Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Music in Ulysses: Part 1


"So they turned on to chatting about music, a form of art for which Bloom, as a pure amateur, possessed the greatest love..."
-- James Joyce, Ulysses

James Joyce plays guitar in Trieste
I grew up in a house filled with music and musical instruments.  My father was a professional musician who played woodwinds.  He was a regular in the pit orchestra at Toronto's premier theatre, the Royal Alexandra, where Broadway-style plays would invariably land after successful runs in New York.  He typically worked nights, and a good part of his days were spent practicing scales, exercises and tunes on his menagerie of saxophones, clarinets and flutes.  When he wasn't practicing, there was a good chance my sister would be playing her flute.  She became a professional flutist (she eschews the pompous term "flautist") and leaned toward classical music.  I pitched in, playing saxophone and keyboards.  Between the three of us, our house was overflowing with music of almost every sort -- except, perhaps, opera.  There wasn't much of that.

James Joyce came from a musical family too.  He had a fine tenor voice and played several musical instruments, including piano and guitar.  His father had a well-regarded tenor voice and his mother played piano -- music always played a dominant role at Joyce family gatherings.  If Joyce hadn't become a writer, he could have been a professional musician.

Joyce created a musical household for the central characters in Ulysses: Leo Bloom and his wife Molly. We first meet the couple in the fourth chapter (known as the Calypso episode), where we learn Molly,  a professional singer, is planning a concert tour north of Dublin.  She tells Bloom that she'll be singing two songs on her tour, one of which is La Ci Darem La Mano (I'll discuss the other song, Love's Old Sweet Song, in a future post).  No doubt, Molly spent plenty of time practicing this song because it reverberates in Bloom's head for most of the day.

In my earlier blog, I wrote about how Joyce included his characters' unfiltered thoughts in the text of Ulysses; he held nothing back.  If characters had songs resonating in their minds, no doubt the lyrics and melodies would pop up in the text, usually haphazardly.

Later that morning, as Bloom walks through the streets of Dublin, he starts humming:

       "La ci darem la mano
       La la lala la la."

To someone who isn't familiar with the Don Giovanni aria, or who doesn't speak Italian, this passage must be a mystery.  Yet after you hear Luciano Pavrotti and Sheryl Crow (!) sing the aria, it comes alive:

Right after Molly tells Bloom she'll be singing La Ci Darem, Bloom's mind starts swirling with questions about whether she'll get the lyrics right; he thinks:

    "Voglio e non vorrei. Wonder if she pronounces that right: voglio."

Ironically, Bloom gets the lyrics wrong. When you click on the video above, you'll hear Sheryl Crow sing the lyrics correctly:

      "Vorrei e non vorrei"

Bloom's error was clearly intentional on Joyce's part.  Joyce was fluent in Italian and there's no way he'd ever get it wrong.  Later in the book, Bloom realizes the word "voglio" is wrong, but the word sticks in his head for the rest of the book.  This is another example of Joyce's commitment to absolute realism: people are always messing up song lyrics, so why shouldn't fictional characters make mistakes too? Similarly, real people have catchy songs running through their heads all the time, so why shouldn't characters in literature get ear-worms as well?

Other songs from Don Giovanni find their way into Bloom's mind.  He spends time during his lunch trying to figure out the words from the final scene of Don Giovanni ("Don Giovanni, a cenar teco"), and gets stumped on the meaning of the word "teco."  The song rolls around in his head, he does his best to translate it (although he's not quite successful), and eventually, the song fades away.

La Ci Darem La Mano is just one song in a symphony of music contained in the pages of Ulysses.  The Sirens episode is dedicated almost entirely to sound and music.  In it, a slightly drunk Bloom eats lunch in a crowded pub in the Ormond Hotel near the River Liffey, while a group of singers and musicians fill the room with a musical haze.  It's almost impossible for anyone to decipher what's happening in this episode without first listening to its music (which I will address in a later post).

Not too long after reading Ulysses, I purchased a CD of Mozart's light opera, Don Giovanni, and enjoyed it immensely.  It was probably the first time I'd ever listened to an opera.  Over the years, my wife and I started attending opera (including a wonderful performance of the Magic Flute in Prague), and now I appreciate the beauty and emotional impact of operatic music.  I owe my new fondness for opera to my catalyst: James Joyce's Ulysses.


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  2. Thank you for the tips. Just wondering, it seems a Part 2 about the Sirens episode never followed, is that right? Personally, I would be most interested in it...