Dublin and Debussy, ‘Ulysses’ and Proust: an exploration of connections
The collective achievement of this book is to identify so many neglected but vital cultural interdependencies between France and Ireland
Notes on France and Ireland: Una Hunt’s essay draws attention to the immense popularity of Irish airs throughout Europe in the first half of the 19th century, and the vast, if now submerged, corpus of piano music in which these airs appeared
France and Ireland. Notes and Narratives (Reimagining Ireland, volume 66)
Una Hunt and Mary Pierse (eds)
This book, which originated in a conference organised under the auspices of the Association for Franco-Irish Studies that was held in Dublin in 2014, is a collection of 14 essays that variously and compellingly explore cultural relationships between Ireland and France. The prominence afforded to musical relationships in particular is a sovereign preoccupation that does not eclipse the book’s engagement with other Franco-Irish affinities and mutual influences, notably in fiction and poetry, but the rich seam of music woven throughout the volume is, perhaps, its most startling and arresting feature.
Following a fluent introduction by the editors, Una Hunt and Mary Pierse, which rehearses the content and thematic deliberations of the entire collection, the opening section, “Centre Stage”, contains essays by Una Hunt (on the Irish composer George Alexander Osborne in Belgium and Paris), Joanne Burns (on the influence of Rousseau on Thomas Moore) and David Mooney (on the Verlaine settings of the Belgian composer Poldowski). Part Two, “Operatic Engagements”, features essays by Eamon Maher (on Kate O’Brien’s 1958 novel As Music and Splendour), Axel Klein (on Gilbert Bécaud’s 1962 opera L’Opéra d’Aran) and Laura Watson (on musical representations of Irish subject matter in Third Republic France). Part Three, “Fruitful Encounters”, comprises essays by Maguy Pernot-Deschamps (on assuagements of loss in novels by Neil Jordan and Françoise Lefèvre), Mary Pierse (on Proustian enactments of silence in the work of Irish poets Eileán Ní Chuilleanáin, Bernard O’Donoghue and Denis O’Driscoll), Brian Murphy (on the cultural relationship between wine and music), Benjamin Keatinge (on French and Irish modes of representation in Richard Murphy’s 1968 collection The Battle of Aughrim ) and Arun Rao (on Claude Debussy as a composer during the first World War). Part Four, “Dublin à la Française?”, brings the volume to a close with essays by Joe Kehoe (on the French conductor Jean Martinon in Dublin in 1946-7), Cathy McGlynn (on adumbrations of Derrida in Joyce’s Ulysses) and Sarah Balen (on affinities between Hélène Cixous and the poetry of Paula Meehan).
It is impossible to mistake the volonté genérale of this book (to adopt an elegance of Rousseau’s) as anything other than a volonté musicale, however challenging it may be to answer its intellectual versatility and diversity of address in a comparatively short notice. France and Ireland identifies so many hitherto neglected but vital cultural resonances between the two countries that its collective achievement is foundational rather than expository. These essays disclose une pluie des perles – “a shower of pearls” – to borrow the title of Osborne’s once-famous work for piano composed and performed in Paris in 1847. They also attest long silence and neglect. The “notes and narratives” sounded throughout this collection poignantly summon the title of Françoise Lefèvre’s 2008 novel, Un Album de Silence (“a book of silence”) even as they confirm the rich interdependence of French and Irish culture over two centuries.
Nine of the 14 essays explicitly privilege music as a cultural domain. Una Hunt’s brilliant retrieval of the career and influence of Osborne in Paris and London foregrounds the composer’s formative influence in the French salon culture of the 1830s and 1840s, and his high reputation as a pianist whose works were profoundly received by (among many others) Hector Berlioz and Frédéric Chopin. Hunt also draws attention to the immense popularity of Irish airs throughout Europe – most especially, perhaps, in France and Germany – in the first half of the 19th century, and the vast, if now submerged, corpus of piano music in which these airs appeared, as in Osborne’s own fantasias. Hunt rightly adduces Osborne’s contribution to the keyboard repertoire as one of comparable significance to that of another Irishman, John Field, whose pervasive influence on Chopin and on the London keyboard concerto receives far less attention within the Irish cultural matrix than it deserves. By contrast, Joanne Burns makes a strong and convincing case for the influence of Rousseau’s essays on music in the Irish Melodies of Thomas Moore. Although the great philosopher’s diagnostic insistence upon the natural relations between speech and music promoted melody as a “memorative sign” inscribed with extra-musical meaning, the “natural” condition of his own compositions produced a less memorable effect on Moore. Burns remarks that when Moore heard Rousseau’s opera Le devin du village in Paris in 1819, he found it “rather dull”. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to discover, through the agency of Burns’s research, a French source for Moore’s approach to musical composition, not least because the Irish Melodies would later exert considerable influence on Berlioz’s conception of art song.
The Verlaine settings of Lady Irene Dean Paul (who wrote under the pseudonym “Poldowski” and whose Irish mother was the niece of George Osborne), represent another forgotten jewel freshly illuminated in this collection. David Mooney’s essay sensitively contrasts the exceptional reputation which Poldowski enjoyed before 1914 as a composer pre-eminently engaged with Verlaine’s poetry (she set at least 22 of his poems, many more than those set by her famous contemporaries Ravel and Debussy) and the almost total neglect which her work endured after her death in 1932. Before the first World War, the Belgian critic Octave Maus had predicted un avenir certain (“a definite future”) for Poldowski’s songs, a prediction echoed by several other endorsements, as Mooney shows, which affirmed the composer’s exceptional affinity for the subtlety and intimacy of Verlaine’s poetic technique. Although Mooney salutes the recent revival of interest in these songs (which he attributes to a more general awareness and promotion of music by women composers since the 1980s), his remark that one of them was recently discovered in a shoe-box under the floorboards of a house in Normandy is eloquent of this loss.
Opera prevails as a consideration in three essays. Eamon Maher’s sensitive appraisal of Kate O’Brien’s As Music as Splendour turns on a critical (although neglected) consideration of Catholicism as an agent of meaning in Irish literary and musical culture. Drawing in part on the work of Éibhear Walshe, Maher identifies O’Brien’s education among a French order of nuns in Limerick which inspired in the novelist a lifelong enchantment with European Catholicism as a more enlightened and decisively more liberal via media than its Irish counterpart. As Music as Splendour is effectively a (double) roman à clef, based partly on the life of the Irish opera diva Margaret Burke Sheridan. Its thematic unfolding is that of a life achieved through music as this is revealed in the emotional and sexual vicissitudes of an opera singer’s life in particular. (In this respect the novel strongly resembles Robertson Davies’s A Mixture of Frailties, which was also published in 1958 and which likewise traces the growth to maturity of a young Canadian singer in London). Maher remarks of the two central characters in O’Brien’s novel that their experience of art and passion in Europe opened doors which remained “firmly closed” in Ireland. One cannot help but be struck by the resonances achieved in this collection between Irish composers in France and elsewhere in Europe during the 19th century and the protagonists of O’Brien’s fiction. In either case our sense of “Irishness” is significantly deepened by what is disclosed here.
Axel Klein and Laura Watson, by contrast, countenance little-known French operatic engagements with Ireland: Gilbert Bécaud’s decidedly curious, and perhaps inadvertently comic, L’Opéra d’Aran, and Henri Rabaud’s L’Appel de la Mer (1924). Watson asks how an Irish drama of 1903 about the harshness and tragedy of the western seaboard found its way onto the Paris operatic stage in the mid-1920s, a question which seems all the more unexpected in relation to Bécaud’s strange romance of 1962. Bécaud, one of the most popular singers and writers of French chansons in the 1950s and 1960s, made more than one foray into art music, but the reception of his Irish opera seems to have been uneven, to put it mildly. Klein is at a loss to relate its libretto to any one source of Irish drama, although he acknowledges strong vestiges of Synge in the work’s setting and general plot line. (His description of the plot prompts me to suggest The Playboy of the Western World as a possible inspiration for L’Opéra d’Aran, at least insofar as both works feature a strange and exotic newcomer to the islands whose presence and impact drive the storyline: Christy Mahon seems a close relative to the (Italian) hero of Bécaud’s opera, Angelo, but Synge’s drama – for all its mythic engagement – appears a much more plausible one than the hapless romance which first unfolded on the Paris stage of the Théâtre de Champs-Élysée in December 1962. Raban’s 1924 setting of Riders to the Sea is an altogether more persuasive setting, and Watson contextualises it in terms of a veritable tradition of French musical engagements with Ireland dating back to the early nineteenth century. The intriguing history of Franco-Irish musical ideas she achieves in this regard strongly echoes much else explored in this collection.
Although space and time prevent me from dwelling at length on Rao’s compelling account of Debussy’s conflicted condition as a French musician during the First World War or on Joe Kehoe’s exemplary essay on the impact of the French conductor Jean Martinon on Dublin’s concert life immediately after the Second, both contributions significantly enhance the presence of music in this book. I am likewise confined in relation to Brian Murphy’s enterprising (and adroitly researched) exploration of the “cultural relationship” between wine and music which – as Murphy convincingly demonstrates – belongs to the more general field of gastronomy as an emerging site of meaningful and productive inquiry. Although I baulked at the suggestion by winemaker Clark Smith that Cabernet Sauvignon is “a perfect match for heavy rock music”, Murphy’s shrewd prediction that this research is likely to be overtaken by commercial interests is a salutary warning that ought not to be overlooked.
Music strongly obtains in this book even when literature is its subject. The parallels between French and Irish literary culture actuated by the presence of music are indeed striking, as in Neil Jordan’s Sunrise with Sea Monster (1994) and Françoise Lefèvre’s Un Album de Silence (2008). As Maguy Pernot-Deschamps illustrates, the dependence on music as a source of remembrance and consolation for the narrator of both novels is extensive, even if the agency of music as assuagement in Jordan’s novel is shared by painting and poetry. Mary Pierse’s extremely subtle and considered encounter with three Irish poets under the rubric of “silence” takes Proust as its point of departure and foregrounds a technique in her Irish exemplars which allows silence, as it were, to become registral as an agent of memory on the page. In the poems she cites the emphasis on sight and touch (and the corresponding absence of sound) stimulates in the reader an auditory impression which is akin to the after-echo of music in the mind. These readings of Ni Chuilleanáin, O Donoghue and O’Driscoll are not only radically sensitive to music as a poetic instrumentality, but also to silence itself as a trope in modern writing which – for obvious reasons – is originary and exemplary in Proust’s preoccupation with memory.
Discriminations of register, sensibility and tonality are also pre-eminent in Benjamin Keatinge’s critical reading of The Battle of Aughrim. Here, too, music is an agent of memory, and memory itself is an agent of history. One could hardly fail to welcome Keatinge’s patient excavation and attentive scrutiny of this magisterial poem, not least because Murphy’s work has in recent decades been eclipsed by the lustre and prestige afforded to somewhat younger poets. Keatinge’s reading of The Battle of Aughrim is also attentive to those discriminating tonalities of French and Irish discourse (and perspective) which suffuse Murphy’s poem (a feature which affirms the immediate relevance of both the poem and its critical afterlife to this collection). It also retrieves from The Battle of Aughrim an orality of discourse which privileges memory as a historical source: in this respect the poem adumbrates a similar emphasis upon (and preoccupation with) memory to be found in the work of current historians of 17th-century Ireland, notably Ian McBride and Sarah Covington.
The essays that close the book gracefully sound the Franco-Irish note anew: Cathy McGlynn’s reading of Joyce’s Sirens in relation to Derrida’s concept of différance is fluent and enlightening (although she appears to have conflated two songs into one in her reading of the episode) and Sarah Balen’s delicate apposition of Hélène Cixous and Paula Meehan recovers verbal music and the deliberated diction of ‘breath’ in particular as a technical jurisdiction inspired (sic) by the French writer’s theory and practice of écriture feminine. This, too, is a mode of différance (as between male and female modes of writing) which summons the pervasive theme of the whole book and the formative affinities between French and Irish culture which it so winningly promotes.
I cannot close without remarking on the extraordinary series to which France and Ireland belongs. Reimagining Ireland publishes monographs, comparative studies, interdisciplinary projects, conference proceedings and edited collections which are directed towards enlarging the appraisal and critical understanding of Ireland as a literary, historical, political, theological and – as it now transpires – musical construct. Its first volume appeared as recently as 2009 and to date the series has grown to an astonishing 72 volumes. This must surely be an unprecedented achievement in the annals of Irish – not to say European – scholarship. The general editor of Reimagining Ireland, Dr Eamon Maher, is to be warmly congratulated on this account. But he also deserves our thanks on this occasion in having fostered a book whose editors and contributors bring to the surface what Berlioz described as le feu et la grâce brillante de l’esprit Irlandais. The “fire and sparkling grace of the Irish spirit” suffuses these pages with French élan and gusto.
Harry White is professor of historical musicology and chair of music at University College Dublin