Seven theses on Joyce and Irish music

Friday, February 5, 2016 - 3:00pm

Irish composer FRANK CORCORAN delivered these seven theses at the James Joyce Centre in Dublin as part of his seventieth birthday celebratory concert.


1. Pythagoras was the greater composer – il miglior fabbro.


2. Yet James Joyce was in many respects the greatest Irish composer.


3. Joyce chiselled and turned and fashioned his syllables and word-units and titles and bits of songs, as would a composing Irish artist. He thus achieved his emotional-semantic character-associations and the fragments of memories which he needed in composing those great sonorous passages in his own sound-world.


4. If he had so wished , he could have reached highest places in his singing, playing and composing of (at least) Lieder. He chose not to.


5. As I mentioned in my 2005 Trieste James Joyce Summer School lecture, Nora’s father, Tom Barnacle, was known in Galway by his nick-name 'Gobar i Goney' – Irish: Ag obair i gconaí = 'always busy' –  here is Joyce’s opening to Gabriel Conroy’s far-off West of Ireland 'native Doric', the music of sean nós song. At the same time we have Steven Dedalus’ Lestrygonian entry, "Music is maths for ladies….". And then in the Trieste Notebook , Stephen Dedalus prefers the "vigour of the mind" needed in composing literature to any thought of composing music.

James Joyce, a great LISTENER, preferred the intellectual rigour of composing words to composing musical structures….


6. In 1917, in Zürich, the James Joyce family had as a neighbour in the Seefelderstrasse 73, the composer Philip Jarnach, who was the secretary of the great Ferrucio Busoni, a major figure in the revolution of musical language in the early decades of the 20th century. (Years later Philip Jarnach became president of the Musikhochschule in Hamburg.)

Did Joyce ever discuss the why and how of this revolution, or the birth of the early atonal masterpieces of the Second Viennese School? He did not. Did he show an interest in the compositional bomb that was Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at its Paris premiere on March 31 1913? Was he at all interested in the Viennese 'Skandalkonzert' with the premieres of Alban Berg’s Peter Altenberg Lieder and Webern’s Opus 6 Six Orchestral Pieces in May of the same year? Was he? Had he ever asked himself why John Field was buried in Moscow’s Nevensky Cemetry but not in Leopold Bloom’s Dean’s Grange? Or why Stanford, 'the Irish Brahms', ended his days at Cambridge but not in Dublin? Why there was no Dublin Bartok or Sibelius?


7. Joyce had an intimate, urgent, yet deeply split relationship with art music, with any Irish concept of composition as an Irish art. He mirrored his native city’s colonial inheritage in this regard.

He was the perfect forerunner of our post-colonial – or non-reception – reception of Irish contemporary composing as art, up to this day.

As Irish art. Of Irish composers as on a par with Irish poets, Irish  painters etc. Perfect.


 Frank Corcoran spoke at Dublin's James Joyce Centre, November 26, 2015.