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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
It is immense. It is supersumptuous.
James Joyce Unquote

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The Lost Chord

Music by Sir Arthur Sullivan;
words by Adelaide Anne Proctor

Liner Notes


Although its appearance in Ulysses is limited to a few passing thoughts, this song provides a good example of the depth at which Joyce worked with his materials. Zack Bowen points out that, superficially, Bloom's free-association with the song suggests a broader knowledge of music than might have been expected of him.

Below this, however, lie more interesting connections he fails to note — most importantly that The Lost Chord shares a common theme with two other pieces much more prominently featured in Sirens, M'appari and Tutto è sciolto: all are musical expressions of grief over a loss believed to be permanent and which is, in fact, temporary; of these, The Lost Chord and M'appari end with a possibility of hope, and may therefore be musical clues to the novel's (unwritten) "happy ending."

In a chapter he acknowledged was written using the techniques of musical composition, Joyce breaks some of his material down into melodic fragments as small as individual words and even goes further, making use of music's powerful yet nonexplicit, suggestive logic, to create "harmonies" sometimes so allusive that their connections are perceptible by the brain, but not the eye.

Thus, the lines "it lay on my fever'd spirit with a touch of infinite calm./It quieted pain and sorrow like love overcoming strife,/It seem'd the harmonious echo from our discordant life" present music's power to soothe and heal, and — though the actual words Bloom is responding to are those of M'appari — the possible reference to The Lost Chord in the following passage is strengthened by Bloom's idly-wandering "four forkfingers" stretching the elastic "double, fourfold, in octave" (emphasis added) and by Joyce's repeated use of the word "touch" and perhaps by very free association of the song's "crimson twilight" with the flushed cheeks of Bloom and Richie Goulding: "Braintipped, cheek touched with flame they listened.... Through the hush of air a voice sang to them...touching their still ears with words.... Good, good to hear: sorrow from them each seemed to from both depart when first they heard" (273:33-274:3).

Finally, there is more than a chance the song hovers around the ghost of Stephen's mother at the climax of the Circe chapter. The genesis of the song was well-known; Sullivan wrote it while keeping watch at the deathbed of his brother. Joyce, in real life, had made music for both his brother George and his mother on their deathbeds, and has Stephen do the same for his mother in the novel — a fact to which she refers shortly after her materialization, uttering "a silent word. A choir of virgins and confessors sing voicelessly" (579:30-31).

The prayer in the Recommendation of a Departing Soul from which the choir's silent text is drawn is followed by 16 swift repititions of the word "Amen." Perhaps Stephen's mother's "lost" word is Amen, "so be it;" is it perhaps the "word known to all men" (581:5-6) that Stephen eagerly seeks to learn from his mother now that she has heard "Death's bright angel" speak?

This is speculation, surely, but no doubt exists that Stephen immediately and explicitly rejects submission to the will of God — or anyone else — saying with Lucifer "Non serviam!" (582:14) and again "No! No! No! Break my spirit all of you if you can! I'll bring you all to heel!" (582:22-23).
[CD liner notes by Kevin McDermott]

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