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James Joyce at the Piano in Paris, 1939 James Joyce: Music in the Novels and Poems
CD #2 Song List
Artwork for CD #2 cover

James Joyce Quote
Shout salvation in king Jesus.
James Joyce Unquote

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Suite from Chamber Music

Musical settings by Ross Lee Finney;
words by James Joyce

Courtesy of C.F. Peters Corporation

Liner Notes

Chamber Music

The American Ross Lee Finney (1906-1997) is one of the few composers to have set Joyce's early collection of poems in its entirety. Chamber Music — 36 Songs to Words by James Joyce was composed in 1952, and it was my honor to give the world premiere of several of the songs in 1975, at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

In an unpublished essay, Ross mounted a spirited defense of Joyce's often-maligned work; much of this literary material was understandably cut when it was published as the score's Preface in 1985. Below I have excerpted passages relevant to the pieces selected for this suite from Ross' original version and edited lightly to make them cohere; the full text of the Preface can be read here.

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 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? 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.

Poems I and II fall into an introductory group in which there is an adolescent vagueness about the beloved. These poems introduce the ancient metaphor of music "in the earth and air" and the traditional pastoral setting of love. The second lyric shifts to the nostalgic city sound of piano, and a different environment in which the adolescent thinks of love. These first poems, madrigalesque in character, set the scene for the entire work. Lyric X belongs to a group of songs of courting involved with breaking down the resistance of the beloved. They are generally optimistic in tone and are poems of spring and virginity. The second part of the cycle deals with disillusionment; No. XXXI, 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. The "curtain" lyric (No. XXX) ends the section sadly looking back to the beginning of the whole cycle.

[CD liner notes by Kevin McDermott]

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