The Joyce Book

By Lauren Holmes

Published in 1933 by the Oxford University Press, The Joyce Book contains settings of the thirteen poems of James Joyce’s Pomes Penyeach by thirteen different composers, as well as a sketch of the writer by Augustus John, an editor’s note by Herbert Hughes, a prologue by James Stephen, an essay titled “James Joyce as a Poet” by Padraic Colum, and an epilogue by Arthur Symons. Five hundred copies of the book were printed, and the proceeds were given to Joyce. The songs and composers included are as follows:

Tilly / E. J. Moeran
Watching the Needleboats at San Sabba / Arnold Bax
A Flower Given to My Daughter / Albert Roussel
She Weeps Over Rahoon / Herbert Hughes
Tutto è Sciolto / John Ireland
On the Beach at Fontana / Roger Sessions
Simples / Arthur Bliss
Flood / Herbert Howells
Nightpiece / George Antheil
Alone / Edgardo Carducci
A Memory of the Players in a Mirror at Midnight / Eugene Goossens
Bahnhofstrasse / C. W. Orr
A Prayer / Bernard van Dieren

The collection was first conceived of in 1929 by Herbert Hughes and Arthur Bliss. Hughes relates the story in his editor’s note:

“We were attending a festival of contemporary chamber music arranged by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, and James Joyce had accompanied us to the Palais Royal where works of Bliss and Roussel and others were being performed. The subjective association of chamber music – that is, of intimate music, with the poetry of Joyce was to us like the association of wind and wave, of light and heat; and the idea of this collaboration, urged maybe by the emotional incidence of the festival, seemed to occur to us at the same moment.

Let us who are his friends, we said, make a volume of songs out of Pomes Penyeach and dedicate the volume to Joyce. We thought of selecting four or five. Our conversations were continued at Fouquet’s and the idea expanded. It was decided that such a book of music would be incomplete, for Pomes Penyeach is a baker’s dozen and the settings should be presented as such. There should too, be a portrait, and poets and writers of prose (also his friends) should join the musicians.”
(Herbert Hughes, ed., The Joyce Book (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), 9.)

A more humorous account of the volume’s genesis is given in a poem by C.W. Orr, sent to the musicologist Stephen Banfield in 1974. Its 21 stanzas cite the banning of Ulysses and Joyce’s subsequent financial troubles as the primary motive for The Joyce Book’s publication, and also name some of the earliest members of the project.

Then Arnold Bax avowed that Celtic verse still wove a spell for him,
C.W. Orr declared ‘A Shropshire Lad’ might go to hell for him;
Van Dieren promised he would not write more than twenty parts at once,
Which modesty from such a contrapuntist won all hearts at once.
(Stephen Banfield, Sensibility and English Song, vol 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 398.)

Orr further explains in the poem that the composers received no money for their contributions, although he also shrewdly notes that they all “revelled in this chance of self-advertisement.”<ref>Ibid.</ref> Unfortunately, despite the renown of many of the composers, when it was finally published after several years of delays, the volume was not a financial success.

Joyce himself was involved in the project, assisting Colum with his essay, although he was not a major participant.<ref>James Joyce, Letters of James Joyce, vol 3 (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), 209.</ref> His reaction to the final product, however, was mixed. In a letter to Arthur Bliss on 3 March 1933 he declared Bliss’s setting of “Simples” to be his favorite song in the book, writing, “it’s rich and ample and melodious, delightfully balanced in its movements. You have done my little song great honour.”<ref>Arthur Bliss, As I Remember (London: Faber and Faber, 1970), 101.</ref> The fact that Joyce refers to his own poem as a song suggests that he already thought of the text as particularly musical. In fact, “Simples” is explicitly about music – the speaker is listening to a girl sing while she gathers salad leaves. The lyrics of the Italian tune she is singing, O bella bionda / Sei come l’onda! are included as an epigraph in Joyce’s poem, while an English translation appears in the third stanza of the poem:

A moondew stars her hanging hair
And moonlight kisses her young brow
And, gathering, she sings an air:
Fair as the wave is, fair, art thou!

Bliss’s setting replaces the English lyrics with the Italian, destroying the rhyme scheme and fundamentally altering the text. This phrase is the climax of the song, bursting forth from the lush, chromatic harmonies in a lyrical, bel canto style. In his autobiography, Bliss reveals that this melody is “a particular Italian refrain” that Joyce wanted used, presumably the tune that he had in mind when he wrote the poem.<ref>Ibid.</ref> The translation of the song that occurs in the text – from Italian into English and from music into poetry – is replaced with a quotation of the original, adding a layer of musical intertextuality to the setting that complements the intermedial reference in the poem. It is also worth noting that the range of the setting is for a high voice, making it suitable for Joyce, an accomplished tenor. Performing the song would have allowed him to step into the role of the protagonist in a new way, expressing his real or imagined experience of listening to the young girl through music, as he had already done through poetry.

Bliss himself suggests that his use of the Italian refrain may explain Joyce’s avowed preference for the song, but adds “I have a certain suspicion that with his Irish charm Joyce wrote a similar letter to each of the other contributors – perhaps he liked them all best!”<ref>Ibid.</ref> It appears from Joyce’s letters, however, that Bliss’s suspicions were unfounded. In a letter dated several weeks after his to Bliss, Joyce wrote somewhat less effusively to Arnold Bax that he found his setting of “Watching the Needleboats at San Sabba” to be “very evocative and the slightly Norwegian strain that runs through it very suitable. It has also the merit, rare nowadays, of being singable.”<ref>James Joyce, Letters of James Joyce, 276.</ref> And in October of the same year, he wrote to Stanislaus Joyce, “The best thing in the O.U.P. book is Bliss. J.S.’s poem is good too.”<ref>Ibid., 287.</ref>

Joyce’s feelings toward the collection as a whole were not as warm as those toward Bliss’s contribution. In December of 1934 he wrote to his son, Giorgio, “The Joyce Book is a very great mystery to me. 18 artists have collaborated to do me honour: and the net profit was to revert to me. The profit has been very net, that is, a very net nothing.”<ref>Ibid., 340.</ref> He goes on to mention other settings of his works, which were already numerous: “30 or 40 musicians at least have set my little poems to music. The best is Molyneux Palmer. After him are Moeran and Bliss.”<ref>Ibid.</ref>

In his study Sensibility and English Song, Stephen Banfield notes that the English art song, a genre that flourished during the 1920s, had already begun its decline in the 1930s. He therefore describes The Joyce Book as “perhaps as much a tribute to the end of an artistic period as to James Joyce himself.”<ref>Stephen Banfield, Sensibility and English Song, vol 2, 322.</ref> Though several of the composers represented in the volume achieved renown as Modernists, such as Sessions and Antheil, others, such as Bliss and Bax, continued to write in a late-Romantic idiom. Their song settings, though not well known today, represent one of the many types of interaction between artists and between their arts that influenced Modernist writers. Despite its financial failure and resulting obscurity, The Joyce Book stands as evidence of the collaborations between composers and authors in the early 20th century, and of the mutual influences between music and literature.

For more on the connection between Modernist authors and music, see e.g. Zack Bowen’s Bloom’s Old Sweet Song: Essays on Joyce and Music (University Press of Florida, 1995), Xiros Cooper’s T.S. Eliot’s Orchestra (Routledge, 2000), Peter Jacobs’s “The Second Violin Tuning in the Ante Room: Virginia Woolf and Music” (In The Multiple Muses of Virginia Woolf, University of Missouri Press, 1993), and R. Murray Schafer’s Ezra Pound and Music (New Directions, 1977).