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Joyce and Music and Me
Barry Govern

“But wait. But hear. Chords dark. Lugugugubrious. Low.  In a cave of the dark        middle earth. Embedded ore.  Lumpmusic.”

That’s what did it for me.  I was eighteen and got a hold of Harry Levin’s The Essential James Joyce.  There were excerpts from various episodes of Ulysses.  This was from the one known as “Sirens”.  It’s been my favourite chapter (or episode, as Joyceans like to call them) ever since.  It is the episode where the governing art form is music.  Here’s the opening:

Bronze by gold heard the hoofirons, steelyringing.
Imperthnthn thnthnthn.
Chips, picking chips off rocky thumbnail, chips.
Horrid! And gold flushed more.

Without yet knowing it we are introduced to four characters from the episode.  Bronze is brunette Lydia Douce and gold is fair haired Mina Kennedy listening to the ringing clack of horseshoes passing by.  (Lydian mode; minor key).  Imperthnthn thnthnthn is the ‘Boots’ in the Ormond Hotel mockingly replying to the barmaid Lydia Douce’s threat to report him for “impertinent insolence.”  Simon Dedalus, Stephen’s father, is picking chips off one of his rocky thumbnails.  And “you horrid thing” are the words Lydia Douce said to Mina Kennedy as she “flushed yet more” after thinking about being married to the old fogey in Boyd’s chemist shop where Lydia Douce had gone for something for her sunburnt skin.

There are nearly sixty phrases or groups of phrases like the ones quoted.  They form a kind of prelude or fragmented overture to the episode proper.  After this prelude the curtain rises and the musical episode begins:

Bronze by gold, Miss Douce’s head by Miss Kennedy’s head, over the crossblind of the Ormond bar heard the viceregal hoofs go by, ringing steel.

It is four o’clock in the afternoon of Thursday the 16th of June 1904 and the two barmaids (or sirens) are looking out of the bar window of the Ormond hotel at the procession of the Lord Lieutenant and his vice-regal party en route to open the Mirus bazaar in Ballsbridge in aid of Mercer’s hospital.

What follows is the magical soundscape of the “Sirens” episode, echoing the section of Homer’s Odyssey where Circe warns Odysseus/Ulysses of the sirens’ song which lures sailors to their doom.   Joyce, who was essentially a poet and musician, tries to write a chapter of his great book in the style of music.  He tries to write prose like music.  He uses the grammar and syntax of music to fit words.  He was always a poet with words but in “Sirens” he does something different.  Not only is the prose musical but he integrates in his prose the very essence of music: notes, chords, harmony, counterpoint, metre, rhythm, repetition, exposition, development, recapitulation, syncopation, sudden stops, new beginnings, suspensions, resolutions, changes of key,  etc. etc. Throughout the episode many songs, operas, operettas, musical comedies and oratorios are alluded to or quoted; some sung, others played without the words.

Joyce loved music and was possessed of a sweet tenor voice.  At one time he contemplated becoming a professional singer.  At the Feis Ceoil of 1904 Joyce was within a shout of winning the tenor solo competition but his refusal to sing a piece of music at sight dropped him in the rankings and he ended up with a bronze medal. This medal is now owned by the dancer Michael Flatley.  There is a story that Joyce competed with John McCormack in the Feis Ceoil but this is not the case.  McCormack won the gold medal for tenor in 1903 and encouraged Joyce to enter the competition in 1904. (Bronze by gold).  McCormack, spelled MacCormack, is mentioned by Bloom in the “Hades” episode of Ulysses as one of the proposed artists in Molly Bloom’s upcoming concert tour.  Finnegans Wake has multiple allusions to McCormack, the “golden meddlist”, who was a major influence on the character of Shaun.  Joyce admired McCormack greatly.  He shared a concert platform with him at the Antient Concert Rooms – later the Academy Cinema – on the 27th of August 1904.  In Finnegans Wake, with reference to the 1932 Eucharistic Congress, we read “and cert no purer puer palestrine e’er chanted panangelical mid the clouds of Tu es Petrus…”

Another tenor whom Joyce championed was Corkman John Sullivan who performed mainly in Paris.  In a letter to Sullivan (later published in the New Statesman as From a Banned Writer to a Banned Singer) written in a kind of Finnegans Wake-ese, there are many references to singers, composers and operas.

Joyce’s first published book, Chamber Music, is an experiment with the Elizabethan song lyric.  There is a photograph of Joyce playing his piano and his guitar.  The guitar can be seen at the Joyce Tower in Sandycove.

There are references to songs in Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManUlysses is full of music including three examples of music notation.  Finnegans Wake has many musical allusions and names of songs woven into the text.  Anna Livia Plurabelle, the eighth chapter in Finnegans Wake, is pure music in prose as can be heard in Joyce’s recording of an extract from it.  Joyce, the advertising canvasser, wrote:

Buy a book in brown paper
From Faber and Faber
To see Annie Liffey trip, tumble and caper.
Sevensinns in her singthings,
Plurabelle on her prose,
Seashell ebb music wayriver she flows.

Joyce’s work is perhaps more musical than that of any other writer.  Just as Beckett’s plays must be treated as though they were musical scores, Joyce’s works, especially his later ones, are “roaratorios”; orchestrated with words regular and neologistic, which sing out to our ears as well as to our eyes.  “Storiella as she is syung.”

But that’s another story.


Barry Govern is an actor.  He is just about to begin rehearsals for a new production of Waiting for Godot at the Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles.

Joyce and Music and Me - Barry Govern