James Joyce’s ear keenly attuned to music’s centrality in Irish life
The study of the author’s relationship to music is one of the oldest and most fertile of the critical strands that attend his writing
James Joyce with his grandchild Stephen James in 1934. His enduring brilliance includes his unmatched ability to “hear” that musical pulse as it resounds through the everyday lives of ordinary people:
I remember only three exchanges between my elder brother and my father. One remains hidden, but the other two concern music.
The first was the appearance of Simon and Garfunkel on The Andy Williams Show in April 1968, where the latter contributed his easy-listening stylings to a version of Scarborough Fair.
The second was about the relative merits of the different versions of Don McClean’s song, And I Love You So, by McClean himself and the one released in 1973 by another of the cosy sweater brigade, Perry Como.
Both men liked music; my father favoured (and could do a passable impression of) crooners in the tradition of Bing Crosby, while my brother loved contemporary English and American popular music in (almost) all its styles and formats.
On these occasions I seem to remember that the issue was one of originality versus faux replication, authenticity versus manufactured sincerity – at bottom, as I came to realise, a competition between different aesthetic systems, which in itself symbolised or expressed significantly different world views.
This pattern of an Irish father and son communing and competing in respect of musical matters recalls James Joyce’s conflicted relationship with his own father.
In fact, Jim and John Stanislaus were quite close in terms of their musical tastes (each glorified the tenor voice) and music served as a safe space where all that otherwise divided them could be placed in temporary abeyance.
Stanislaus Joyce related the story of his father and brother having a day’s outing to the wilds of Rathfarnham where they bonded over pints, songs and sandwiches in the Yellow House – coincidentally, once also a favourite watering hole for my brother and my father.
Now that my own childhood is almost as distant from the present as Joyce was from Dublin in the 1960s, I am moved once again to remark the perennial importance of music as a mode of cultural address in Irish life.
It still surprises me that non-Irish people are surprised by both the ubiquity and the power of music in Irish society – the obvious (to us) role that it plays in all aspects of life from birth to death. It’s taken a long time to unlearn that idea – 35 years living in Spain and England, and even now some part of me instinctively reaches for the mysterious, affirmative, consoling power of music at “milestone” moments.
The study of Joyce’s relationship to music is one of the oldest and most fertile of the critical strands that attend his writing. The musical bases of Joyce’s first book Chamber Music (1907) were immediately recognised by Thomas Kettle, Arthur Symons and a host of early reviewers. Once the connection had been established it became a standard critical reflex.
Three and a bit decades later, after Joyce’s death in 1941, his work began to be incorporated within academia, at which point music was identified as a specialised and potentially fruitful research pathway.
Notable landmarks since then include Song in the Works of James Joyce (1959) by Matthew C. Hodgart and Mabel P. Worthington, Zack Bowen’s Musical Allusions in the Works of James Joyce (1974), and Hearing the Music in Joyce’s Text (1993) edited by Ruth Bauerle.
Apart from the odd chapter, article, essay and doctoral thesis, the most committed scholarly engagement with Joyce’s music from an Irish perspective has been the material included in two books by Professor Harry White (UCD): Music and Cultural History in Ireland, 1770-1970 (1998) and Music and the Irish Literary Imagination (2008).
This was the general critical context within which I commenced my own study. Joyces Noyces is in fact the culmination of two decades of work on Irish literature, Irish music, and the connections between the two – a research programme within which a confrontation with Joyce became increasingly inevitable.
Like his contemporaries Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf, Joyce sought the truth about the human condition by bringing the incredibly strange practice of writing into creative conjunction with the incredibly strange practice of music – practices whose incredible strangeness we tend to forget through enculturation and over-familiarity.
Joyce’s advantage in relation to these and other musical modernists such as Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence and Gertrude Stein was, firstly, an innate musical talent; and secondly, a background in a society that fetishised music in relation to all aspects of national experience – from the medieval Gaelic court to the music hall stage, from the operatic aria to the nationalist ballad.
One of the most interesting things about the research has been encountering patterns of musical experience echoing through time – forwards and backwards between the Dublin of my imagination and the Dublin of my memory.
In themselves, these patterns form a kind of rhythm pulsing through history, connecting us with those who are past, or passing, or to come.
And herein lies Joyce’s enduring brilliance – his unmatched ability to “hear” that pulse as it resounds through the everyday lives of ordinary people: the memory of a moment of silence in an otherwise noisy environment; the application of popular song lyrics to one’s own experience; the configuration and disposition of the body in relation to different styles and different genres of music; and so on.
Among his many other achievements, Jim the jejune Jesuit left us a jukebox wherein we may continue to hear Irish history in all its rhythmic, melodic and harmonic plenitude.
Gerry Smyth is Professor of Irish Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University. Joyces Noyces: Music and Sound in the Life and Literature of James Joyce is published by Palgrave Macmillan