Musical Borrowing
An Annotated Bibliography

Individual record

[+] Ritchey, Marianna. “Comic Irony in Harold en Italie.” Journal of Musicology 36 (Winter 2019): 68-95.

Hector Berlioz’s second symphony, Harold en Italie, exemplifies a thread of detached, self-mocking comic irony that is common in French Romantic literature, which deals with the impossibility of artistic freedom in bourgeois society. The references to Byron and Beethoven, two of Berlioz’s Romantic heroes, are key to this ironic reading of the symphony. Mark Evan Bonds’s earlier reading of Harold casts Berlioz’s references to Beethoven as a case of anxiety of influence, ignoring the (admittedly subjective) comedy of the symphony. Berlioz started composing Harold after Paganini commissioned a virtuosic viola piece, but Paganini quickly rescinded his offer after seeing the first movement. The title and program of Harold references Byron’s poem Childe Harold, tracing a semi-autobiographical trip through Italy. In Harold, Byron (and later Beethoven) become stand-ins for the archetypical alienated Romantic Hero, characterized by the solo viola. Throughout the symphony, the orchestra undermines the heroic character of the viola, and the supposedly heroic viola is often hesitant and uncertain. The most dramatic heroic deflation comes in the finale, the most direct reference to Beethoven in the symphony. In the finale to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the themes from each of the previous movements are heard and a new, transcendent theme closes out the symphony. In Harold, Berlioz mimics the same reminiscences of previous movements, but the themes remain disparate and interrupt each other. The jangling Brigands theme eventually drives the viola out of the orchestra in Harold’s conclusion. Using typical Romantic hero narratives, this conclusion is ambiguous at best. However, using French ironic narrative models (such as Gautier’s fictional painter Omunphrius, whose work is recognized only after his death but is credited to someone else instead), the deflated finale becomes ironic meta-commentary on the Romantic artist. The irony of Berlioz’s hero (Harold, Beethoven, Byron, himself) is the futility of declaring your own genius to a world that does not understand.

Works: Berlioz: Harold en Italie (73-89)

Sources: Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 (73, 76, 80, 85-86)

Index Classifications: 1800s

Contributed by: Matthew Van Vleet

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