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

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

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

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


In a book that challenges modernist ideas about the value and role of music in Western society, Composing the Citizen demonstrates how music can help forge a nation. Deftly exploring the history of Third Republic France, Jann Pasler shows how French people from all classes and political persuasions looked to music to revitalize the country after the turbulent crises of 1871. Embraced not as a luxury but for its "public utility," music became an object of public policy as integral to modern life as power and water, a way to teach critical judgment and inspire national pride. It helped people to forget the past, voice conflicting aspirations, and imagine a shared future.

Based on a dazzling survey of archival material, Pasler's rich interdisciplinary work looks beyond elites and the histories their agendas have dominated to open new windows onto the musical tastes and practices of amateurs as well as professionals. A fascinating history of the period emerges, one rooted in political realities and the productive tensions between the political and the aesthetic. Highly evocative and deeply humanistic, Composing the Citizen ignites broad debates about music's role in democracy and its meaning in our lives.


Growing up in a post-Sputnik generation that valued scientific pursuits along with the American dream of economic prosperity, I understood the role of music in life as marginal. Music could entertain, distract, engross, and elevate, but it was not socially useful. Its proper place in society was secondary to other, more obviously serious or practical pursuits. Living in France changed my mind. At the age of nineteen, when I got lost in Paris and stopped a woman on the street for help, she gave me a glimpse of another perspective. Learning that I was a musician, she went out of her way to accompany me to my destination. It wasn’t just her generosity that impressed me. There was a twinkle in her eye, a suggestion of some deeper knowledge about the meaning of her gesture. When I asked her why she’d gone to such lengths to help me, she explained that, when all is said and done, it is the arts that survive from our past. the arts ensure the continuity of civilization. This woman had known the war. She’d experienced the annihilation of much that she valued and loved. It wasn’t that I represented the future, although my father, at my age, had been among those who had fought to liberate her people. It was the music. Seeing an opportunity to support someone involved with the continued creation of music, she smiled broadly.

For French people like this woman, music has social as well as personal significance: it empowers a conception of history that includes oneself in the present and has implications for the future. Like history, people use music to understand themselves and their world. Music not only records and interprets memories and traditions, it also helps one to construct an identity. I could not know what music the woman was thinking about when we spoke, or if she had any specific music in mind, only that whatever personal meaning she associated with music was intimately tied to its social meaning, a notion of civilization—of values, traditions, and citizenship—that she assumed we shared.

This attitude posed puzzling questions: why has France as a nation valued music so highly, although many French have not traditionally seen themselves as . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.