Un paysage choisi: Fêtes galantes in Fin-de-siècle French music”

From 1880 to 1900, France’s most representative composers wrote music inspired by eighteenth-century fêtes galantes, lavish outdoor celebrations devoted to aristocratic leisure, pleasure, and fantasy. Though seemingly anachronistic, the gesture was significant. The fêtes-galantes theme provided artists with a nexus of signifiers drawn from disparate but related historical sources, including descriptions of actual events, Antoine Watteau’s paintings, stock characters from the Comédie-Italienne, and even garden design. These interrelated historical signifiers in turn could be employed in multiple ways, referring both to the glories of the ancien régime and to artistic critiques of France’s absolutist past. By exploring fêtes galantes, then, fin-de-siècle composers dealt with contemporary questions of aesthetics and subjectivity, while simultaneously positioning themselves with regard to French history. In this way, fêtes repertory is among the earliest to explore new ideas about signification and to employ modernist strategies of semiotic play and synaesthesia.

This dissertation concentrates on mélodies by Claude Debussy and Gabriel Fauré set to the poems of Paul Verlaine, from his collection of poetry Fêtes galantes (1869). It also considers instrumental and theatrical music related to the fêtes galantes theme. Though this repertory is frequently performed today, scholarship devoted to it has been minimal. While scholars have devoted considerable attention to fin-de-siècle French attitudes toward music of the past, there has been little effort to ground fêtes galantes music within this historical context. Treating this music as a thematic group affords us the opportunity to reconsider the kinds of creative enterprises the composers were undertaking, their relationship to contemporary literature, their compositional practices, and their sources of inspiration.