La Donna E Mobile: Isn’t it Ironic?
“La Donna e’ Mobile,” the insanely catchy canzone from Rigoletto by Giussepe Verdi, takes on two types of irony. The first, is from the words themselves. “La Donna e’ Mobile” translates from Italian as “The woman is fickle.” The Duke who sings this canzone is, in fact, the one who is fickle in his actions and his women. This is verbal irony.
The second instance of irony, associated to “La Donna e’ Mobile” is in its reprise at the end of Rigoletto. Rigoletto plans to kill the Duke, but Rigoletto’s daughter takes the Duke’s place, and is assassinated instead. After Rigoletto receives the wrapped corpse of the person who he thinks is the Duke, he rejoices and plans to throw the dead body into the river. As he is about to do so, the eerie tune of “La Donna e’ Mobile” enters his ear. The dramatic and situational irony unfolds and Rigoletto realizes, with horror, that the corpse is his daughter.
In class, we have come across music that portrays a range of emotion. However, I have never realized that song can deliver messages of irony, both through its lyrics and music. I therefore, thought it would be interesting to look at the art of irony in music.
In studies of irony in music, composers Beethoven and Schumann are famous for their use of romantic irony ( a phenomenon that started in the Romantic era). Oxford Dictionary defines romantic irony as “a kind of literary self‐consciousness in which an author signals his or her freedom from the limits of a given work by puncturing its fictional illusion and exposing its process of composition as a matter of authorial whim. This is often a kind of protective self‐mockery involving a playful attitude towards the conventions of the (normally narrative) genre.”
Schumann’s music is said to have a juxtaposition of consciousness and impulse. Schumann’s work Carnaval is said to use language that consists of signs that expose the soul. The words are like a secret code. Schumann expresses “that his music is to be compared to a “poem” rather than to a “flower,” the kind of music written by some of his contemporaries. A flower has a natural, uninterrupted form, one might say, whereas a poem is an autonomous creation of the “poetic mind” and can therefore follow laws of construction that may be called “unnatural.” This is romantic irony.
In class, we also studied the concept of Wagner’s Letimotifs. The Leitmotiv is a short musical portion that is associated with a character or instance in Wagner’s work. This piece of music can tell us insight into the character, often emotion and situation that the character himself is not aware of. This is a key example of music creating dramatic irony in the opera.
What are some other instances that you have heard a form of irony in music? Do you think this adds another dimension to music?