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Reviewed by:
  • Composing the Citizen: Music as Public Utility in Third Republic France
  • Julie Townsend
Composing the Citizen: Music as Public Utility in Third Republic France. By Jann Pasler. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. xxii + 790 pp., ill. Hb $60.00; £41.95.

Jann Pasler’s ambitious study traces the relationships between music, republicanism, and national identity over the course of the nineteenth century. Of her many guiding questions, most intriguing is the nuanced history of how the arts generally, and music specifically, took on such a prominent role in defining French identity. In contrast to most studies, which tend to focus on the emergence of the avant-garde, Composing the Citizen brings into focus the uses of music in progressive, nationalist, pedagogical, and utilitarian contexts. The early chapters jump quickly between philosophical traditions, governmental policies, local festivals, large-scale productions, and shifting political climates. Because the author casts such a wide net, philosophical, political, and aesthetic movements often tend to be reduced to mere sound bites as she attempts to make what sometimes seem to be rather tenuous connections across broad categories. Pasler’s presentation is at its best later in the volume when she is able to go into greater depth on the connections between events within a well-defined theme. Her discussion of how music might serve as a reflection for dynamic debates about mœurs, national history, the relation of France to other European nations, colonial endeavours, and, above all, republican values does indeed succeed in mapping out the importance of music in thinking through issues of national identity more generally. The occasional forays into an analysis of musical style are intriguing but do not play a prominent role in Pasler’s tome. There is no question that the depth of analysis is compromised by the formidable scope of her project. Just as she elevates the role of the arts in national formation, Pasler sometimes minimizes the ways in which political conflict is strongly embedded in aesthetic values. She perhaps too readily accepts notions of French progress and exceptionalism, even in chapters that address colonialism and women’s roles; the Third Republic, Pasler concludes, laid the foundation for France’s current attitude towards the arts, including ‘the desire to assure accessibility to the arts for all [End Page 359] 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’ (p. 696). By marginalizing the political and ethical conflicts that often characterize aesthetic judgements and endorsements of particular artistic endeavours, Pasler minimizes the ways in which the arts helped to shape political and social critique. That being said, this work incorporates a wealth of archival material and thoughtful commentary on nineteenth-century composers, music pedagogy, and the role of music in defining local communities as well as national values. By drawing unlikely connections across diverse contexts, this volume opens up spaces for more in-depth considerations of heretofore unexplored topics.

Julie Townsend
University of Redlands


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pp. 359-360
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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