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Chamber Music: 36 Songs to Words by James Joyce


By Ross Lee Finney (1906-1997)

NOTE: Passages in brackets indicate text changed in or omitted from Finney's published Preface.

[The greatest problem that a composer faces in setting James Joyce's Chamber Music is to know just what to do with the poet's symbolism and in how far to allow the conflict of inner meanings and surface meanings to influence his musical style. The problem has not been made easier by the writings of modern scholars. When Mr. Tindall comments that "for had pitched his mansion in the place of excrement...the mad humor of Joyce's poems may seem indecorous or perverse," he is carrying on a tradition of scholarship which exaggerates a fragment gleaned from an author's remark into a whole aesthetic-critical viewpoint. The double-entendre that Mr. Levin tactfully suggests could be drawn from Ulysses — the "shamebred music" — is used later as the entire basis for judging and understanding Joyce's poetry. And it is not surprising that such an attitude leads the critic to find little of value in these lyrics. If the essence of Chamber Music is in this droll humor, if the musician must look upon every lyric as insincere, then truly the composer is defeated in any attempt to set the poetry. Whatever intellectual value the poetry may thus have been given, its emotional value has been ruined. But is it not possible that the scholar, knowing Joyce's love of symbolism and double meanings, may imagine more symbolism than is meant and perhaps miss entirely the other quality of Joyce's artistic personality — that quality of building in large cyclic structure?]

The tendency has always been to consider Chamber Music by James Joyce as a collection of lyrics, not as a single, unified work. Critics write that these poems "seem trivial...exacting the final elegance from tradition," and that "Joyce sings of love in the manner of the Elizabethans and of the poets of the eighteen nineties," [Mr. Levin writes] that his "plaintive and cloying little stanzas could only have satisfied George Moore's canons of pure poetry. [They are not merely empty of meaning — a deficiency which poets have been known to survive — but of color.]" Critics generally lament such phrases as "making moan" and "swoon of shame" and find [with Rebecca West] that, at least in his poetry, Joyce "is a great man who is entirely without taste." [When the modern critic writes that "these songs, although pleasing enough and suitable for an Irish Tenor, seem to justify their comparative neglect" is it not possible that he is both insulting the author who had every reason to love the qualities of the "Irish tenor" and also doing injury to an early work by using standards that developed later in a decade of the twentieth century very different from the one in which the poems were written?]

Though Joyce has put on a lyric "kind of mask" to save himself from the "sentimentality" that would presumably be the "danger of direct expression," there is nevertheless a considerable amount of direct expression in these poems. Let one think but a moment on the arc of expression that has led from the first poem to the last and one realizes that an immense emotional change has taken place — that the beloved is no longer a person, and is no longer present — and indeed has perhaps become, through symbolism, Ireland. Surely such a change cannot be without meaning, nor could such a change be made in any other way than through a gradual shift of emphasis.

In setting the poems to music this gradual shift and the resulting arc of expression become more important than the superficial surface meanings [that delight the critic]. We are led inevitably to realize that these lyrics cannot be understood individually, but must be seen as fragments [sometimes rather bland fragments] in a mosaic which in its entirety is anything but bland. In setting these poems the following cyclic form became clear — a form which seems less strange to a musician than it may to a student of literature.

The first three poems fall into an introductory group in which there is an adolescent vagueness about the beloved. This group is framed by the ancient concept of music "in the earth and air," (No. 1) and "music in the air above/And in the earth below" (No. 3). These poems not only anticipate that ancient metaphor but also introduce the traditional pastoral setting of love, the concept of love as death, and even perhaps a tactile suggestion with the use of the word "instrument," an age-old double-entendre. The second lyric anticipates the atmosphere of night and of city streets, and shifts to the nostalgic city sound of piano, and a different environment in which the adolescent thinks of love. It also establishes an exaggerated sense of rich and vibrant color. The third lyric anticipates the eerie sounds of harps and wind which are so often mentioned in the course of the cycle and which in the end aid the symbolism of the beloved as Ireland. These first three poems, madrigalesque in character, set the scene for the entire work, although love is merely an idea in the mind of the singer.

The fourth and fifth poems are no longer reflective. The lover is on the prowl. He announces himself as the "visitant," the minstrel, and the beloved has been personalized. It is very curious to find Louis Golding struggling with Goldenhair trying to find some justification for such light verse. Need there be more justification than the poet's intention to change love from an adolescent idea to a relationship between a man and a woman?

Lyrics six through thirteen are songs of courting and are involved with breaking down the resistance of the beloved. They are generally optimistic in tone and are poems of spring and virginity. [The beloved is in "the greenwood/With springtide all adorning her" "Among the apple-trees," and the "Winds of May" are dancing.] After suggesting his desire to possess his beloved (No. 6), the poet uses stronger and more definite persuasion (No. 11) even setting himself above the custom that the church imposes (No. 12) and finally (No. 13) there is an exuberant announcement of success — that the "bridal wind is blowing" — and the urgency of the final line "soon, O soon."

The next three poems are the most passionate. [deal passionately, if a little adolescently, with sex experience. The sensual quality of the fourteenth lyric is even a little too obvious. But there is nothing of the madrigal in this poem.] No. 14, which Joyce himself said was pivotal, reflects in the line "My dove, My beautiful one, Arise, arise!," the language of the third Canticle from the Song of Solomon. These poems go beyond the Elizabethan madrigal. The symbolism and the psychology of these three poems deserve more study than I shall give. Love is no longer an idea but a physical experience involving sight, hearing, touch and smell. In the fifteenth lyric the lover returns "From love's deep slumber and from death," and in the experience the poet reveals the nakedness of the sensitive human soul. The image of the "wise choirs of Faery," not only highlights the flood of experience but suggests at this crucial moment the symbolism of Ireland. The sixteenth lyric is a reaction to this flood of sensation (the exhaustion and the relief), and with this poem the first part of the cycle seems to me to come to an end.

The second part of the cycle deals with disillusionment — with frustration and lack of understanding. It is the song not so much of an artist as of a sensitive individual who because of his egocentric nature constantly examines and questions his relationship with those he loves. Mr. Toynbee, in writing of Joyce's tendency to overburden his writing with obscure, scholastic allusions, refers to the malady as "similar to that neurasthenic trait which obliges some people to invite love and then to embitter it."

The tone of this second part is set by the first three poems (Nos. 17, 18 and 19) and can be summed up in the lines "he is a stranger to me now/Who was my friend." This sense of isolation that love's commitment brings is lamented in these poems and is implied in the eleven poems that follow. The traditional lament for love's passing that finds gentle expression in the Elizabethan madrigal is reflected here, and a series of lyrics, some of them rather shallow in content, serve as a transition to the poignant and dramatic ending. But these middle poems are by no means consistently madrigalesque. Lyric twenty with its nostalgia — its desire to relive experience that cannot be relived — is subtle and intense. In this song images allude to the climax of the first section. The change of time from night to "At noon of day" symbolizes the passing of time that has robbed the early experience of freshness. There is annoyance at the most simple action of the beloved (No. 24) and a tendency in these lyrics to emphasize change. The most striking example of this transitional character is in lyric twenty-six which starts with the most liquid lyricism and moves rapidly into an atmosphere of fear and madness. It is in this lyric, also, that one finds the image of Ireland for the first time:

What sound hath made thy heart to fear?
Seemed it of rivers rushing forth
From the grey deserts of the North?

This poem is crucial in forecasting the mood of the last six poems of the work: disillusionment at the power of "piping poets" to solemnize love (No. 27) and in No. 28, "Sad songs about the end of love...about the long deep sleep/Of lovers that are dead."

After a verse which seems unbearably flat there is the "curtain" lyric (No. 30) which ends the section sadly looking back to the beginning of the whole cycle. From a purely formal standpoint this pause to review the early experience before plunging into the final climax seems most adroit to a musician.

The final six poems of Chamber Music are concerned with loneliness and despair. They form the climax of the cycle. The first of this group (No. 31), in which Donnycarney gives the only specific reference to Ireland in the entire work, uses the symbol of the bat to reflect its more tortured mood. In the next poem rain and the season of fall symbolize the passing of love: "The leaves lie thick upon the way/Of memories." An adjustment to the inevitable, less impassioned tone of love, is urged in No. 33 and is associated with fall and the brown color of fall. The next poem speaks of the "voice of the winter" and is a cry for the peace of sleep. The next to the last poem is a wail, almost insane, in the drab bleakness of winter seas. In the final poem there comes to the surface the association of the beloved with Ireland that has been touched upon during the cycle but never quite admitted. When one comes to the last two lines,

My heart, have you no wisdom thus to despair?
My love, my love, my love, why have you left me alone?

one is not at all sure whether the poet has been deserted by a woman or by Ireland. Surely the reference to the mythology of Ireland in the previous two lines, "They come shaking in triumph their long, green hair:/They come out of the sea and run shouting by the shore," affects this change of meaning. From a cyclic standpoint this mature association of love with country balances with the beginning when love was an unrealized, adolescent idea.

These poems, like fragments in a mosaic, draw a picture of love. Like a large musical form, they must be understood in their totality.

[Thus these poems have traveled an arc of meaning using symbolism, poetic forms and traditions to express lyrically the psychological course of love in a sensitive person. These verses by the device that the composer speaks of as dynamics have been welded into a united whole. The first part starting on a low dynamic level rises to its climax at the fourteenth lyric and then decreases in intensity. The dynamic curve is exactly similar for the second part rising to its peak on the last lyric with a greater climax. Joyce has used a device fundamental to musical form but by no means limited to music. One cannot accept Martin Ross' analysis of Anna Livia Plurabelle in terms of sonata form but one certainly has to admit Joyce's concern with musical forces in his prose and poetry. The diminuendo suddenly pierced by a sharp, sforzando note perfectly describes the following passage:

He heard a confused music within him as if memories and names which he was almost conscious of but could no capture even for a instant; then the music seemed to recede, to recede, to recede and from each receding trail of nebulous music there fell always one long-drawn calling note, piercing like a star the dusk of silence. Again! Again! Again! A voice from beyond the world was calling.

To fail to understand the individual lyrics of Chamber Music as parts of a larger conception is to fail not only to understand the meaning of the poem as a whole but also its place in Joyce's works. A critic has pointed out that Joyce worked through lyric, through dramatic, to epic. In such a case this poem finds a logical position.]

[It cannot be one's object to deny double meanings in Joyce's writing.] The title Chamber Music certainly suggests a double meaning, and to admit it does no injury to the work. ["Shamebred music" suggests clues to the inner psychological meaning of this poetry. But] When Tindall writes that in Chamber Music "Joyce seems devoted to urination" he is perhaps carrying the double meaning too far. Is there any reason why one should not consider the normal musical meaning of the title? In a study of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets the critic who failed to consider the musical implications — the quaternities implied in the title — would certainly limit his understanding of the work. So also with Joyce's poems. Chamber music means intimate music for a small group of performers; music that develops a serious idea through various phases. Such a work has more than a single mood. It has not only surface meaning but also depths that one understands gradually. It is a work in which the themes may well be given a cyclic development and usually consists of more than a single movement. This meaning seems to fit Chamber Music as well as Four Quartets. [The fact that the composer finds not a single word in Joyce's poem that is unmusical reveals the true lyricism of the poetry, a lyricism that never divorces itself from song — like a Mozart quartet rooted strongly in operatic tradition.]

I owe a great debt to Stephen Fisher for his sensitive understanding of both text and music and to Don Gillespie for solving the problems of copyright. The eagle editorial eye of Bruce J. Taub was indispensable.


Text used by permission of The Society of Authors as the literary representative of the Estate of James Joyce, Jonathan Cape, London publishers and The Viking Press, New York, publishers of CHAMBER MUSIC.

Typescript of Chamber Music Preface

Facsimile of second page of Finney's original typescript Preface to Chamber Music (1952?).
[click to enlarge]

Reprinted from CHAMBER MUSIC
by Ross Lee Finney
Henmar Press, Inc., C.F. Peters Corporation
373 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016
Edition Peters 66989, copyright 1985.

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