Ten Poems of James Joyce
This is my cycle of ten art songs on poems by James Joyce that I composed during the winter and spring of 2019. At the time, I was working closely with soprano Danielle Talamantes and bass-baritone Kerry Wilkerson on a number of projects, so I wrote a version of all ten songs for each of their voices.
This collection is accessible to a wide range of singers. I am especially delighted that these songs have become favorites among young singers for recitals, competitions, and graduate school auditions.
The high voice version can be sung by most sopranos and tenors, and the medium voice version can be sung by most mezzo-sopranos and baritones.
“The songs are diverse in atmosphere and harmonic language, as befits the narratives, and the writing is rich, often rapturous, as voices and piano meld with urgent purpose.”
In September 2019, I went back to the recording studio with Danielle and Kerry, Grammy-winning producer Erica Brenner, and Grammy-winning engineer Daniel Shores of Sono Luminus studios to record the entire cycle. It forms part of our new album, At That Hour: Art Songs by Henry Dehlinger, which was released on October 16, 2020 by AVIE Records.
On February 9, 2020, all ten songs had their world premieres at George Mason University's Harris Theater as part of an all-Dehlinger program that Kerry, a faculty member at GMU's School of Music, presented with Danielle as part of the university's Spring 2020 Faculty Artists Series.
Replete with ecclesiastical imagery, Night Piece is a reverent, if not haunting portrait of “night’s sin-dark nave.” With its soaring melody, the music swells into a tender exultation of the night sky. Joyce’s characteristic neologisms abound. A “star-knell” tolls as “upsoaring” clouds surge “voidward,” high above the “adoring waste of souls.” Strings in the Earth and Air is a tender hymn of nature with impressionist overtones. The song’s sultry vocal line emerges from a progression of minor and dominant ninth chords in this jazz-inspired rendering of Joyce’s verse.
In 1917, James Joyce suffered a sudden and painful attack of lumbago while walking along Bahnhofstrasse, the chic main street in Zurich, Switzerland. His condition was compounded by increasing blindness due to glaucoma. Bahnhofstrasse underscores Joyce’s angst as he discovers youth is fleeting. Yet, being middle-aged, he realizes he’s not old enough to benefit from the "old heart's wisdom" that comes in the autumn of life. The musical language is minimalist and meditative, composed of repeating cycles of broken chords in the accompaniment that reiterate a simple, eerie motif as the melody floats wistfully above.
Tutto è sciolto (“All is lost now”) is taken from an aria in the second act of La Sonnambula (“The Sleepwalker”), an opera by Vincenzo Bellini, one of Joyce’s favorite operatic composers. The aria is sung by Elvino who is distraught by the discovery of his fiancée, Amina, in Count Rodolfo’s bedroom, which she entered while sleepwalking. The title hints at the emotional turmoil of a failed seduction of a woman Joyce once knew.
On the Beach at Fontana recalls an excursion that Joyce and his young son took on the Adriatic coast. It evokes the experience of paternal love, most especially the fear that would come with losing the boy. Agitato sixteenth notes in the accompaniment mimic the father’s fast-beating heart. Halfway through the piece, the vocal line strikes us with a series of dissonant tritones. The singer might wish to add a steely surety to these gorgeous dissonances, especially while rendering the lines, “Around us fear, descending, Darkness of fear above.”
Alone conjures the image of a lazy, solitary evening. But a sensual thought enters, provoking “A swoon of shame.” The word shame is sutained over six measures as it disappears into the nothingness of a faint hum. Flood dwells upon frustrated desire in a tone that is almost vain but always bombastic. The text evokes a hint of Eros in “Love’s full flood, Lambent and vast.” A Memory of the Players in a Mirror at Midnight underscores the anguish of aging and achieves its clarity of expression through its precise images. The “Players in the Mirror” likely refers to the English Players, a Zurich-based amateur theatrical company with which Joyce was involved during World War I.
In At That Hour When All Things Have Repose, a soft, rubato melody rises above the opening bass octave. The emphasis on the monosyllables establishes the text’s iambic rhythm. But the effect is a slowing of the tempo, thus achieving the “repose” intimated in the first line. “Play on, invisible harps, unto love” is emphasized by corresponding arpeggios in the piano, mimicking a harp.
Just as On the Beach at Fontana evokes the poet’s love for his son, Simples captures his affection for his daughter, Lucia, as she gathers herbs in a garden in Trieste. It’s a lighthearted interlude that begs to devolve into Joyce's characteristic wistfulness.