Click to view the track list for CD #1
James Joyce at the Piano in Paris, 1939 James Joyce: Music in the Novels and Poems
CD #1 Songs
Artwork for CD #1 cover

James Joyce Quote
It is a young man's book. It is not a book of love-verses at all. But some of them are pretty enough to be put to music. I hope someone will do so, someone that knows old English music such as I like.
James Joyce Unquote

[ Letters ]

Click to play music clip of track 1

From CD #1:
Bid Adieu to Girlish Days

Musical arrangement by Edmund Pendleton;
words and air by James Joyce

Liner Notes

Putting on Elizabethan Airs

In Morris Beja's book, James Joyce, A Literary Life (p. 28), the Irish poet Padraic Colum is quoted as having remarked that the lyrics that make up Chamber Music "seem to come out of a young musician's rather than a young poet's world." The verbal qualities that mark these poems are implicit in their title, as Harry Levin observed in his Preface to the Collected Poems, for they are indeed "slight, elusive, formal, above all musical":

The style is dictated by the exigencies of the form: precise diction, open vowels, repetitions, alliterations, assonance and onomatopoeia, a rare polysyllable stemming a monosyllabic flow. The imagery appeals characteristically to the ear; even the dream-vision of "I hear an army" is largely conveyed by sound. Echoes from books, along with images from musical instruments, contribute to Joyce's "elegant and antique phrase." His models are the Elizabethan lyricists, the airs of Dowland and the words of Shakespeare.

From this last statement, then, it could be argued that the young poet who penned those elusive verses of Chamber Music was very much closer both in taste and temperament to Stephen Dedalus than to the more technically accomplished author of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In the last chapter of the novel, 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.

And the poems of Chamber Music are nothing if not pleasing. They reflect the young Joyce's propensity in the suite to Elizabethan language and dainty turns of phrase, particularly in the deliberate use of "thee" and "thou," which ineluctably hark back to Shakespeare and the lyricists of the 16th century.

"The finnecies of poetry wed music"

By the time his first volume of verse was published, James Joyce had somewhat lost interest in the book. In a letter to his brother Stanislaus, written from Rome in March of 1907, he commented:

I received from Elkin Mathews the proofs of Chamber Music.... I don't like the book but wish it were published and be damned to it. However, it is a young man's book. I felt like that. It is not a book of love-verses at all, I perceive. But some of them are pretty enough to be put to music. I hope someone will do so, someone that knows old English music such as I like. Besides they are not pretentious and have a certain grace.

So there is no question that Joyce had intended for these pretty and unpretentious lyrics to be sung. Almost from the time of the first publication of Chamber Music, right up until the present day, composers have recognized and appreciated the eminent suitability of Joyce's words in these poems for musical interpretation. Over the years all the poems have had settings composed for them, in a variety of styles, and some are familiar on the concert stage.

What distinguishes Poem xi ("Bid adieu, adieu, adieu") from the others is that it is believed to be the only poem in the suite to have been set to an air composed by Joyce himself. This charming arrangement by composer-conductor Edmund Pendleton is based on that original air. In the clip, note how skillfully the composer lets the music limn the beauty and meaning of the words without upstaging them.

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