The fantastic, theorized as an expression of the anxieties, fears, and political beliefs of the generation of young French writers born in the decades directly following the Revolution and Terror, has long been viewed primarily as a literary genre. Observed in light of this artistic movement, Berlioz's most famous work, Symphonie fantastique, emerges as a musical manifestation of fantastic techniques, and Berlioz himself as an important contributor to the Fantastic culture that swept nineteenth-century France. Using Tzvetan Todorov's narrative theory, I identify two techniques fantastic authors exploit that are most useful in understanding Symphonie Fantastique: an intentional ambiguity of form, and a privileging of ambiguous ““thresholds”” over teleological plot resolution. In pursuing a new explanation of the symphony's strange deviations from musical norms, I highlight the many different ways the symphony has been understood and analyzed by prominent musicologists over the past 180 years.
By now, musicologists have effectively demonstrated that Berlioz was not the ““incompetent genius”” (in Charles Rosen's wry formulation) he was long considered to be; however, the fact that there is still disagreement and debate over Symphonie Fantastique's deviations from normative form and content, as well as what those deviations might mean, demonstrates the highly fraught signifying structure of the music. Locating the symphony's use of fantastic tropes and techniques demonstrates that many of its strangest aspects——those ““failures”” that have been the subject of musicological debate since 1835——come into focus when we take its title seriously and regard the work as a symphony in the fantastic genre.