James Joyce

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert James Joyce, performed on Oct 6, 2010 at Carnegie Hall.

Three giants of twentieth-century literary modernism in the English-speaking world revealed, in their own distinct manner, a close affinity to music: T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce. Eliot inspired a few composers, notably Igor Stravinsky and Michael Tippett. Pound was far more invested in music. He considered himself somewhat more than an amateur in matters musical. He wrote two idiosyncratic operas. One of them—Le Testament, based on the poetry of Francois Villon—was composed in 1923 together with a composer on today’s program, George Antheil. Pound considered Antheil the most promising composer of his generation and actively promoted Antheil’s reputation. Pound wrote music criticism for a few years. He also wrote a book on music that dealt with the theory of music, Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony, in 1927. Pound’s primary interests were sonority and rhythm, an emphasis that listeners to Antheil’s Ballet mécanique (which turned out to be the composer’s most famous piece) will readily appreciate.

Pound believed in asymmetry in rhythm and the need to avoid the use of stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry. Freedom from regularity was one of his goals so that poetry would be “in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.” Pound, with Antheil’s help, created patterns of speech of extreme complexity that defied conventional musical notation. Harmony, the prime tool of romanticism, was the enemy. He sought to “tear up the whole bloomin’ era of harmony and do the thing if necessary on two tins and a wash board,” he wrote. But the main objective was to unravel how we speak, the larger forms of literary convention, and the linguistic rhetoric of meaning, all in order to restore the power of the spoken word.

As Paul Griffiths has eloquently argued in his essay for tonight’s concert, Joyce was deeply invested in music. He was a musician’s writer in that, as Griffiths has argued elsewhere, “musical” was a term of high praise. As with Pound, sound and rhythm play a key role. Joyce toyed with collaborating with Antheil as well, also on an opera, this time based on Ulysses, Mr. Bloom and the Cyclops. Antheil set only one sentence, using different meters for every bar in order to match the prose. As Daniel Albright has noted, if Joyce and Antheil had completed the work, Pound’s theories of how to match language and music would have been realized.

At the same time, Joyce (and to a greater extent Eliot) was rather conservative in his musical tastes. Joyce loved Irish popular songs, liturgical music, and opera. Modernism in literature intersected less prominently with contemporaneous musical modernism in the early twentieth century than avant-garde developments in the visual arts did, where collaborations between composers and painters were frequent and produced memorable results.

The connections between James Joyce and music represented in this concert are of three different types. First, there is the personal link between Joyce and Antheil. Joyce shared Pound’s extravagant opinion of Antheil as a promising force in modernism. Second, there is a biographical connection, namely Joyce’s extraordinary response to a chance hearing of Schoeck’s song cycle. Third, in Seibert’s choral and orchestral work we encounter the magnitude of Joyce’s influence on subsequent generations in a powerful musical approach to Joyce’s best known and most influential book, Ulysses.

George Antheil (1900–1959) was one of the most elusive and articulate figures in twentieth-century music history. Born in Trenton, New Jersey, Antheil studied piano and composition in Philadelphia and at age 19 became a pupil of Ernest Bloch in New York. He earned the patronage of Mary Louise Curtis Bok and went in the spring of 1922 to Europe, settling in Berlin. In 1923 he moved to Paris, where he met Joyce and Pound and all the luminaries of modernism from Picasso to Yeats. He formed a duo with the violinist Olga Rudge, for whom he wrote several sonatas (paid for by Pound). Antheil experienced considerable success in the mid 1920s, but by the early 1930s his reputation had begun to suffer. By the 1930s Antheil had begun to shift his focus back to America, first writing for theatre and dance in New York (working with Martha Graham, Ben Hecht, and George Balanchine), and then by 1936 for the film industry in Hollywood, notably with Cecil B. DeMille. Antheil turned out to be a superb writer, whose autobiography Bad Boy of Music is a gem, marked by wit and charm. In the last period of his career Antheil wrote in a more conventional late romantic style and focused on opera, writing the libretti for two of them himself. The most successful of these late works, however, was a version of Ben Jonson’s Volpone. He died more of a legend than a well-known composer, someone who was reputed to have given piano concerts with a gun on the piano, held a patent together with Hedy Lamarr (for a torpedo guidance system), and wrote Ann Landers-style columns.

In the end, however, most of Antheil’s music has descended into obscurity with the exception of the music from the 1920s, particularly the Ballet mécanique, a work that has become legendary, and A Jazz Symphony from 1925, an exuberant and spectacular piece. The 1920s was Antheil’s most original period, when he focused on spatial juxtapositions, using blocks of sound as if in an assemblage framed by an overarching concept of elapsed time. Antheil’s concept from the start was cinematic and visual. He described his work in terms of musical “pictures” and time as “a musical canvas.” He compared his use of time to Picasso’s use of blank spaces, in service of “the most abstract of the abstract.” Antheil, never guilty of excessive modesty, claimed to have preceded the innovations of a rival who became more famous: Erik Satie. In the late 1920s, Antheil’s eventual turn away from radicalism can be anticipated by his confession that he had written Ballet mécanique with “some madness within myself.” But Beethoven also mused about his own work in similar ways. Antheil’s versatility and eclecticism should not be held against him. More of his later music deserves revival for its consistent craftsmanship and ingenuity. Antheil the composer should be remembered for more than one moment. Unlike the one other American from the same period who also had a meteoric start to his career as a composer and pianist, Leo Ornstein, Antheil did not fall silent and disappear. He produced a substantial body of work to be contended with. In retrospect, Joyce and Pound’s advocacy may not have been misplaced.

Othmar Schoeck (1886–1957) presents altogether a different picture. His primary achievement as a composer rests in his massive output of songs, rivaling in extent Franz Schubert. There are in addition five fantastic song cycles; one glorious work with string quartet, Notturno (1933); and four with orchestra: Elegie (1915–1922), Nachhall (1955) [performed by the ASO several seasons back], Befreite Sehnsucht (1952), and the most famous, the one on today’s program written in 1926. He also wrote eight impressive operas and a fine violin concerto, performed more than a decade ago by the ASO. Schoeck was a dour personality with an original voice. But he, a pupil of Max Reger’s, consistently felt himself unappreciated and in the shadow on the one hand of Richard Strauss, the era’s most successful opera composer, and after 1925, Alban Berg, whose triumph with Wozzeck he believed damaged the critical reception of his finest opera, Penthesilea.

But Schoeck crafted his own distinct voice and modernist style, albeit one rooted in a neo-romantic logic that he developed under Reger’s tutelage. Schoeck’s reputation has suffered in part because of his political allegiances. He became an avid proponent of the Nazis, not an altogether uncommon characteristic for German Swiss intellectuals and politicians of the time. But his enthusiasm was so pronounced and his eagerness to curry favor with the Third Reich so blatant that in his last years he became somewhat of a pariah. Nonetheless, Schoeck was clearly Switzerland’s finest twentieth-century composer. Few composers have matched the intensity, integrity, and power of the combination of poetic text and musical expression that he produced.

In January 1935 James Joyce was in Zurich to consult his eye doctor and went to a concert conducted by Schoeck. On the program was Lebendig begraben. Joyce was so impressed that a few days later he paid an unannounced visit to Schoeck’s home in search of the composer. After hearing the concert, Joyce went out to get a copy of the piano vocal score. He wrote his daughter-in-law in a letter, “If I can judge by last night he [Schoeck] stands head and shoulders above Stravinsky and Antheil as a composer for orchestra and voice anyhow.” Joyce also sought out the Keller poems with the intent to translate them. Joyce observed that “Schoeck is a type rather like Beckett who gets up at 2:30 P.M. his wife says. But I hope to catch him before he falls asleep again. But he can write music all right.” As Schoeck’s biographer Chris Walton noted, Joyce indeed did, but not until after inviting the composer to dinner and giving him a copy of Ulysses in the French translation with the dedication “in homage from your admirer, James Joyce.”

Mátyás Seiber (1905–1960) is the least known of the impressive number of composers—from Dohnanyi and Bartok to Ligeti and Kurtag—who make up the great musical renaissance of twentieth-century Hungary. Seiber was born in Budapest and studied with Kodaly. When Seiber submitted a wind Serenade for six instruments in 1925 for a prize in a competition and did not win, one of the judges, Bela Bartok, resigned in protest. Seiber went on to teach in Frankfurt where he met Theodor Adorno and worked intensively on and with jazz. He in fact gave the first course on the theory and practice of jazz, certainly in Europe. He emigrated from Nazi Germany in 1935 to England. He was immensely productive and was recruited by Michael Tippett to teach at Morely College, an adult college in South London founded in the 1880s. Seiber was killed in a car crash on a visit to South Africa in 1960. Ligeti dedicated his 1961 Atmospheres to Seiber’s memory. Like his Hungarian mentors and models. Seiber maintained a life-long interest in folk materials. Like Antheil, he also tried his hand at film and radio music, writing a score in 1955 for Orwell’s Animal Farm in its animated film version, and for a radio version of Goethe’s Faust in the 1940s. He also has one successful popular song to his name, “By the Fountains of Rome.” Seiber’s best known work, however, remains his 1947 setting of Joyce, Ulysses, the piece which ends today’s program. Yet there is more music waiting to be revived, including piano works, string quartets, songs, chamber works for a variety of instruments (many using jazz and improvisation), shorter orchestral works, and various settings of folk song materials.

We at the American Symphony are once again proud, at the opening of this new season that marks the orchestra’s return to Carnegie Hall (where the orchestra was founded in 1962), to showcase stellar works by unfairly neglected composers in a concert framed by a common thread, in this case a daunting and imposing one, the life and work of James Joyce. It is both fitting and ironic that so well-known and towering a figure should provide posterity with the unexpected opportunity to mine treasures of music history buried by oversight and a habit of forgetting driven not by judgment but by carelessness and thoughtlessness.