The Music that Makes Ulysses

Thursday, June 16, 2011 - 02:30 PM

As Joyceans descend the stairhead with stately, plump Buck Mulligan as part of Thursday's Bloomsday celebrations, many revisit the singular lyricism of James Joyce's landmark work Ulysses. For the amount of loquacious and grammatical twists and turns, it's unsurprising that Joyce had a musical background as he orchestrates what is widely regarded as the greatest English-language novel of the 20th Century with the symphonic gestures of his contemporary (and musical idol) Gustav Mahler.

A talented (and award-winning) singer, Joyce often used his pipes to finance his struggling writing career and even performed with fellow tenor John McCormack, a favorite of Nellie Melba. Even when Joyce died in 1941, his wife Nora Barnacle refused a Catholic funeral mass (famously quipping "I couldn't do that to him") and instead Swiss tenor Max Meili serenaded the author into the afterlife with "Addio terra, addio cielo" from Monteverdi's L'Orfeo.

Scholars have made much of Joyce's opera obsession: Biographer Richard Ellman's account of the author's life includes anecdotes of a young Joyce in drag singing the "Habanera" from Carmen and dubbing Wagner's Meistersinger as "pretentious stuff." Whole books are dedicated to Joyce's operatic allusions in Finnegans Wake (including mentions of McCormack) and Joyce's relationship to Wagner. And even a cursory read of Ulysses reveals operatic ties to characters (such as the Penelopean figure and revered singer Molly Bloom) and the thematic and social contexts of the work itself (such as Leopold's musings over how women hear music).

So omnipresent is opera in Ulysses that Leopold Bloom's Dublin at times feels like its own insular opera house, with the main character's musings carrying equal heft to some of opera's greatest soliloquies. The added resonance these frequent references give the work itself also shows that Joyce's references are hardly random. Three key points are below.

La Gioconda--A Summary of 816 Pages
As with many operas, succinctly summing up the plot of Ulysses can be an Olympian-level exercise in futility. Cutting to the heart of the matter, however, is another matter. Bloom's quick reference to "The Dance of the Hours" from Ponchielli's La Gioconda is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it note in "Calypso." Mozart's Don Giovanni factors heavily into this section, notably the duet "Là ci darem la mano" (that Molly Bloom plans to sing this is an astute insider's reference to her husband's overblown estimations of her infidelity), however--much like Molly Bloom's own falsely-assumed dalliances--it's a red herring. The real musical allegory here is in Ponchielli's ballet, which like Ulysses covers the span of one day, highlighting the epic proportions of hourly minutiae and the push and pull nature of day and night. Though the devil is in the details in both La Gioconda's dance suite and Joyce's winding and winning novel, what both remind us of is that, ultimately, it's just another day.


La Sonnambula and Martha--Up Close and Personal with the Blooms

In "Sirens," Bloom is preoccupied with his marriage and his correspondence Martha Clifford. It's at this precise moment that, seated in the Ormond Bar, he hears his counterpart Stephen Dedalus sing "M'Appari" from Flotow's Martha. The alignment of the names of Flotow's titular heroine and Bloom's pen pal is only the tip of the iceberg as Bloom realizes the correlation between each line of the aria and his own courtship with Molly.

The mistaken identities that fuel the plot of Martha also have their correlations in Leopold's and Molly's narratives, with the former assuming his wife has had far more extramarital affairs than she has in real life, and the latter displaying the wrong impression of Dedalus. Such misapprehensions also make for the central conflict of Bellini's La Sonnambula, in which Elvino suspects his fiancee of infidelity, only to find that she is a sleepwalker. Also (appropriately enough) in "Sirens," While Molly Bloom practices with a partner whom he falsely believes to be her lover, Leopold hears the aria "Tutto è Sciolto," ruminating on the tenor's lines of all being lost. Joyce had a particular affinity for this bel canto aria, using it as the title for a poem he wrote in 1917, one year prior to the serialization of Ulysses.

Like Bellini's finale for Sonnambula, and Flotow's end to Martha, however, we are led to believe that all works out for the Blooms. Molly's famous narrative closes out the novel on several notes of uncertainty, but what we're left to remember--again--is that this is merely a day in the life of this couple. And, like the marriages, or new beginnings, that cap off these two operas, what we're left to mull over in the end is what happens next.

What are your favorite musical moments in Joyce? Leave your suggestions in the comments below. 

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