Composing the Citizen: Music as Public Utility in Third Republic France.
When modern politicians refer to decisions made for the "common good," access to essential services such as electricity, water, and police protection may immediately spring to mind. In France, however, the related concept of utilite publique (public utility) is more nuanced, centered on how government serves the public interest and influences policy decisions. With a legacy extending back to the seventeenth century and, in a broader sense, to the writings of Plato, the role of music in advancing utilite publique has often been overlooked. As Jann Pasler argues in her imposing new book, after the Franco-Prussian War music played a defining role in shaping or "composing" the populace into productive citizens. For a Republic still reeling from a crushing military defeat and comprised of diverse competing factions, music helped to unite the French under a common national identity. Pasler's careful research and deft analysis of history, politics, society, and culture during the early Third Republic--despite its title, the book centers nearly exclusively on the 1870-1900 period, rather than the entire era to 1940--is a model of broad, interdisciplinary research extending beyond the traditional boundaries of musicology.
Pasler's decision to start with a "Walking Tour" of Paris allows her to unveil salient concepts from the outset. With the gradual expansion of Paris to twenty arrondissements by 1860, accomplished in part through Georges Haussmann's "urban surgery" (p. 17) that transformed narrow streets into grand boulevards, politicians began linking architecture and urban design with public moeurs (customs). The role of music in reviving the legacy of the Revolution and supporting a common identity occupies much of Part One. Drawing on varied primary sources and featuring overlooked composers such as Gossec, Pasler highlights the role of patriotic songs, choruses, and wind music as the "collective voice" (p. 145) of the people.
In Part Two, Pasler explores the evolving role of music in primary school education and the growth of large group communal singing. Operas including Ambroise Thomas's domestic drama Mignon and Auguste Mermet's Jeanne d'Arc (one of several works on Joan of Arc performed during the Moral Order), were critical in demonstrating a unified view of the Republic. One of Pasler's most surprising revelations was the ubiquity of concerts held in venues not traditionally associated with music making, including Parisian department store Bon Marche. Requiring extensive rehearsals and using employees as performers, these occasions were popular with audiences across the social spectrum. For Pasler, group singing at Bon Marche events "could ease tensions and deepen bonds, strengthening community" (p. 199), although she does not fully justify how this was achieved.
Later, she surveys concerts (more than fifty in the 1870s and 80s alone) that took place at a Paris zoo. These allowed the general public--who often could not afford tickets to symphony, chamber, or opera concerts--access to professional musicians of the highest caliber. I wished for more detailed commentary on these unconventional events: were they unique to Paris or evident in other parts of France as well? The author deftly corrects several prevailing views regarding concert life during this period, as it be came increasingly common to intersperse older works with new French music. Facsimiles of concert programs allow readers to examine a variety of eclectic programs, where it was customary to hear "Dubois next to Lully, or Gounod, Bizet, and Saint-Saens after Handel" (p. 218).
Pasler argues that after the 1878 World Exposition the French government became less influenced by the Catholic church and more secular in outlook. Using an 1882 Concerts Colonne event as an example, she demonstrates how secular and sacred works often shared the same programs, even on major religious holidays. The mingling of social classes and wide acceptance of music's didactic role led to concerts featuring works by Gretry and Mehul, the latter posited as "the Jacques-Louis David of dramatic music" (p. 340). Specific parallels between Mehul and the French painter are never made explicit, reflecting Pasler's tendency to devote minimal attention to the visual arts.
Since the subject of music in the former French colonies is intricate and often contentious, Pasler devotes a carefully nuanced chapter to the subject. Building on her previous research on popular song (chansons populaires), (1) she notes how imported examples of European music could provide "a context for colonists to distinguish themselves from the natives" (p. 401). References to exotic works include Saint-Saens's little-known Suite algerienne along with Delibes's Lakme, set in British-occupied India but rife with parallels to French colonial affairs. Pasler returns briefly to colonialism in a later chapter focused on the 1889 World Exposition, where "non-Western people were displayed in constructed villages" (p. 570) for the enjoyment of French spectators. But as we know from the example of Debussy, strongly influenced by authentic Javanese gamelan music, the Exposition could serve as more than mere entertainment.
Part Four--the largest section at just over two hundred pages--explores the renewed interest in early music around 1890 as well as growing concerns regarding Wagner's influence on the French arts as a whole. Pasler reads Saint-Saens's Third Symphony as a response to Wagner and Debussy's Cinq poemes de Baudelaire as the "intersection of Wagnerian and symbolist aesthetics" (p. 532). Shifting gears, she briefly outlines the significance of a Satiesque group called "Les Incoherents" who employed humorous elements in works such as Alphonse Allais's Marche funebre (1884) that includes no written music. Two chapters and a "Coda" advance the discussion to the turn of the twentieth century, including France's steady support for new music after 1890; the integration of old and new compositional approaches in works such as Debussy's Suite bergamasque; the popularity of historical concerts (concerts historiques) in reviving interest in earlier composers; and the unabated political use of historical figures (Joan of Arc again). As audiences from all social classes and genders were able to study music and attend concerts, Pasler contends, what it meant to be authentically French continued to be redefined.
A brief review cannot do justice to the remarkable achievement that Composing the Citizen represents. As the first volume in a proposed trilogy, the book represents the culmination of years of painstaking archival work and a solid foundation for the author's subsequent research. Make no mistake: despite an obvious visual appeal supported by photographs, source documents, and musical examples, this tightly packed monograph tests the reader's stamina over the course of nearly 800 pages of dense prose and meticulous footnotes on virtually every page. The omission of a separate bibliography--less egregious given the book's girth--diminishes its value to a scholarly audience interested in ready access to Pasler's expansive source base.
A consistent focus on historical and cultural issues--mostly centered on Paris while the rest of the nation receives scant attention--means that detailed musical analyses are sparse, despite astute commentary on a variety of works. These concerns, however, in no way diminish the fundamental importance of Pasler's work. Written in a lively, engaging style, the book will amply reward those with the tenacity to plumb its substantial depths, becoming an indispensible source on its subject for years to come. I look forward to the next installment.
Keith E. Clifton
Central Michigan University
(1.) For a fuller discussion of the chanson populaire, see Pasler's "Race and nation: musical acclimatisation and the chansons populaires in Third Republic France" in Western Music and Race, ed. Julie Brown, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007: 147-67.
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|Author:||Clifton, Keith E.|
|Publication:||Fontes Artis Musicae|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2011|
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