Music in Joyce’s “Dubliners”

Joyce in 1904.

To mark the centenary of the publication of James Joyce’s Dubliners we present a selection of related materials from our archives. This is also in conjunction with the Songs from Joyce’s Dubliners event in the RIAM library on Culture Night 2014, which featured performances and readings by RIAM Vocal Students.

Joyce and music

Joyce’s connection with music is well known, and songs play a pivotal role in his works. He himself was an accomplished tenor, and studied privately with RIAM professor Benedetto Palmieri. In 1904 he competed in the Feis Ceoil and although seemed set to win the competition, he refused to partake in the sight-reading section of the competition, and consequently only won the bronze medal. Legend has it that, in a rage, he tossed the medal into the river Liffey, but this was later correct by his biographer Richard Ellman: in fact the medal was very recently acquired by Michael Flatley.

His contemporary and associate Oliver St. John Gogarty commented:

“Strange, almost incredible as it may seem now to his admirers, Joyce was more intent on becoming a singer than a writer. Although he competed at the Feis long before he conceived Ulysses, he was devoted all his life to music”

Musical allusions abound in Joyce’s work, not simply references to songs, but also as formal experimentation in his literary works: for example, he claimed the ‘Sirens’ chapter of Ulysses was written in the form of a fuga per canonem. Yet despite the experimental nature of his later writing, Joyce apparently had little regard for the 20th century musical innovations of Stravinsky or Schoenberg, and preferred the operas of Bellini to those of Wagner.

Dubliners - first edition (1914)  Palmieri - portrait (cropped)
1. Dubliners, 1904-1914: publication history 2. Benedetto Palmieri: Joyce’s singing teacher
 Eileen Reidy portrait  Bohmenian girl-cover-smaller
3. A Mother 4. Eveline and Clay
Silent O Moyle, from an early edition Moore's Melodies.
5. Two Gallants