary for the reader to be able to read music for the author’s point to be clearly understood. Each of the appendices contain the important political and musical events in the Early Third Republic, as well as the music’s varying appearances in publications of the day.

The book is dense and sometimes seems quite convoluted in terms of information. The reader may feel bogged down, because it seems as if the author included every single primary source and piece of evidence, which has both its plusses and minuses. Pasler uses specific pieces of music to illustrate points and as case studies throughout the book and talks a lot throughout the book about public policy in France. The chapters are long, often encompassing many different topics, making them sometimes difficult to follow the author’s train of thought. The book includes little analysis of the implications of the conception of music among the presentation of an ample amount of facts. The writing is clear but definitely not concise.

While the book falls into the area of music, readers interested in history, public policy, and philosophy will find much to grab onto. There is no other book like it that has been published in the field of musicology, and Pasler’s study gives the reader a glimpse into the musical life in a single part of Europe that has largely been ignored for the time period that the book covers. As an interdisciplinary work, Jann Pasler’s Composing the Citizen is a model for contemporary scholarship.

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