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Exploring Music: A Valuable Addition

The MHS Review 387 Vol. 11 No.9, 1987

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David M. Greene


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James Joyce had a fine tenor voice and entertained notions of becoming a profes­sional singer in his early years. It is bruited about that he gave it up when he was beaten out in the competition at the Feis Ceoil, an annual music festival in Dublin, by a young man named John McCormack. The facts differ somewhat.

In 1902 Joyce graduated, unspectacular­ly, from University College, and spent the next year rather at loose ends. McCormack, who had won the 1902 competition, per­suaded him to enter in 1903. When the judges heard him, he was apparently a shoo­in. But he discovered that between him and victory lay a sight-reading test. This was merely pro forma, but Joyce, who could not sight-read and who had not been told of this hurdle, balked, and had to be con­tent with third prize. Though he appeared in a Dublin concert with McCormack the following year, he did not pursue that path further.

This is not to say that he lost interest in music. Within limits, he was passionately fond of it. The characters in his story ''.The Dead" discuss quite knowledgeably the decline in opera singing in Dublin over the years. And McCormack himself becomes the character Shaun the Post in Finnegan's Wake. But Joyce's vocal hero was not McCormack; instead he helped further the career of John Sullivan (or O'Sullivan), a big-voiced bawler, whom Joyce was con­vinced was the great tenor of all time.

Self-exiled from Ireland, Joyce embark­ed on a career as a writer. By the late 1920s, thanks to failed business ventures, family problems, the rejection of his works, and increasing blindness, he was in a parlous state. His well-wishers looked about for some project that might aid him financially. Someone--somewhere I recall reading that it was Herbert Hughes, music critic, folksong arranger, and father of the late Spike Hughes--suggested a collection of settings of Joyce poems by eminent com­posers, the proceeds to go to the author. And so The Joyce Book, handsomely printed, bound in royal blue silk, and with a portrait by Augustus John, came into being.

Joyceans--the admirers of his intellec­tuality and wit in the prose masterpieces (which now seem to represent a dead end rather than the hoped-for new beginn­ing}--have little truck with his poems. One of them told me that the first collection (1907), published as Chamber Music, was probably intended as a joke, the title be­ing a double entendre. But he later traced that canard to its source and admitted his error. Yet the poems do puzzle, for they are simple, often rather trite lyrics, with no hint of layered meanings. But such verses often work better as song texts than do more profound ones, and Joyce's have found favor with many composers.

Here then is the first integral recording of The Joyce Book, made up of settings of most of the 13 poems issued in Joyce's 1927 Pomes Penyeach--a slim volume indeed! No one knows how the composers were chosen or who assigned who to do what. If many of the stars of that heady period in English music are represented, others-Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Holst, Walton, Peter Warlock--are notable for their absence.

Joyce is on record as having liked Arthur Bliss' contribution (the most romantic of the set) and as having been rather puzzled by the rest of the selections. There are some surprising entries: Albert Roussel, and the Americans George Antheil and Roger Sessions (apparently his only song!). Dutch­born Bernard van Dieren was a powerful influence on his British contemporaries. C.W. Orr was recently resurrected with an LP side of his fine songs. The Italian Edgar­do Carducci-Agustini (b. 1898) is ignored by most reference works now. Side 2 of the record is devoted to miscellaneous set­tings of the Chamber Music poems, notably the familiar ones by Samuel Barber and a set by Szymanowski, of all people.

Few of these songs have been available on records before-the Barber, the Roussel, the Orr, the Ireland, and the Bridge by my count. Nevertheless, I suspect that this collection will appeal mostly to song fanciers and Joyceans. However, Mr. Myers has a magnificent bass voice, apparently of operatic character, and he sings intelligently. But he does have a tendency to overpower these rather fragile pieces. Still and all, a valuable addition to the song-fancier's library, and one unlikely to be soon duplicated.

Review of Pomes Penyeach: Setting of Poetry of James Joyce

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