Chamber Music: The Lost Settings – Poems & Songs

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!

Chamber Music: The Lost Settings – Myra Teicher Russel

Myra Teicher Russel found Geoffrey Molyneux Palmer’s songs set to James Joyce’s Chamber Music at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale when she was in her 70s. The Morris Library at the University had the songs for 22 years and said she was the first person to ever ask for them. Palmer had set 32 of Joyce’s 36 poems to music, but despite Joyce practically begging Palmer to publish them, he never did. Chamber Music: The Lost Settings provides the music of the previously unpublished songs along with an introduction by Russel.

Russel was first inspired to look for Palmer’s settings after reading a paper entitled “The Elizabethan Connection: The Missing Score of James Joyce’s Chamber Music”. The premise of the paper was that Joyce’s early poems were patterned after Elizabethan airs and that without the appropriate musical accompaniment, they were incomplete.

Russel says that music was so important to Joyce that he includes it in all of his works and that he reaches his “apotheosis” in the finale of Finnegans Wake, in the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” section.

Her journey in and along with the river Liffey gradually builds into a crescendo, culminating in an allegro giusto as she rushes into the arms of her father, the sea. Somehow, we too are carried along to become part of her rapid, darting movements and the joyous sweep of her reunion, as the passage becomes an amalgam of words and music, a flowing together, quicksilver. It is music, as those who listen to the recorded voice of James Joyce reciting it can verify.

Joyce came from a musical family that considered literature “an aberration from the proper art of music.” Joyce, of course, favored literature above all art, but he was also very musical. He believed the singing voice, especially a tenor, was the highest form of music and as a young man, he loved the “ayres” of Elizabethan composer-lutenists. His brother Stanislaus said Joyce would spend hours copying them in the National Library of Dublin.

Palmer asked Joyce for permission to set the poems in Chamber Music to music in 1907. He was one of the first composers to do so. This initiated a correspondence that continued for 25 years. (Much of the correspondence was amongst the songs that Russel discovered in the Morris Library at Southern Illinois University.) In that time, several people had put the poems to music, but Palmer’s settings remained Joyce’s favorites throughout his life.

Palmer received a Music Baccalaureate from Oxford at the turn of the century. At the time, he was the youngest recipient ever to receive the degree at Oxford. In 1902, his final year at Oxford he was stricken with Multiple Sclerosis which caused him problems for the rest of his life and eventually led to being confined to a wheelchair. But in 1904, he recovered enough to enter the Royal College of Music in London and studied with Charles Villiers who had a profound influence upon him. He received a degree in composition and piano and organ, despite his inability to play the piano or organ because of his MS.

In 1907, Palmer’s last month at the Royal College of Music, Palmer received Joyce’s just published Chamber Music from his mother as a gift. He first wrote to Joyce that same year. In 1910, he settled in Dublin and was comfortable enough with Joyce, who was then in Trieste, to ask his opinion on affordable housing in the area. In 1920, Palmer moved into his family home on Sandycove where his sisters could take care of him. (Their home was within site of the famous Martello tower where Joyce lived with Oliver Gogarty. The tower is now a James Joyce museum.)

In the correspondence, Palmer barely mentions his illness to Joyce. Joyce, however, frequently encouraged Palmer to set more and more of his poems to music. Joyce told Palmer that if he was a musician, he would have set them himself.

Amongst the Palmer settings kept by the Morris Library at Southern Illinois University was correspondence between Joyce and Palmer which shows just how enthusiastic Joyce was about Palmer’s settings. As late as 1934, Joyce was still enthusiastic about the settings. He wrote to his son, George:

“30 or 40 musicians at least have set my little poems to music. The best is Molyneux Palmer. After him are Moeran and Bliss.”

“Am sending Goossens’ settings of some of my verse. I wish I could find Palmer’s which are much finer music…”

Palmer, however, was much less enthusiastic about publishing the settings. Joyce was able to find publishers for Palmer’s music, but Palmer’s reluctance continued. Joyce even offered to pay for much of the cost, but Palmer remained ambivalent about publishing them. In 1931, Joyce wrote to Palmer:

It is a great pity you were not able to proceed with the publication I had arranged with Slivinski in Paris some years ago. Still I hope you will find a publisher in England for the songs. If I can do anything to that end let me know as I liked them very much.

Russel thinks the reason Palmer was reluctant to publish Joyce’s poems is because of Joyce’s reputation in Ireland. Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and especially Ulysses, were not well-received in Ireland and were not accepted amongst “polite society”. Palmer’s oldest sister had been headmistress at a wealthy Irish school for girls for 30 years. (Both of the sisters that took care of him were highly respected.) Russel said that when she asked one of the sister’s previous students if they were aware of the connection between Palmer and Joyce, they were shocked that any Palmer would have had a connection with Joyce.

Palmer, himself, was considered to be a “19th century gentleman”. It is likely that his reluctance to publish Joyce’s settings was because he did not want to upset his sisters upon whom he relied. In 1949, eight years after Joyce’s death, Palmer was asked to give the letters he had received from Joyce to the National Library of Ireland. He sent the letters and offered to send the songs as well, for the first time expressing real interest to have them published.

The change of heart was likely due to the impending retirement of his sisters, but may also have been because of the positive attitudes about Joyce outside of Ireland. (Even in 1949, Joyce was still not accepted in Ireland.)

The first hearing of Palmer’s music took place at Elizaabeth Seton College in 1982. It was a centennial celebration of both Joyce and Palmer and included a narrative of Palmer’s life, a dramatic presentation of the correspondence between Joyce and Palmer and a recital of several of the settings. In 1987, the BBC presented a program based on Russel’s research and all of Palmer’s settings of Chamber Music performed by Peter Dickinson and piano and Martyn Hill as tenor. There have been several other performances as well.

I think Russel’s book originally came with a tape of Palmer’s settings performed by Samuel Sanders on piano, but I couldn’t find it. The only thing I could find of Joyce’s poetry with Palmer’s settings on the internet was “Winds of May” from the Southern Illinois University Concern Choir…

There is a lot more information from Russel on the poems and songs I’d like to note, but this is probably a good stopping point for today. I’ll continue tomorrow.

Chamber Music by James Joyce

I deeply enjoyed James Joyce’s book of poetry, Chamber Music. It’s beautiful and not as difficult to interpret as Ulysses. It is a book of love poems written when he was young to a woman he hoped would come into his life one day. He told Nora, his wife, “When I wrote [Chamber Music], I was a lonely boy, walking about by myself at night and thinking that one day a girl would love me.”

Joyce was somewhat disappointed with the collection. In 1906, he told Arthur Symons he didn’t like the title because it was too complacent: “I should prefer a title which repudiated the book without altogether disparaging it.” In 1907, he wrote to his brother, Stanislaus:

I don’t like the book but wish it were published and be damned to it. However, it is a young man’s book. I felt like that. It is not a book of love-verses at all, I perceive. But some of them are pretty enough to be put to music. I hope someone will do so, someone that knows old English music such as I like. Besides they are not pretentious and have a certain grace. I will keep a copy myself and (so far as I can remember) at the top of each page I will put an address, or a street so that when I open the book I can revisit the places where I wrote the different songs.

In 1931, he told Herbert Gorman, “I wrote Chamber Music as a protest against myself.”

Some say the title has to do with the sound of tinkling in a chamber pot. This is supported in Ulysses when Leopold Bloom thinks to himself, “Chamber music. Could make a pun on that.” According to Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann, the pun may have come from a visit Joyce made with Oliver Gogarty to a widow in 1904. They were drinking porter while reading a manuscript version of the poems aloud. At one point, the widow went behind a screen to use the chamber pot and Gogarty said, “There’s a critic for you”. Joyce’s brother, Stanislaus, said that was a “favorable omen”.

The collection was first published by Elkin Matthews in May, 1907. Ever since, the poems have been performed by all kinds of artists. My favorite (at least so far) is 1969 “Golden Hair” by Syd Barrett (co-founder of Pink Floyd):