Musical Joyce

By Philip Harvey

A paper given at The Melbourne Council Chambers of the Williamstown Town Hall for Bloomsday.
(Melbourne Australia, 16 June 1998)

1. Joyce

"My home in Glenosheen, in the heart of the Ballyhoura Mountains, was a home of music and song: they were in the air of the valley; you heard them everywhere - sung, played, whistled; and they were mixed up with the people's pastimes, occupations, and daily life. Though we had pipers, fiddlers, fifers, whistlers and singers of our own, wandering musicians were welcomed; and from every one some choice air or song that struck our fancy was sure to be learned and stored up to form part of an ever-growing stock of minstrelsy" (From Old Irish folk music and songs, quoted in John Stanislaus' Joyce by John Wyse Jackson & Peter Costello. Fourth Estate, 1997, p. 11.)
This is a distant relative, Patrick Weston Joyce, describing the rural musical life of Co. Cork in the 19th C. It is a scene that was well-known to John Stanislaus, James Joyce's father. Music came before, during and after everything -- the habit of singing in particular being virtually congenital with the Joyce family. John Stanislaus Joyce had sixteen children by his wife May in his two cities, Cork and Dublin. He had a talent for finding money and an even bigger talent for spending it, hence his epithet "the most famous reprobate in Ireland". Although fiercely anti-clerical he attended whichever parish church was nearby, more as an excuse to sing in the choir than to attend to his soul. Music was a magnificent extension of his own grandiose character and grandiose dreams.
Like his father, James Joyce was a keen follower of opera and music theatre. His father had a song for every occasion, and would more often than not sing it on that occasion. Like his father, a favourite Joyce conversation would be reminiscence of new or old operatic performances, something we see played out in his story "The Dead." Joyce's father could still remember a high note finish, decades after its execution in the theatre. Like his father, James Joyce had a very fine tenor voice, sweet and mellifluous. A critic wrote of a concert: "Mr Joyce possesses a light tenor voice, which he is inclined to force on the high notes but sings with artistic emotionalism." An Italian musician in Dublin, Michele Esposito, told Samuel Beckett it was like the famous singer Jean de Reszke, news that soon got back to the delighted Jim. From an early age he took singing lessons and more than once flirted with making it a career. But like other career options, such as setting-up the first picture theatre in Dublin, they were always discounted in favour of the music of language. The other reason a singing career was always called-off was that singing lessons required payment. Like his father, James Joyce had a strange aversion to the practice of payment, and therefore wasn't invited back.
Wherever he lived he tried to have a piano in the house, and he sang all his life, at home. Sometimes he sang all day at home, driving his neighbours bonkers His first book of poems was called "Chamber Music."

Jog jig jogged stopped. Dandy tan show of dandy Boylan socks skyblue clocks came light to earth.
O, look we are so! Chamber music. Could make a kind of pun on that. It is a kind of music I often thought when she. Acoustics that is. Tinkling. Empty vessels make most noise. Because the acoustics, the resonance changes according to the weight of the water is equal to the law of falling water. Like those rhapsodies of Liszt's, Hungarian, gipsyeyed. Pearls. Drops. Rain. Diddle iddle addle aadle oodle oodle. Hiss. Now. Maybe now. Before.
(Ulysses, p. 364)

Later in life (1929) Joyce heard and met John Sullivan, an Irish tenor in the French Opera. No doubt with his own stalled singing career somewhere in mind, Joyce became an overnight self- appointed promoter of Sullivan, arranging meetings with any and all musicians of the day, including Thomas Beecham. Someone should make a list of Joyce's many schemes and projects, and contrast them with the dozens Leopold Bloom comes up with in the novel. Like so many other such schemes, Sullivan had again to fend for himself once Joyce heard the muse.
His influence was not all in vain however; it was Joyce's son Giorgio, a bass, who made singing a career, thus continuing the Joyce musical line. We know some of James Joyce's favourites. His favourite operatic composer was Verdi. His favourite liturgical composer was Palestrina. When young his favourite song was "Silent, O Moyle." In later life, "The Brown Ale and the Yellow Ale." Or was it "Finnegans Wake?" He confessed (unexpectedly) a great admiration for Schoenberg. Not so the works of another contemporary, Igor Stravinsky, that Joyce said "not even a canary could sing." Joyce knew Busoni in Zurich, but called his work Orchesterbetriebe ("orchestral goings-on").
All of this aside, there seem to me to be two essential things about Joyce's musical attitudes that help us get inside his writing. The first is that for Joyce, when you talk about music you are talking about singing.
The second is, that for Joyce the highest compliment that could be paid a piece of writing (his or anyone's) is that it approaches the purity of music. "Musical" was for Joyce perhaps the highest term of praise that could be accorded a piece of writing.

2. Dublin 1904

Music and musical allusion in Ulysses is complex and continuous, from the first page where Buck Mulligan mockingly intones a chant from the Latin Mass, to the last page, where Molly Bloom slumberously remembers Spanish songs and castanets during her intense reminiscence of Leopold's courting days. Every page makes mention direct or indirect, by reference or even just by rhythm, to music. How many types are there? Let me count the ways.
Nationalist songs, Child ballads.
Irish folk music, bastardized import folk music.
British patriotic songs, royal anthems.
Music hall songs, parlour ballads, negro minstrelsy, satirical broadsides.
Sailors' shanties, soldiers' garrulities.
Nursery rhymes, schoolyard inventions, pantomime madness.
Ditties, extempore versifying, street songs.
Begging music, buskers, the hurdy-gurdy, organgrinders.
Sixteenth-century madrigals, Shakespeare.
Celtic twilight effusions.
Sacred music (Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, Jewish), including liturgical works, plainchant, triumphalist hymnody, evangelical anthems, ancient, classical and romantic settings, revivalist expressions, pious ejaculations, orthodox, heterodox, heretical, illegal.
Songs in different languages, Italian, French, German, Irish, Latin.

It sounds overwhelming. But this assortment tells us many things about Dublin in 1904. For example, it suggests Dublin is a city in which a native Irish culture exists at odds with or in uncomfortable equilibrium with an entrenched British culture. The Irish culture is gently subversive, at other times stridently subversive, of the dominating red bits. The British culture has sympathetic adherence, yet is often displaced or ironical in its context -- reminder of an imperialist and colonialist presence.
Dublin is a city that can only be reached by road or sea: air travel is still the dream of certain engineering dedaluses. It is a port, meaning it is multicultural, the host to a vast transitory population of foreigners who introduce exotic life to the locals.
Dublin is a city where everyone makes their own music, that is they are their own performers whether publicly or privately. There is barely a sign of the gramophone player and its later variations that changed forever how music is heard and understood. All instruments are original and natural, esp. the human voice. With this comes a social life that is more rigourously and comprehensively organised than anything we can imagine today. Every form of concert can be happening at any time, and I mean any time.
It is a city with a front of respectability, behind which exist barely containable energies of rumbustiousness, creativity, sexuality and thriving individuality. Conformity and unthinking obedience live side by side with the most outrageously independent forms of thinking and behaviour.
Dublin is divided by strong sectarian allegiances. Its imagination is powerfully influenced, in particular, by the Roman Catholic Church, its teaching and practices, or should I say, Her teachings and practices. Simultaneously, there are strong currents working against that dominant paradigm, most of them caused by the church itself. Anticlerical and irreligious sentiments exist.
Dublin is a city that looks to Europe for example and to America for escape.

3. Ulysses

Readers soon pick up that characters have their favourite songs. Leopold is besotted with "The Rose of Castile." Molly has a special place in her heart for the song she is singing on her upcoming tour, "Love's Old Sweet Song." Some of these become points of definition. Some songs are leitmotifs, the signal for further meanings and appearances. In conversations with Frank Budgen in 1918, Joyce explained that writing a novel was like composing music. When asked how chords or motifs could be incorporated into the writing, Joyce gave the less than enlightening reply: "A man might eat kidneys in one chapter, suffer from a kidney disease in another, and one of his friends could be kicked in the kidney in another chapter." (Ellmann, p. 436) The more familiar we become with Ulysses the more these motifs come into focus. One of the songs used to great repetitive effect in all parts of the book is Mozart's La ci darem, though you will soon find others wherever you arrive in the text. Joyce's insistent use of songs reveals how caught up we are with popular music every day, in public and private. He demonstrates, brilliantly, how much favourite tunes and lines come back to us, a private vocabulary of thought associations and dreams.
Songs in Ulysses underscore other meanings in the action. They serve as explanation, implication, and interrogation. They are used to sharpen situations and to heighten moods.
Some readers compare the whole of Ulysses to an enormous symphony, like Gustav Mahler. Mahleresque in its scale, variety and attention to detail. If we take on this view we must ask, what kind of symphony? Each of the 18 episodes has its own compositional style, of a kind that could only have been written by someone with a deep knowledge of music and a sensitivity to musical effect and structure. And even though Joyce is using words and not pure sounds, there is no question that his method of composition owes much to music. Each of the episodes has a special tonal quality. The first episode at the Martello Tower has all the turbulent energy of a Beethoven opening movement; the city scenes give off the sounds of an anarchic quartet; the brothel scenes are charged with sounds of subconscious desire and crisis. And the Sirens episode, the one usually quoted in this context, is actually written like a musical composition, with its overture of words and effects, and their re-emergence throughout the rest of the episode interspersed with fast and slow exchanges of language rhythm.
All of this leads to another important point, so commonly received now as to be greeted with a yawn of tuba-like proportions. Which is, that the language of Ulysses is a music in itself. People who spent less time yawning and more time reading aloud would soon learn this is not only a gift of sounds Joyce has given us, but that he is involving us in the consciousness of the music we ourselves make every day -- the music of our own speaking voices.
Voices. Also, sounds. With all the painstaking attention of as child learning her first sonata, Joyce reproduces in lettering the sounds of the animate and inanimate:
cats mrgnkao
seagulls then phonographs krakrackrak
auction bells barang
horses hohohohohome
trains freeeesong
This is more than onomatopaeia. The composer Otto Luenig recounts a meeting with the writer where he talked about remembering Dublin: "As Joyce described a street, he began with the kinds of cobblestones ... He made vivid the sounds of horses' hooves, and the sound of footsteps on the cobblestones, and their different echoes; and then the smells -- musty sometimes, sometimes of dirt and sometimes of the fresh, or dried, horse-manure that he called 'horseapples.' He illuminated this street of the mind by describing how it looked at different times of the day, in different kinds of light. He talked about the shops with their particular stoops, entrances, and colours, and why some looked like poor, and some like rich, shops."
The sounds of the world, quotidian, miraculous, continual, are brought constantly into the action. They add to Joyce's philosophy of honouring the physical in all its manifestations. They reinforce Joyce's belief in the certainty of the senses: in this case the sense of hearing. And they are celebrated as part of what Seamus Heaney, in another context, called "the music of what's happening now." Nor should we forget Stephen's definition of God, "A shout in the street: Hooray! Ay! Whreeewe!"

4. Aftermath

Music becomes more and more important to Joyce. It is worth noting that Finnegans Wake contains 3 or 4 times more allusions to music than all the rest of Joyce's works. In biographical terms this statistic reveals how much of a European, as distinct from an Irishman or a Dubliner, Joyce had become. Also, perhaps, how rarified he became after Ulysses. The effect of Joyce, and in particular Ulysses, on 20th C. music is incalculable. I say this because it is Joyce's artistic example that has influenced artists in every form. He was an incredibly determined and hugely imaginative experimenter and "bower constructor." And I don't mean experiment for its own sake, but as one means to a greater created entirety.
In the vast arena of modern popular music there are dozens of isolated examples. John Lennon acknowledged Joyce, esp. in the psychedelic period. Syd Barrett, founder of Pink Floyd, was obviously immersed in Joyce. Kate Bush, The Jefferson Airplane. More fruitful is to draw attention to the flourishing Irish scene, where both pop mainstream performers like Van Morrison and the Pogues as well as the traditional performers of Irish music have all made reference to him. For them, Joyce is a symbol of Irish artistic courage and achievement. There are numerous examples of Joyce's direct and acknowledged effect on modern composers. Perhaps the earliest would be the French composer George Antheil's project for the Cyclops episode. It was to be an electric opera. Al Laney described it in the New York Herald at the time (1923):

"The opera was to have for orchestra twelve electric pianos hooked to a thirteenth which played the master roll; on this would be recorded also drums, steel xylophones, and various blare instruments. The score was to be run off at top speed, with crescendos and diminuendos achieved by switching pianos on and off. The singers, seated below the stage and out of sight, would sing into microphones attached to loud speakers on the stage, and a corps de ballet would present the action in pantomime."

Perhaps we should try it for Bloomsday next year. If we did it would be a world premiere as Antheil's ideas came to nothing, a great disappointment to Joyce who apparently was quite fetched by the whole plan.
In conclusion I will name just four other major modern composers directly influenced by James Joyce:
(a) John Cage. Who wrote much directly referring to Joyce, most esp. the radio piece Roaratorio, an Irish circus on Finnegans Wake, an hour of organised cacophony, church bells, dog barks, cow moos, etc., with a bass anchor of the bodhran and Cage's voice reading music sections of the book.
(b) Luciano Berio. Whose work Omaggio a Joyce (1958) is regarded as the turning point of his work away from pure electronic form, using spoken voice, and in new ways -- stretching and fragmenting the phonetic units and treating voice as pure timbre.
(c) Pierre Boulez. Who took the compositional plan of a Work In Progress and used it in the creation of his own music. Some people forget that Ulysses as well as Finnegans Wake was made as a Work In Progress.
(d) Samuel Barber. Who set many of Joyce's poems to music, though I must confess I have yet to hear them. Something to explore next week!

Return to Joyce Papers