Music, diplomacy and emotions

What are the key symbolic and political issues within the mobilisation of music in diplomacy? What power do the diplomatic actors give to music in order to be able to use it as a metaphor or model of international relations? These questions form the basis of the interdisciplinary reflections developed in the book Music and Diplomacy from the Early Modern Era to the Present, edited by Rebekah Ahrendt, Mark Ferraguto and Damien Mahiet.1 Drawing on case studies from 16th century European courts to post-Soviet Belarus, among others, the authors analyse the ideas, practices and institutions that have framed and enabled the development of the complex relationship between music and diplomacy. Across twelve captivating chapters and a very welcome afterword, the book examines from a historical, anthropological and political perspective how music has been “constructed and experienced, as both a metaphor for and a practice of international relations,” the idea that music has the power to “enact social alternatives and cause political change” (p. 2).

The book is organised into three sections of four chapters, each of which is directly related to a function or duty of diplomatic activity: representation, mediation and negotiation. For the editors, representation “conditions the recognition and satisfaction of specific interest by others,” while mediation “offers a third term between competing parties, with peace as its primary raison d’être.” Finally, negotiation “posits an exchange between two or more competing entities and authorizes the formation of some accord” (p. 8). Although this division does not always reflect the breadth of certain chapters which could easily be fit in all three parts, it allows contributions to be diachronically articulated on different aspects of the relationship between music and diplomacy in very different historical moments, from the 16th to the 21st centuries.

Musical representations

The first part analyses the role of music and musicians in diplomatic arrangements whose aims are the recognition or defence of specific interests in power relations. In the first chapter, Arne Spohr studies the functions of music in the diplomatic ceremonial of northern European courts in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Considering the acoustic space in which the ceremonial took place as a space of power, he examines in an engaging way the political and symbolic dimensions of concealed music, that is, the music played by musicians who were outside the visual field of the diplomatic actors. In the second chapter, Giulia Giovani studies the role of the serenade genre, both for competitive purposes and for political representation, in the diplomacy of the Holy Roman Empire and of France in 18th century Venice.

Jonathan L. Yaeger then analyses the use of the prestigious Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) regime for political legitimization, both within and outside its borders. The particularity of the chapter lies in the fact that it addresses the conflicts between the East German Communist Party (SED) and the musicians of the orchestra on the basis of the financial issues of the orchestra’s international tours: the musicians’ low fees versus considerable profits for the State. Finally, Harm Langenkamp examines the symbolic and political challenges of cultural diplomacy deployed by the United States and China around the concept of the Silk Road. For the author, this concept is used as a metaphor for the commitment of political actors to overcome the divisions inherited from the Cold War.

DOI: 10.5076/e-codices-fmb-cb-0708
Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 708, f. 12v – Kedārakalpa

Music and diplomatic mediation mechanisms

The second part of the book offers a critical examination of the diplomatic mediation activities in which music is considered as a shared language capable of creating a common ground between the different actors. At the heart of the reflections developed in the chapters that make up this part is the idea of the universality of music and its supposed power to create a transcultural dialogue beyond the limits of language and political institutions. Thus, Ellen R. Welch studies how diplomatic activity serves as a model for some 17th and 18th century French philosophers to think about the universality and persuasive power of music and the performing arts. Conversely, Frédéric Ramel analyses how the notion of concert was employed in the 18th century by the philosophers Charles-Irénée Castel de Saint Pierre and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to think about the development and limits of international cooperation based on new political institutions. The author shows how a critical archaeology of this concept can help us analyse the challenges of its current reactivation in order to think about international relations, both in terms of the European integration process after 1989 and the criticisms and legitimisation speeches of the G20 as a forum for global governance after the 2008 crisis.

Then, Mario Dunkel studied jazz diplomacy developed by the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) – with the help of the Goethe Institut network in particular – since the early 1960s, what he called “the larger story of Cold War jazz diplomacy” (p. 147). By analysing this system in a comparative way with that deployed by the US State Department during the same period, the author highlights the specific features of the German model, which spread to Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. Finally, M. Paula Survillana closes this section with a chapter dedicated to the political role of rock bands that have developed in post-Soviet Belarus, some of them with the support of the US Embassy and the endorsement of the regime, as opposed to others outside official channels despite the censorship of the authoritarian regime in place.

Music as a tool and stage for negotiation

The third and final part of the book examines the role of music in diplomatic negotiations in such diverse settings as the Princesse des Ursins Lounge in Rome at the end of the 17th century, or events organized in 2011 by the Office of eDiplomacy of the US Department of State. Anne-Madeleine Goulet studies the case of the Princesse des Ursins as a successful example of “feminine diplomacy” (p. 202), showing how her local musical patronage and her promotion of French theatre in Rome enabled her to defend the political interests of France while fulfilling the prestige expected by the local aristocracy.

The last three chapters of this section share an ethnographic approach that makes it possible to take into account the musicians’ positions in the negotiation processes, providing relevant insight into the political issues at stake in these processes and making it possible to understand that what is negotiated sometimes differs according to the expectations of the actors. Jazz is once again on the diplomatic agenda in the chapter of Melvin L. Butler, himself a jazz saxophonist, who studies from a cross-cultural perspective the particularities of the notion of the Haitian djaz and the mobilization of the genre before and after the 2010 earthquake, notably as part of the Port au Prince International Jazz Festival in 2011. As part of a reflection on the possibilities of conducting cultural diplomacy ‘from the bottom up,’ the author shares his field experience regarding the theological and moral issues surrounding the djaz as well as how the appropriation of local repertoires by African-American musicians can play a central role in the creation of common sound, political and social spaces.

The question of the political concerns and the possibilities of creating transcultural links through the musical experience is also addressed by Kendra Salois. Her chapter is based on the study of the Moroccan concert of a US hip-hop group tour organized as part of the American Music Abroad (AMA) program of the State Department. The author shows how American foreign policy issues diverge from the ethical values of American musicians as well as from the political ideas and struggles of local musicians, demonstrating the limits of a naïve, universalist vision of the power of music to transmit hypothetical American values. Finally, Willow F. Williamson discusses the possibility of thinking about the collaborative dimension of public diplomacy with theoretical tools from musical improvisation. The author thus argues for a reflective and historically informed diplomatic practice that considers listening as a condition for exchanges and partners as fully-fledged actors.

DOI: 10.5076/e-codices-fmb-cb-0708
Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 708, f. 15v – Kedārakalpa

Music and power

The chapters present in an original way how the mobilization of musical works and practices in diplomatic activities is intimately linked to the issues of the pursuit and exercise of power. Similarly, just as musical concepts have been used to think about international relations, they show how interdisciplinary analysis of diplomatic arrangements clarifies the relationship between music and politics. But what are we talking about when we refer to ‘music’ and its role in the exercise and pursuit of power? Danielle Fosler-Lussier’s afterword addresses this question by reflecting on the powers granted to music.

Performing and listening to music is a collective action carried out in a particular space and time. Musical performance structures social relationships and conditions the perception of events while delimiting acoustic spaces. Furthermore, according to Fosler-Lussier, musical performance enables “both the transmission of ideas through the content of the works (symbolic power) and a new understanding of self and other through the performative nature of the events (social power)” (p. 271). This is particularly true because people who listen to a musical work do so with a certain idea of what they are listening to. For example, a musical genre, such as the symphony, may better embody some ideas about power – a conductor who harmoniously leads a group of individuals – while others, such as jazz or free improvisation, may symbolize a certain idea of collaboration or the ‘spontaneity’ of collective activity. Thus, the persuasive power of music lies as much in its ability to condition the perception of reality – the reality that the power wants to show – as in its ability to transmit or impose certain ideas on that reality.

Music and Diplomacy from the Early Modern Era to the Present is in short a remarkable collective reflection on a vast and fascinating subject. However, the book’s limitations lie mainly in the scope of the subject explored, the preservation and accessibility of diplomatic archives, and a certain geopolitics of the production of academic knowledge. As the editors clearly indicate in the introduction, most of the chapters on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries draw a fan-shaped network from the United States and focus on diplomatic arrangements organized or supported in particular by the Department of State.

Emotions on international relations

The book contains however a blind spot that could open up new perspectives in the study of the relationship between music and diplomacy: the consideration of emotions in diplomatic arrangements and international relations.2 In fact, the emotional register plays a fundamental role in the representation, mediation and negotiation of States’ interests. Todd H. Hall develops this idea in his book Emotional Diplomacy. Official emotion on the international stage. He defines the concept of emotional diplomacy as “the deployment of official emotion in the relations between states” (p. 16), i.e. “coordinated state-level behaviour that explicitly and officially projects the image of a particular emotional response toward other states” (p. 2).

Based on detailed case studies, the author explores the implications of three complex emotions in international relations since the second half of the 20th century: diplomacy of anger in the 1995-1996 crisis between China and Taiwan, diplomacy of sympathy in Russia’s and China’s reactions after 11 September 2001, and diplomacy of guilt in relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and Israel after the end of the Second World War. Adopting a Goffmanian approach to social interactions, Hall argues that diplomatic actors can use the register of emotions through specific gestures, language or actions to provide a coordinated and strategic response to diplomatic actors from another state. The purpose of this response would be to achieve specific purposes by shaping perceptions and directing the interlocutors’ judgment in a given direction.

Even if Todd H. Hall does not analyse diplomatic mechanisms where music is mobilised, it is certain that an emotional diplomacy approach can have considerable influence in the study of the relationship between music and diplomacy. Therefore, as a final point, I would like to outline two of these consequences. The first would be the integration of musical action, and its emotional dimension, into a broader diplomatic network in which all the diplomatic actors of a state play a role. This integration would allow a finer analysis of the performative dimension of music as well as the tensions created between the emotions deployed when music intervenes and the coordinated response of diplomatic actors (the official emotion) at other events in the network. The second consequence would be a better consideration of the role of emotions in the processes of giving new meaning to works and musical practices when they are deployed within diplomatic activities. This would bring about innovative socio-historical studies of the role of music in diplomatic arrangements and, more broadly, in international relations.

Cite this blog post
Luis Velasco-Pufleau (2019, June 5). Music, diplomacy and emotions. Music, Sound and Conflict. Retrieved June 25, 2024, from

  1. Review of Rebekah Ahrendt, Mark Ferraguto, Damien Mahiet (eds.), Music and Diplomacy from the Early Modern Era to the Present, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 291 p.; and Todd H. Hall, Emotional Diplomacy. Official emotion on the international stage, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2015, 248 p. This text is the English version of Luis Velasco-Pufleau, “Musique, diplomatie et émotions”, Revue française de science politique, vol. 69, no 2, 2019, p. 115-118. / PDF []
  2. With the exception of Ellen R. Welch’s chapter, where the question of the relationship between music and emotions is discussed through reflections developed in French treaties in the 17th and 18th centuries on the universality and persuasive power of music and dance. []

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  1. 07/02/2024

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