Three Choral Songs on James Joyce
Most of us know James Joyce as a novelist, the writer of Ulysses, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Finnegans Wake. But he was also a lyric poet, whose beautiful verses bear the indelible stamp of his musical talent and training. (By all accounts, Joyce was a superb tenor!)
In 2019, I wrote a cycle of ten art songs on Joyce's poems, which I released as part of my 2020 album on the AVIE Records label, At That Hour: Art Songs by Henry Dehlinger. I later arranged three of those settings—Night Piece, Strings in the Earth and Air, and Bahnhofstrasse—for mixed chorus and piano for my friend Thomas Colohan, artistic director of the Washington Master Chorale. They premiered on October 27, 2019 at the Chorale's 10th Anniversary Season opening concert in Washington, DC with soprano Laura Choi Stuart singing the solo and Zsolt Balogh at the piano.
“a stunning performance”
— Kim McCormick, Pan Pipes
I arranged Night Piece for unaccompanied SATB chorus. It begins as a reverent, if not haunting, portrait of “night’s sin-dark nave.” Replete with ecclesiastical imagery, this subdued choral meditation swells into a tender exultation of the night sky with soaring melodies and lush harmonies. Joyce’s characteristic neologisms abound: A star-knell tolls as upsoaring clouds surge voidward, high above the “adoring waste of souls.”
I also composed an alternate version with piano accompaniment, which is included in the appendix of this collection.
Strings in the Earth and Air is a light interlude for SATB chorus and high voice solo with sparkling piano accompaniment and impressionist overtones. The song’s sultry solo vocal line emerges from a progression of minor and dominant 9th chords in this jazz-inspired hymn of nature.
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. My 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 vocal lines float wistfully above.
Gaunt in gloom
The pale stars their torches,
Ghost-fires from heaven's far verges faint illume—
Arches on soaring arches—
Night's sin-dark nave.
The lost hosts awaken
To service, till
In moonless gloom each lapses, muted, dim,
Raised when she has and shaken
And long and loud
To night's nave upsoaring,
A star-knell tolls—
As the bleak incense surges, cloud on cloud,
Voidward from the adoring
Waste of souls.
STRINGS IN THE EARTH AND AIR
Strings in the earth and air
Make music sweet;
Strings by the river where
The willows meet.
There's music along the river
For Love wanders there,
Pale flowers on his mantle,
Dark leaves on his hair.
All softly playing,
With head to the music bent,
And fingers straying
Upon an instrument.
The eyes that mock me sign the way
Whereto I pass at eve of day.
Grey way whose violet signals are
The trysting and the twining star.
Ah star of evil! star of pain!
Highhearted youth comes not again.
Nor old heart's wisdom yet to know
The signs that mock me as I go.
James Joyce, 1882 - 1941