James Joyce playing the guitar in Trieste, 1915 James Joyce: Music in the Novels and Poems

James Joyce Quote
'All art,' says Walter Pater in his essay on Giorgione, 'constantly aspires towards the condition of music,' where matter and form are one.
James Joyce Unquote

[ William York Tindall ]

Music in Finnegans Wake

Finnegans Wake

Readers living in the '20s and '30s of the last century who witnessed Joyce's Finnegans Wake a-borning had not the advantage (or impediment) of decades of exquisite scholarship to back them up in their appreciation of the book. All they had was the ding an sich — the brand-new bewildering prose and sheer originality of the enterprise. Yes, it was experimental. But what the devil did it all mean?

From the beginning, one particularly successful avenue of approach to making heads or tales of the book involved not the matter of "meaning" but rather of sound.

One of Joyce's most sympathetic supporters at the time, Eugene Jolas, as early as 1929 had recognized the overarching importance of the aural dimension of the work in getting past the author's challenging narrative technique even as it was evolving in serial form. In an essay that appeared in the symposium Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, he wrote:

Those who have heard Mr. Joyce read aloud from Work in Progress know the immense rhythmic beauty of his technique. It has a musical flow that flatters the ear, that has the organic structure of works of nature, that transmits painstakingly every vowel and consonant formed by his ear.
[from "The Revolution of Language and James Joyce"]

Now, over six decades past its first publication as a complete book, understanding the musical basis of the work remains one of the most useful methods of navigating through its linguistic dreamscape.

Within the pages of Joyce's magnum opus are buried literally thousands of musical references — beginning, of course, with the very title of the book — and it would be a Herculean task to catalog them all (never mind perform them all!). Be that as it may, on Sunphone Records' two CDs, Music in the Works of James Joyce and MORE Music from the Works of James Joyce, a small number of the song titles that crop up in the Wake are performed, namely:

Eye of the Beholder

Wall Art Inspired by
Finnegans Wake

Eye of the Beholder

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In addition, the second volume of songs includes a brilliantly "Joycean" setting of the Nuvoletta passage by composer Samuel Barber.

This section of the site awaits more extensive development, and we beg your patience for that. In the meantime, for readers wishing to delve further into this topic, two of the most comprehensive studies of music in the Wake are:

  • Song in the Works of James Joyce, by Matthew J.C. Hodgart and Mabel Worthington
  • Joyce's Grand Operoar — Opera in "Finnegans Wake", by Matthew J.C. Hodgart and Ruth Bauerle

Click to play The Ballad of Persse O'Reilly

Besides incorporating many in-line references to music and musical themes, Joyce even composed a song for his book — namely, "The Ballad of Persse O'Reilly" [I.2:44-47]. Hosty's scurrilous rann against H.C. Earwicker, which recounts the All-Father's fall from grace, is not included on the CD (though it has been performed in the past by the Irish band The Dubliners). Click on the "Play Music Clip" button to hear a digitized version of the tune.

Ballad of Persse O'Reilly


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