“The distant music mournfully murmereth...” - The Influence of James Joyce on Irish Composers

In a paper originally presented at the Contemporary Music Centre's ReJoyce in Music Seminar in June 2004, the German musicologist Axel Klein examines the true influence of Joyce on Irish composers from the earliest known settings of his poetry to recent works influenced by his prose.

Copyright ©2004 Axel Klein.


When I was faced with the task of writing about the influence of James Joyce on Irish composers, a number of works immediately sprang to mind. I thought of some very early settings of Joyce’s Chamber Music collection, I thought of Brian Boydell’s 1946 settings that I had the honour of introducing last year to an astonished audience in Bonn, and I remembered a curious piece of electro-acoustic music by Frank Corcoran which he had then called Aportraitoftheartistasayoungmanwhowantedtosingbutwroteinstead.

These initial thoughts made me think of what constitutes an ‘influence'. Is a composer influenced by a writer when he writes music to a poem? “It depends,” would probably be the right answer. It does make a difference if a composer, who happens to like vocal music and has a talent for word-setting, writes music to any piece of world literature, or if the world of ideas of a specific writer really has an essential meaning for a composer. Or am I wrong? I admit I am not sure. Perhaps the imaginative content of a single poem is sufficient to create a corresponding flux of imagination in a composer’s mind. After all, music that is inspired by a poem has obviously been influenced by it, be the result word-setting or not.

I also think there is a third kind of influence which is the least obvious and the most difficult one for me to find out without sending questionnaires to composers. This is to determine the kind of influence Joyce’s thinking had on Irish composers and which may have resulted in works without any visible, audible or otherwise directly comprehensible association with Joyce. I had a small e-mail exchange prior to this talk with Frank Corcoran, who said that although his Joycespeak-Musik was his only directly Joycean work “Of course the subliminal influence is limitless.” he said.

It is curious -- and a sign of the decades-long neglect of Irish composers on the part of the world-wide music industry and of international academic research as well -- that the response of Irish composers to an author of their own country was not more strongly observed. If the academic interest in Joyce reflected an interest in things Irish, at least in those things that shaped Joyce’s imagination, it should have been natural to look first and foremost to Irish composers. As far as I am aware this has never happened -- before today of course!

Part I

Let us look how, in real life, a Joyce scholar would proceed. He would first examine the music found in the work of Joyce. If the response of musicians to the musical elements in Joyce’s poetry and prose is being examined then this could come from either of two sides: more often from a professor of English literature, and less often from a professor of musicology. Both would first rummage about in their memory, then consult the relevant dictionaries, and finally ask a colleague: the literature professor would ask the musicologist and vice versa (provided they like each other). This colleague would probably say something on the lines that “If Irish composers existed, and if they would have produced anything of note I would certainly have heard about it.”

Now this is of course how it was in the prehistoric days before the invention of the internet, and today we have the Irish Contemporary Music Centre with an archive and capable people, and the composers are on e-mail so research is much easier. But -- James Joyce didn’t have e-mail, nor had Geoffrey Molyneux Palmer, the first composer ever to write music to Joyce poems and, accidentally, an Irish one. The second composer also was Irish, a woman named Charlotte Milligan Fox who published Four Joyce Songs with Maunsel’s in Dublin in 1909 -- also no e-mail, also neglected and forgotten.

Geoffrey Palmer had a different problem. It wasn’t the lack of e-mail that worried him, but the fact that he was seriously ill which made him increasingly dependent on the care of his two sisters, who ran a most respectable private school in Sandycove, just near Joyce’s Martello Tower. The way this affected his Joyce songs is a complicated affair and I can only sketch it here. You can read some further speculation in a volume of the published settings of Palmer’s music by the American literature professor Myra Teicher Russell -- it was she who did the original research. This was published in 1993, eleven years after their first performance, or 36 years after Palmer’s death.

Palmer’s settings were not just ‘any’ piece of music. Joyce, whose musical taste was very developed and well-known, has more than once expressed his satisfaction with the Palmer settings and preferred them to any other that he knew. As late as 1934 he wrote in a letter to his brother Stanislaus, “30 or 40 musicians at least have set my little poems to music. The best is Molyneux Palmer. After him are Moeran and Bliss.”

Now, if you knew the kind of music Palmer was known for at the time you wouldn’t think the Joyce songs were by the same composer. Palmer was a composer of light ballads in an Irish folk-song style that found publishers in England, and were frequently performed on the ballad stages and in the salons of his day. He became known later as the composer of an opera Srúth na Maoile, which had performances in 1923 and 1924. His Joyce songs reveal a completely different side of the composer, with far more depth of expression, an unconventional approach to form and of an overall quality, despite the occasionally bland romanticism.

Shortly after the appearance of Joyce’s volume of poems in 1907, Palmer wrote a letter to Joyce asking for permission to set them to music which proved the beginning of 25 years of correspondence between the two. Among the many strange occurrences, one is that Palmer only sent ten to Joyce for comment -- five in early 1909, three more later that year and two more in 1921. Only when the settings were discovered in an American university library in 1981 it was found that he had in fact set 32 of the 36 poems, with an alternative version for one. Joyce himself had often expressed his view that the 36 poems constituted a kind of suite, and Palmer was the only composer that came near it -- in fact seven of them are constructed in a way that they follow each other attacca. Joyce wrote to Palmer in1909, “you may set all of Chamber Music in time. This was indeed partly my idea in writing it. The book is in fact a suite of songs and if I were a musician I suppose I should have set them myself.”

So, dating the pieces is difficult, the first five must have been written between July 1907 and February 1909, that is between Palmer’s request for permission and his forwarding them to Joyce in Trieste. The next three were sent in April and pleased Joyce even more. He wrote back, “I am very glad you are doing more of those songs and much flattered by your liking for them.” and, “I hope you find a good singer for them as your music needs to be well-sung.”

Joyce made several attempts on behalf of Palmer to have these songs published, culminating in 1928 when he had almost everything arranged with the Paris publisher Slivinsky. But Palmer’s reaction was either negative or silence. By 1909, aware of how these songs differed from his usual work, he wrote to Joyce “I fear the music is not likely to be popular.” In 1913 he wrote, “They are not the sort of songs that a publisher will speculate upon, these commercial days!” In 1919 he wrote, “The Chamber Music songs have not yet been printed -- I am waiting for ‘brighter days’ for doing that”.

So initially Palmer hesitated because he doubted there was a market for this kind of song; then came the first World War, the Easter Rising, followed by Civil War until 1923 -- certainly the worst time for Irish composition during the whole twentieth century. Palmer wrote operas in this time, produced Finn Varra Maa in 1917, subtitled The Irish Santa Claus, but which is in fact a very nationalist piece. Palmer is evidently becoming more political, albeit on a cautious level. Bound to a wheel-chair since about 1920, he works over four years on Srúth na Maoile, his Gaelic opera on the subject of the Children of Lir, completed in 1923.

We don’t know how many of his Joyce songs are completed by the time the political situation is settling down. In the meantime Joyce published his Dubliners collection of short stories in 1914 and, in 1922, Ulysses. We are now in a time when Joyce is not only exiled but banned as well. Palmer has a new problem. Any open association with Joyce could lead to difficult social circumstances. He is dependent on the medical care of his sisters, he can’t afford any scandal that would potentially destroy their income. Joyce is resigned and gives up his correspondence and his attempts at finding a publisher for the music. Palmer’s songs remain hidden, unknown by any but the two, in a house within a stone’s throw from the Martello Tower. The two sisters react with surprise and astonishment when asked by an American Joyce collector years after the composer’s death that he should ever have written the songs. Rhoda Coghill, the Dublin pianist and composer, for whom Palmer had written some piano music, insisted that he would have told her about them if they existed. The collector takes them home to the USA, and before he dies bequeathes them to a university library where they are discovered in 1981. It’s a fascinating story, and one that says much about the social circumstances in Ireland before 1950, and about the immense difficulties an Irish composer was confronted with if he had any ambitions beyond folk-song arrangements.

Part II

Living in England around 1930, Palmer’s social problems didn’t apply to E. J. Moeran, the son of an English mother from Norfolk and an Irish father from county Cork. Moeran always strongly referred to this dual heritage reflected in music that is somewhat split into Elizabethan allusions in his more English music and a very different side influenced by the landscape and climate of south-west Ireland and vocal settings by Irish poets such as Seumas O’Sullivan and James Joyce.

Regarding his 1929 collection of Seven Poems by James Joyce there is clearly an influence where poetry inspired musical creativity. At the time, Moeran was recovering from what Andrew Rose called “the barren years spent with Warlock in Eynsford where drinking and partying tended to push musical composition in a rather forgotten corner.” Peter Warlock died prematurely, Moeran discovered Joyce -- and these strange emotional circumstances contributed to this beautiful set of songs.

The Seven Poems, all settings from the Chamber Music collection, are certainly among the more advanced music of his, displaying a wide spectrum of moods and expression. Five of the seven are rather reflective while The Merry Greenwood and Bright Cap are of a joyful character, as can indeed be gauged from their very titles.

The longest in the set of Moeran’s Seven Songs is the last, Now, / o now, / in this / brown land. I am writing it this way because Moeran’s setting remains so close to the iambic verse for a considerable portion of the work. His biographer Geoffrey Self pointed out that the opening bars of this piece seem to predict the opening of his 1942 Violin Concerto, a work written in county Kerry. Self suggests that Moeran not only alludes to the “brown land” of Joyce (which probably implies Ireland) but also Moeran’s own inclination towards Ireland, where he lived for most of the year since 1934, was friendly with Arthur Duff, Michael Bowles, Aloys Fleischmann and Brian Boydell, and where he was to die in 1950. The comparison between the openings of Moeran’s Now, o now and the Violin Concerto, written 13 years later, is not obvious but not unlikely either. The resemblance is clearer after a view into the reduced piano score of the concerto. And if it was a more or less conscious borrowing from himself it certainly emphasises the meaning the Joyce songs had for him and his individual identification as an Irish composer.

There is another Irish composer in exile who shares Joyce’s year of birth (as Palmer did as well, by the way), and this is Herbert Hughes. Hughes became known for his four collections of Irish Country Songs, published between 1909 and 1935 -- impressionist, improvisatory settings of Irish folk-songs. He earned his money as a music critic for the Daily Telegraph in London, until he wrote a review of a concert that didn’t take place which cost him his job. In Hughes’s work generally, original composition takes second place to arrangements, but one piece that does show his talent is a work called She weeps over Rahoon which appeared in a collection that actually deserves even more praise for Hughes' idea of editing it. This was The Joyce Book, published in a noble version on mouldmade paper and bound in blue handwoven silk with a print run of 500 numbered pieces. This unites all thirteen poems of Joyces second collection Poems Penyeach, published in 1929, four years prior to the Hughes’ musical edition. The thirteen pieces are by different composers; Moeran is among them, and Arnold Bax, Arthur Bliss, John Ireland, Herbert Howells, Eugene Goossens, and non-British composers such as Albert Roussell, George Antheil and Edgardo Carducci: quite a varying lot indeed. It also features an essay by Padraic Colum on 'James Joyce as Poet' and a 'Prologue' by James Stephens.

In his foreword, Hughes describes how this volume evolved during a festival of contemporary chamber music in Paris in 1929 which was attended by himself, Arthur Bliss and James Joyce among others. The accidental occasion of the presence of Joyce in a chamber music festival was to Hughes and Bliss “like the association of wind and wave, of light and heat”. All composers eventually chosen were ones who “recognized in Joyce not only an extremely sensitive poet but the greatest living virtuoso in prose”. So, when talking about various ways of influences, here you have a rare one based on personal experiences of Joyce. Palmer in his letters and Hughes in this Paris meeting were the only Irish composers who ever enjoyed this personal association.

Of course -- as unfortunately one has to say -- Hughes’ setting of She weeps over Rahoon is not among the many songs by Hughes that have been recorded. His music is in three-four time, with a very regular repetitive movement in the left hand, only interrupting this regular pattern for a loud climax in the second of the three stanzas characterized not by rhythmic variation but by a gradual harmonic enrichment and dynamic increase. It is a very impressionist composition, one that doesn’t go a long way from his innovative folk-song arrangements. In fact, the opening motif of the right hand has a clear Irish character.

What strikes me most about The Joyce Book is that an Irish editor of music to poems by an Irishman did himself not look for more Irish composers to collaborate with. Obviously, Palmer hid his music well -- they must have been fellow students with Stanford at the Royal College of Music thirty years previously. But who else was active between 1929 and 1933? We are indeed witnessing a change of generation among Irish composers at this very time. Stanford and Esposito were dead, Hamilton Harty had virtually stopped composing during these years, and a new generation was hardly twenty years of age. Norman Hay was active in Belfast, but when he came there Hughes had already left for London so it is not sure whether they knew each other. Anyway, Hay was not well-established as a song composer. The most active Irish composer around 1930 was in fact Ina Boyle, and she did write beautiful songs, but her kind of activism was one that could easily be overlooked -- she had locked herself in at her house in the Wicklow Mountains. Perhaps she was indeed approached by Hughes and declined; we don’t know. But we are still in a very dark political climate in Ireland at this time and Joyce was still light-years away from being the tourist attraction he is nowadays. Hughes, I would suppose, would have got into trouble if he had tried to publish his Joyce Book in Dublin.

Part III

The 19-year-old Brian Boydell was the first Irish composer who dared using Joyce poems openly and publicly. But those first settings dating from the mid-1930s again originated in England, this time during his studies in Cambridge. But he was still the first in Ireland, too.

There are four Joyce settings for voice and piano from between 1936 and 1941, all from the Pomes Penyeach collection. Two of them are settings of Watching the Needleboats at San Sabba dating from 1936 and 1937, She weeps over Rahoon of 1936 and Alone, dating from 1941. Around 1936/37 Boydell studied natural sciences at Cambridge University and was a member of the university’s 'Echo Club', a student society for the performance and discussion of student compositions that was supported by Edward Dent, the first president of the International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM). In his manuscript autobiography that I had the fortune of using in my biographical chapter on Boydell, he relates how impressed he then was by the music of Alban Berg, and how he and his fellow students would sit in a room with all lights extinguished and listened to newly available gramophone recordings such as Berg’s Lyric Suite, after which “A period of meditation would follow during which no one would breathe a word that might disturb the magic spell”. In this atmosphere his early settings of Joyce poems originated. I have a hand-written letter by the composer in which he assures me that these 1936-37 songs “were written under the strong influence of the dense chromatic style of Alban Berg’s op. 4 songs”.

The Berg opus 4 songs dated from 1912 but were not published before 1953. Boydell must have heard an early recording, and as the opus 4 songs were Berg’s first orchestral score, his own music must inevitably be a miniature version, as the sound masses of the large orchestra Berg is using here are difficult to imagine on a piano. I am sure you would be interested to hear how Boydell realised this ambitious music and I must disappoint you again as I don’t know of any available recording. Anyway, although Boydell acknowledged these songs as his first serious compositions he later turned away from the Second Viennese School and of anything that smacked of systematic procedures in music, including, in fact, his own approach to octatonicism.

It appears that the first time a Joyce setting by an Irish composer was publicly performed in Ireland was on the 1st of March 1945 at the Metropolitan Hall in Dublin. It was a performance of Brian Boydell’s Sleep Now for mezzo-soprano, solo oboe and string orchestra dating from the previous year, and performed by the Dublin Orchestral Players under the direction of Boydell himself and sung by Mary Jones [later to become the composer's wife]. Boydell had returned to Ireland in 1939 and wrote Alone op. 15 to a Joyce text in 1941, but I could not find a reference to a performance of it preceding 1945.

The best known Joyce-pieces by Brian Boydell are his Five Joyce Songs op. 28, which exist in a version for low voice and piano from 1946 and a version with orchestra of 1948. These still do not represent his mature style, and as Aloys Fleischmann has pointed out, rely on understatement, just as much as the Joyce poems do. Boydell said he used “a simple lyrical style to suit these poems which contrast so markedly with Joyce’s advanced prose style”. And thus what we have before us is a collection of five settings from the Chamber Music collection which use an expanded diatonic range of harmony, with some use of modal chords, and sometimes unusual turns of melody which I find altogether a very true translation of the Joyce poems and intentions in music. For the modern ear used to an avant-garde sound world, these songs may give a 'conservative' impression, but do keep in mind that Boydell consciously used a more simple harmonic language than in other works of this time and that, in an Irish context of the mid-1940s where most concert-goers would be used to folk-song arrangements, this music is advanced nevertheless.

In the orchestral version the direct tonal elements in the accompaniment dominate over the slightly more advanced and melancholy parts. By selecting the higher pitches of the piano for oboe and violins and the lower ones of low strings, the result is a piece that reminds me much more of the English late romantic style of the Vaughan Williams kind.

The last of the early Joyce compositions I am introducing to you today are the Five Poems from ‘Chamber Music’ by Gerard Victory, composed in 1954 for tenor, mixed chorus and orchestra. Victory was one of the most widely-read and generally educated people I ever had the honour of knowing. He was also one of the most eclectic composers on earth. Perfectly sure in technical aspects of compositional theories, orchestration and handling of instruments and qualified with great creative powers, he was able to compose in almost any style he wished to adopt. His incredibly large output is so inconsistent that it is impossible to describe in a few words what Victory’s music sounds like. So everybody uses the word 'eclectic', which still doesn’t say what his music sounds like, but it is an understandable and excusable term if you don’t have much time to explain.

For our purpose here, let me describe the Five Poems as a kind of 'Prokofiev meets Verdi' approach. It may not be known to everybody that Gerard Victory was an active member of various amateur opera groups from the early 1940s, the largest being the short-lived National Operatic Society, which starred the tenor Gerard Victory in its autumn 1946 season at the Olympia Theatre in Verdi’s La Traviata and Kenneth Pakeman’s The Land of Heart’s Desire. Later, Victory was to become one of the most prolific opera composers in Ireland.

Victory chose and arranged the poems to make up a small course of a day, beginning in the morning with waking up From Dewy Dreams and ending with Sleep Now. Victory here is an outright, brazen romantic, unrecognisable at first to people like me who got to know him first through his 1960s serial music. Yet, the music is undeniably beautiful, if you allow for a big handful of kitsch. This fascinating music sounds to me as if Victory wanted to belatedly add to the sparse Irish symphonic cantata tradition of the late nineteenth century.

Gerard Victory’s Five Poems from ‘Chamber Music’ were the only Joycean composition from the 1950s in Ireland. There are two in the 1960s, five in the 1970s and eleven in the 1980s. This strongly increasing number of Joyce-related compositions since the 1970s certainly illustrates that there are now many more significant composers in Ireland than 50 years ago. But it also means that Joyce had finally arrived in Ireland some thirty years after his death. He has become socially acceptable: an academic challenge and an artistic inspiration; one that goes beyond mere word-setting. The many composers of a younger generation which you find listed exemplify very different approaches to Joyce and what he may mean to creative musicians today. They also show what is possible in a modern liberal society free of the censorship that Irish composers were the subject of. It has been a central point of my argument to explain the conditions Irish composers were facing under difficult circumstances.


The first Irish Joyce-related composition that has not been a vocal setting of words is James Wilson’s orchestral score Anna Liffey (1965), he added the Plurabelle (1982) only 17 years later in an ensemble piece with soprano. Gerard Victory’s Six Epiphanies of the Author (1981) is another prominent example where a particularly Joycean literary genre was applied to music. This is subtitled A Symphonic Study in Memory of James Joyce and was a commission to mark the approaching 100th birthday of Joyce. It resembles his prose insofar as it is more or less a collage of differing styles and quotations, ranging from a Habanera and a medieval chorale to music hall songs and Irish folk tunes, and all relating to a twelve-note row.

Philip Martin and Eric Sweeney, representing another generation, added to the repertoire with Sweeney’s Strings in the Earth and Air for violin and viola of 1988 and Martin’s Anna Livia Plurabelle (now the title is complete) for oboe quartet dating from 1990. These are instrumental pieces with titles that clearly refer to a poem or an idea of Joyce, and the references are not difficult to discover. Sweeney’s piece is one of the earliest in his new style which he adopted while composing his Second Symphony in 1987-88. He has become virtually the only Irish minimalist, and one who aims at combining his minimalist approach with elements from Irish traditional music. This is all very evident in Strings in the Earth and Air, which takes the title literally. The plural form of 'strings' requires a minimum of two, which you have in the violin and the viola, and the two aptly represent the 'earth' and the 'air' of the title. I don’t know whether this was indeed Eric’s idea, but it is what I hear in the piece nevertheless. It begins with the earth, providing a regular, reliable, repetitive ground and floating and flowing and flying above it we hear snippets of air, breezes coming and going and the occasional calm.

At last, Frank Corcoran who contributed to the beginning of this presentation will contribute to the end as well. Corcoran relates to the term 'tone poet' for a composer to Joyce and concludes that “Joyce was our first Irish composer, on one level our greatest.” Corcoran’s Joycespeak-Musik dates from 1995 and is an electro-acoustic collage of words read by Corcoran himself and pre-recorded musical quotations heavily indebted to John Cage’s Roaratorio. The recurring melody in this collage is The Last Rose of Summer, one of the famous Irish Melodies by Thomas Moore of the early nineteenth century, and its adoption in the German opera Martha by Friedrich von Flotow. As such, the music could just as well be entitled 'Moore-speak' or 'Flotow-speak', but the literally spoken words are of course by Joyce.

Corcoran has been choosing words focusing on 'Oh' and 'Ah' sounds, thereby referring to the end of the last chapter of Ulysses with its many recurrences to the ‘O’ in Molly Bloom’s monologue and the “A last a long a ...” in Finnegan’s Wake. I also cannot help making references to the name Bloom in the Last Rose which is “left blooming alone”. The Last Rose of Summer does occur in many guises in Ulysses, which have indeed all been found out by American literature professors, most comprehensively by Zack Bowen. So, if Joyce was indeed our first Irish composer I am, firstly, glad to have mentioned him all through this talk and, secondly, that Corcoran has been a faithful disciple by exploring the many Joyce phonemes and musical allusions and what the composer has called “those knots of synaesthetic associations that transcend the logos-myth divide.”

© Axel Klein 2004

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Contemporary Music Centre.