Lately I’ve been devoting a lot of ear time to a two-disc collection of musical settings for all 36 of the love poems in James Joyce’s 1907 book Chamber Music. Though there are a couple of reasonably high-profile names on the setlist — chiefly, members of R.E.M. and Sonic Youth — most of the musicians were big blanks for me up until now. The NPR link has samples of three of the more conventional treatments, but even when it heads off into the wild blue musical yonder, the set remains very listenable.
Various rock and avant musicians have dipped into Chamber Music over the years, most famously Pink Floyd co-founder Syd Barrett (above), who used the fifth poem as the basis for “Golden Hair,” on his solo album The Madcap Laughs:
- Lean out of the window,
- I hear you singing
- A merry air.
- My book was closed,
- I read no more,
- Watching the fire dance
- On the floor.
- I have left my book,
- I have left my room,
- For I heard you singing
- Through the gloom.
- Singing and singing
- A merry air,
- Lean out of the window,
As you can see, the poems are charming but really minor stuff. If Joyce had never published anything beyond Chamber Music — his short story cycle Dubliners was still seven years off, and Ulysses another eight years after that — I doubt his name would be known at all today. That’s probably why the poems work so well in musical settings; it would be pretty nightmarish to set the athletic, idiosyncratic language of Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake to music. (Though I could imagine King Crimson taking a whack at “Anna Livia Plurabelle.”)
Outlaw Poetry has a sample of Joyce verse used on Voices and Instruments, a long out of print 1976 collaboration between John Cage and Jan Steele.
Naturally, this post has to conclude with the closing words from The Dead, John Huston’s adaptation of the final story in Dubliners.
She stopped, choking with sobs, and, overcome by emotion, flung herself face downward on the bed, sobbing in the quilt. Gabriel held her hand for a moment longer, irresolutely, and then, shy of intruding on her grief, let it fall gently and walked quietly to the window.
She was fast asleep.
Gabriel, leaning on his elbow, looked for a few moments unresentfully on her tangled hair and half-open mouth, listening to her deep-drawn breath. So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. He watched her while she slept as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife. His curious eyes rested long upon her face and on her hair: and, as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange friendly pity for her entered his soul. He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death.
Perhaps she had not told him all the story. His eyes moved to the chair over which she had thrown some of her clothes. A petticoat string dangled to the floor. One boot stood upright, its limp upper fallen down: the fellow of it lay upon its side. He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt’s supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merry-making when saying good- night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow. Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse. He had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing Arrayed for the Bridal. Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees. The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died. He would cast about in his mind for some words that might console her, and would find only lame and useless ones. Yes, yes: that would happen very soon.
The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.
Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.