The final movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Dreams of a Witches’ Sabbath, contains a musical depiction of evil that is deep-seated in a long history of this concept in Western culture. The conception of evil has shown itself to be a dynamic entity that has varied with time and ideological change, which, has in turn resulted in a rich and intricate tradition of symbolism. This is especially evident when examining the portrayal of evil in the context of early 19th century French Romantic art and music. The ideas and fascination of evil and the grotesque depicted through these mediums are reflective of political, religious, and ideological changes in 19th century France as well as philosophical beliefs and tenets characteristic of the intellectual movement of Romanticism that helped to define this era. With these points in mind, Berlioz’s own experiences of evil in the social climate of 19th century France would have undoubtedly influenced him in his compositional choices, and how he chose to portray the concept of evil in this piece. Berlioz conveys the notion of evil throughout the movement primarily using the vehicles of deviation and disorder, which are symbolically represented through the use of harmonically unpredictable music and ambiguity of form. This paper will contextualize these symbolisms in the final movement of the Symphonie Fantastique in relation to Berlioz’s own experiences of evil in the culture of 19th century France.
Before examining the symbolism of evil in the Symphonie Fantastique, though, it is critical to first have a frame of reference for what formed the concept of evil in France before and around 1830. The political turmoil in addition to the scientific, philosophical, and theological developments that characterize this era are significant in understanding the climate of evil in Berlioz’s time. The ideological foundation of established religion that had long existed in France up to this point in history began to slowly disintegrate throughout the mid to late 18th century. This happened for a number of reasons. First and foremost was the general discontent between reform successes and overall consequences of the French Revolution of 1789. The failure to truly realize the aspirations of the original French revolutionaries severely weakened the French population’s faith in Christendom. Napoleon, in his dominion over most of continental Europe, further contributed to the growing religious apathy by abandoning the Holy Roman Empire, which officially severed all ties between church and state. The increasing trend of urbanization in this era, due in part to the Industrial Revolution, also meant that as people moved from the countryside with its more traditional, authoritarian values, they began to discard their old routines and beliefs, turning instead to more contemporary ideas of the era in order to explain their poor living conditions.
These ideas were reflective of thoughts posed by prominent enlightenment theorists of the mid to late 18th century, and were a driving force in the restructuring of philosophical and theological thought of the era. The religious skepticism of these philosophers continued to increase well into the early 19th century and eventually pervaded theological thought within the public sphere. The leader of these philosophers for most of the 18th century was Voltaire, whose ideas began to pave the way for greater and greater distancing from traditional religious ideology and belief, which eventually resulted in widespread atheism and moral relativism. “Voltaire was tempted to say that since we know nothing about the existence of God we know nothing about absolute good and evil, and the problem of evil does not exist.”
This reformation of the concept of morality by Enlightenment philosophers had a significant effect on the symbolism of evil. The skepticism and atheism in the ideology of Enlightenment...