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

James Joyce Quote
We now romp through a period of pure lyricism of shamebred music.
James Joyce Unquote

[ Finnegans Wake ]

Pomes Penyeach
see also
Pomes Penyeach

Musical Settings of Chamber Music

Strictly speaking, the poems that make up this early volume by Joyce do not fall into the category of "musical allusions," but rather are themselves "songs" (albeit without musical notes) that have been set to music and performed by a variety of composers and artists over the years.

Of the manuscript of poems that were to make up James Joyce's second (and final) book of poetry, Pomes Penyeach, his friend Ezra Pound had not much good to say, suggesting to the author that this verse more properly belonged "in the Bible or in the family album with the portraits." About the poems in Joyce's first published work, on the other hand, Pound's enthusiasm was considerable.

The quality and distinction of the poems in the first half of Mr Joyce's Chamber Music ... is due in part to their author's strict musical training. We have here the lyric in some of its best traditions....

Chamber Music

The wording is Elizabethan, the metres at times suggesting Herrick, but in no case have I been able to find a poem which is not in some way Joyce's own, even though he would seem, and that most markedly, to shun apparent originality, as in:

Who goes amid the green wood
With springtide all adorning her?
Who goes amid the merry green wood
To make it merrier?

Who passes in the sunlight
By ways that know the light footfall?
Who passes in the sweet sunlight
With mien so virginal?

The ways of all the woodland
Gleam with a soft and golden fire —
For whom does all the sunny woodland
Carry so brave attire?

O, it is for my true love
The woods their rich apparel wear —
O, it is for my true love,
That is so young and fair.

Here, as in nearly every poem, the motif is so slight that the poem scarcely exists until one thinks of it as set to music; and the workmanship is so delicate that out of twenty readers scarce one will notice its fineness. If Henry Lawes were alive again he might make the suitable music, for the cadence is here worthy of his cunning.
[from "Joyce" by Ezra Pound, published in The Future, May 1918]

The musicality of Joyce's verse was noted early on; and the first composer to appreciate their suitability for musical interpretation was the Irish composer Geoffrey Molyneux Palmer (1882-1957), who with Joyce's encouragement began in 1907 to set the songs to music of his composition (he set 32 of the 36 poems). In the decades following publication of the book, many other modern composers have followed suit. One of the most distinguished of these is Ross Lee Finney, who set the entire suite of poems to music in 1951-1952. Five of those settings are performed on our second volume of Joycean recordings, MORE Music from the Works of James Joyce.

The first CD, Music from the Works of James Joyce, features a performance of one of the poems in Chamber Music, in an arrangement by Edmund Pendleton based on an air composed by Joyce:

Bid Adieu to Girlish Days

This song appears as Poem xi in the suite of lyrical poems Joyce entitled Chamber Music. Many of the poems were set to music and are familiar on the concert stage. In the last chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Stephen sings "a dainty song of the Elizabethans" for E.C., and his rendition of "the happy air" of "Greensleeves" is meant to please her. Poem XI of Chamber Music reflects Joyce's propensity in the suite to Elizabethan language, particularly in the use of the "thees" and "thous" of the King James Bible tradition. This is the only poem generally thought to have been set to music by Joyce himself.
[from CD liner notes, contributed by Prof. Zack Bowen]

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