My dissertation considers the ways Hector Berlioz's music interacts with the fantastic, a nineteenth-century literary genre that explores and revels in dreamy supernatural occurrences, and that intentionally ruptures the bounds of established reality. I also examine early Romantic ballet, arguing that nineteenth-century French balletic plots and techniques were fundamentally changed in order to embody the fantastic, specifically its trope of the undead female seductress. I explore the early fantastic tales (and the ballets those tales spawned) of Charles Nodier and Théophile Gautier in order to demonstrate the French foundation of the literary fantastic—which is usually said to originate in Germany, with E.T.A. Hoffmann. In my three main chapters, I tie Gautier and Nodier to three of Berlioz's pieces, while in my chapter on ballet I show that Gautier—through his fantastic stories as well as his prolific dance criticism—is largely responsible for the major balletic changes of the Nineteenth century. Thus the fantastic emerges as a vast cultural undertaking, and Berlioz himself is revealed as an artist intimately concerned and connected with a rich, evolving tradition. His music may have differed radically from that associated with the Viennese School, but within the cultural context of the French fantastic, it fits quite comfortably.
There are many theories of the fantastic that enable literary critics to analyze stories and novels, but in music the terms, functions, and methods are quite different. In order to perform close readings of three of Berlioz's pieces, I create a musical theory of the fantastic based on Tzvetan Todorov's 1970 structural study of the genre. Through Todorov, I identify two primary fantastic characteristics that are useful in a discussion of Berlioz: an intentional ambiguity in formal structure, and a privileging of aesthetic "thresholds" over goal-driven action. I also explore the historical foundation of the fantastic via an examination of the teleological narrativity that came to define so many works—artistic as well as scientific, psychiatric, and historiographic—created in nineteenth-century Europe as a reaction to the upheaval of the French Revolution and Reign of Terror.
My three main chapters perform close readings of Symphonic Fantastique , the Requiem, and Les Nuits d'été, examining each according to the fantastic structural and thematic framework outlined in the introductory chapters. Throughout my analyses of these pieces I highlight the conclusions of Berlioz scholars from 1835 to the present, noting that scholarly opinions are still divided when it comes to understanding these works, and that many musicologists unconsciously or unintentionally refer to fantastic issues or characteristics in an effort to explain them. However, generic restrictions between scholarly fields have until recently prohibited any but the most cursory use of literature to understand music.
Although musical analysis is at the heart of my project, the analyses are intended to engage with questions raised in a number of different fields. My project is fundamentally interdisciplinary, intervening in musicology, dance studies, and literary criticism in an effort to demonstrate the common themes, techniques and structures that are the foundation of the fantastic in French art. Furthermore, by tying disparate art forms to the same cultural impulses, I will establish that the psychological issues that manifested in French literature (and that have been thoroughly analyzed by literary critics) are also the instigators of important trends in French ballet and music. Thus, the fantastic emerges as a vast national undertaking—an artistic idiom infiltrating French art at many different levels—born of the fears, anxieties, and desires of post-Revolutionary French society.