This is a continuation of yesterday’s post on Joyce’s Chamber Music and the research done by Myra Teicher Russel on the lost settings by Geoffrey Molyneux Palmer. Of the many settings that had been created for Joyce’s poems, Joyce liked Palmer’s the best and hoped that he would publish them to go along with his poems. Palmer, however, made no attempt to publish his settings of Joyce’s poems until after Joyce’s death. The post yesterday was biographical. Today’s post is about the poems.
Critics said that the poems in Chamber Music lacked substance. Russel says another way of looking at them is in terms of the “lightness” you find in Elizabethan verses. The images of the beloved in the poems is vague and featureless. Joyce told Nora that the beloved was a girl of his imagination, “fashioned into a curious grave beauty by the culture of generations before her, the woman for whom I wrote poems like “Gentle Lady” or “Thou leanest to the shell of night”. [Italics are Russel’s.]
As in Elizabethan verses, the beloved is impersonal and presented in traditional language. The moods and feelings of the speaker are celebrated and the object of love and desire is the sounding board. There is a suggestion of artifice. Love is a game and the lovesick hero of the poems is in search of an ideal. Music is as much a theme in the poems as is love. In fact, music is everywhere in the poems and there are many references to musical instruments. Nature also plays a vital role in the poems.
The word “air” and its rhyming counterparts occur multiple times (air, hair, there…) and every possible use of “air” is used: air as melody, celestial air, breezy air, pretty air (as in demeanor), putting on airs… Russel says Chamber Music could be called “a book of airs” and that those who wrote Elizabethan verses prior to Joyce would have applauded. (Campion, Dowland, Morley…) Joyce was an excellent student of the generations that came before him.
Joyce wrote to Stanislaus, “It is not a book of love-verses at all, I perceive. But some of them are pretty enough to be set to music. I hope someone will do so, someone who knows old English music such as I like.” Many musicians did set Joyce’s poems to music, but very few were in the old English style that Joyce liked. Palmer, however, understood what Joyce was going for and created music Joyce liked. Palmer was able to capture the gracefulness of each lyric in a way other musicians had failed to do.
Russel says that Palmer’s music belongs to the tradition of the early twentieth-century British art song which is a period sometimes referred to as a second English renaissance in song. He recognized, as did Joyce, that the music had to be well-sung. Because of this, Palmer’s settings require several hearings to be well-listened to as well. As Russel puts it, Palmer’s “settings augment and transform the poems; they become the poems. As in “Greensleeves” or “Danny Boy”, words and music are entwined and inseparable”.
I loved reading Chamber Music and wish I could hear the poems alongside Palmer’s music. I used to play piano and still own one that was recently tuned. Maybe I can brush up on my skills over the next year while studying Joyce and learn to play Palmer’s settings on my own. That would be a fun goal for the New Year! (I am completely incapable of singing them “well”, however.)
Russel mentions some correspondence and an “inferior” Palmer setting housed here in Austin at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. I’ll put checking that out on my goals for the New Year, too!