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Songbirds on the Literary Stage

The Woman Singer and her Song in French and German Prose Fiction, from Goethe to Berlioz


Julia Effertz

This interdisciplinary study, situated at the cross-section of music, literature and gender, examines the woman singer and her song as a literary motif in French and German prose fiction from the 1790s to the mid-nineteenth century. Through selected case studies, this diachronic history of motifs offers a fresh perspective on canonical singer archetypes, such as Goethe’s child singer Mignon and Madame de Staël’s ground-breaking artist Corinne. The volume also examines lesser known narratives by authors including Caroline Auguste Fischer, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Hector Berlioz and Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, some of which have not been considered critically in this regard before. This allows for a re-evaluation of the significance of the singer motif in musical narratives from the Romantic era to the July Monarchy. The sometimes polemic, often ambivalent, yet always nuanced and multi-layered reflection on the woman singer in literature bears testimony to the complexity of the nineteenth-century musical-literary discourse and its fluid negotiation of gender relations and female performance, fitting well with that ineffable, enigmatic essence of the woman singer herself who, as a literary motif and a cultural icon, continues to resonate and fascinate well beyond the nineteenth century.
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Chapter 8: Hoffmannesque Dénouements: The Nightmare of the Romantic Singer in Hector Berlioz’s Euphonia, ou la ville musicale


← 240 | 241 →CHAPTER 8

It seems fitting to conclude the discussion of the woman singer motif in French and German literature between the late eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth century with a brief glimpse into the future.

As one of the most important composers of French Romanticism as well as a highly respected author, Hector Berlioz crafts a most fascinating image of the music of the future in one of his signature pieces, the musical novella Euphonia, ou la ville musicale (1844), aptly subtitled Nouvelle de l’avenir and later included as a key part of his story compilation Les Soirées de l’orchestre (1852).

In Euphonia, Berlioz rewrites the Hoffmannesque antagonism between a patriarchal, Romantic musical ideal (as exemplified by the utopian musical city Euphonia) and its realist contrast (embodied by the female singer Mina, a foreigner who infiltrates and eventually triggers the destruction of Euphonia and of musical utopia). Berlioz not only continues E.T.A. Hoffmann’s questioning of male-authored musical ideals; he also goes one step further, shifting the narrative agency onto the female singer and casting her as the destroyer of Romantic musical ideals. Berlioz’s Euphonia stands out as an unusual treatment of this much-fêted character among the mostly one-dimensional and banal literary treatments of singers in mid-nineteenth-century French literature.

Hector Berlioz, like Hoffmann, was a doubly talented composer and writer whose compositions were inspired and influenced by poetry and who transposed his bold musical imagery into his narratives, creating rich...

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