Berlioz’s Harold en Italie (1834) is a strange, ambiguously programmatic symphony that refers explicitly to both Beethoven and Byron—two of the lions of Romantic heroism—in ways that are not always straightforward. I argue that Berlioz’s evocation of Romantic heroism is an ironic commentary on the impossibility of artistic freedom in bourgeois society. I also identify a new literary connection to the symphony: the comically ironic short stories and journalism written by Berlioz’s friend Théophile Gautier.
Many have argued that both the Byronic archetype and the nineteenth-century symphony became vehicles for exploring the high ideal of Romantic heroism. Hearing Harold as humorously ironic enables insights into Berlioz’s experience of his cultural moment and alternative readings of the impact of Byronic and Beethovenian heroism on subsequent generations of artists, while also opening possibilities for exploring narrative as a hermeneutic for musical analysis.