James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses has hummed with sound for one hundred years. “Mrkgnao!” goes Leopold Bloom’s cat while he makes breakfast; “Pprrpffrrppffff” goes his posterior after dinner later. We hear the chattering of the telegraph in the “Aeolus’” episode, the clattering of cutlery and clinking of glasses as Bloom eats and drinks his way around Dublin over the course of one day, June 16th, 1904. (”Bloomsday” for Joyce aficionados.) 

Music is part of the novel’s tapestry too: Snatches of songs and half-remembered lyrics (“Don Giovanni, thou hast me invited / To come to supper tonight, / The rum the rumdum”) percolate through the consciousness of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. Music is one strand in the thick weave of quotation that gives the book such a distinctive texture. (That and Bloom’s potato.) The hallucinatory “Circe” episode—a boozy stagger through Dublin’s red-light district—makes the pianola and the gramophone two of its central images. 

Joyce himself was a keen amateur musician, at one time hoping to become a professional tenor. He even came third in the Feis Ceoil Competition in 1904. He was a capable pianist and one of the most famous pictures of him has him holding a guitar. His flexible, sprightly voice, which has a wonderful feeling for color and weight, underlines especially the musicality of Ulysses. Joyce’s text crackles with such lively consonants that reading it aloud calls for the virtuosity of a lieder singer. His first collection of poetry was called Chamber Music. Reading Joyce to others often has the feeling of an intimate recital. 

Just as music feeds in to Ulysses, so too has it spilled out; this is in the nature of Joyce’s writing, in which everything is always in motion and borders between world and text, inside and outside, are porous (“a commodius vicus of recirculation,” as he wrote in Finnegans Wake). Some of the music here plays a part in the inner and outer lives of the novel’s key characters Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, and Molly Bloom; other pieces take Joyce as a model for a working method, or integrate his writing in equally ambitious artistic projects that tread in its wandering footsteps. 


Luciano Berio, “Thema (Omaggio a Joyce)” 

We often talk of poetry and prose having a musical quality; the condition that all art should aspire to, thanks to Walter Pater, who makes a big cameo in the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter. Joyce, of course, goes one step further in structuring the “Siren”’ episode of the novel. Bloom has dinner at the Ormond Hotel, and hears Stephen Dedalus’ father singing drifting across the room. It is his tribute to musical artifice in the novel, and built as a Fuga per canonem, made from a weave of sonic and symbolic motifs. Critics Don Gifford and Harry Blamires have likened the opening salvo of 60 or so motifs to an orchestra tuning up. 

The nature of Joyce’s prose is such that sonic and symbolic achieve a strange fusion—a level of abstraction more characteristic of music than literature. In Jacques Derrida’s great essay on the novel, “Ulysses Gramophone,” he sees Joyce creating an inextricable fusion of written and spoken signs, in which language is “gramophoned”—a situation that speaks to classical music’s status as both notated and heard, with neither wholly sufficient in themselves. 

Luciano Berio was introduced to Ulysses by experimental Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco. His electracoustic “Thema” takes the text of the “Sirens” episode and spins it up by way of electronic repossession: remixing—“gramophoning”—Joyce’s sonic experiments in prose another time over. It was written for the voice of American mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian, who begins the nine-minute piece by reading the opening section of the chapter. 


Elliott Carter, String Quartet No.5 

Joyce’s Ulysses was a key influence for the American composer Elliott Carter. In the late 1940s Carter began reading Joyce and Proust, discovering in them his way of working. In particular Carter saw in Joyce an exploration of the nature of time—Ulysses is a novel of the way the memory perfumes every moment of existence, often unexpectedly and invasively. Carter wrote: 

A work like James Joyce’s Ulysses, for instance, which was a very important piece of writing in my early days, and the works of Marcel Proust, which are entirely about the matter of how time flows, and how people change over the years, and how attitudes and meaningful relations with people change, and are thought about, and switch…. I began to think about how one could make the pieces hang together in a new way that would be more reflective of their existence in time…


…I began to think about how you could have—in the field of counterpoint—you could have one theme being stated and against that another line which would state what the future would be that would then become more important and more highly developed, and another line that would be recalling what you’d heard in the past in a sort of vestigial way.


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Allan Sherman, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah! (A Letter From Camp)”

“Rubbing smartly in turn each welt against her stockinged calf. Morning after the bazaar dance when May’s band played Ponchielli’s dance of the hours. Explain that: morning hours, noon, then evening coming on, then night hours.” —Ulysses, Chapter Four


Peter Maxwell Davies, “Missa Super L’Homme Armé” 

Ulysses revels in parody, pastiche, and stylistic experimentation. The “Oxen of the Sun” chapter picks up various modes of literary history as it tells its story; the “Nausicaa” chapter is written as a pastiche of pulp romance novels; in “Cyclops” we flit from Irish myth and folktale to legal jargon, journalism, and theological tract.

The latter chapter in particular inspired Peter Maxwell Davies’s 1978 piece for voice and chamber ensemble, “Missa Super L’Homme Armé,” written for experimental music theater troupe The Fires of London (most famously associated with his “Eight Songs for a Mad King”). Like Joyce in Ulysses, Maxwell Davies makes provocative use of polystylistic collage and ironic juxtaposition  in the work, which draws on Renaissance consort music, a parody Baroque flute sonata, foxtrots, and sacred organ music. 


Luciano Berio,  “Sinfonia,” III.

The third movement of Berio’s “Sinfonia” (1963) borrows from the final section of Ulysses, Molly Bloom’s great nocturnal soliloquy, which is spoken over the eerie cantus firmus provided in the piece by the scherzo of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. Berio’s work also includes sections from Samuel Beckett’s famous treatment of consciousness, The Unnameable. 

Berio’s superimposition of musical and textual fragments is an extension of Joyce’s method. His prose allows sensations and memories to intertwine, accumulate, and overlap; the effect can be exhilarating, hilarious, and sometimes overwhelming. We could also see the piece as a kind of anthology of European modernism in the period that Joyce composed Ulysses—contemporaneous musical fragments include Stravinsky’s “Le sacre du printemps,” Ravel’s “La valse,” and Debussy’s “La mer.” 

As with Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, the past—historical, cultural and personal—piles up in an ever-growing mound behind us, and presses on us. “History,” Stephen Dedalus says in Ulysses, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” 


Giacomo Meyerbeer, “Les Huguenots,” Act III: “La causa è santa”’

Despite being a pivotal figure in the avant-garde, Joyce’s own musical tastes veered traditional, to what he described as “the old Italian hackneyed things” of Donizetti and Bellini. “La sonnambula” gets a shout out in the novel, as does obscure bel canto composer Saverio Mercadante (his “Seven Last Words of Christ”). Meyerbeer’s “Les Huguenots” crops up several times too. There are allusions to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in the novel, and Bloom recalls Meyerbeer’s opera outside a shop window:

He passed, dallying, the windows of Brown Thomas, silk mercers. Cascades of ribbons. Flimsy China silks. A tilted urn poured from its mouth a flood of bloodhued poplin: lustrous blood. The huguenots brought that here. La causa è santa! Tara tara. Great chorus that. Taree tara. Must be washed in rainwater. Meyerbeer. Tara: bom bom bom. 

It is a striking inclusion, given the opera’s topic of religious and sectarian persecution, which is also one of Ulysses’s many preoccupations—represented by the the anti-Semitism Bloom faces from Irish nationalists in chapter 12. Molly Bloom thinks of the piece too, in her final monologue: 

O wasn’t I the born fool to believe all his blather about home rule and the land league sending me that long strool of a song out of the Huguenots to sing in French to be more classy O beau pays de la Touraine that I never even sang once explaining and rigmaroling about religion and persecution he wont let you enjoy anything


Bernd Alois Zimmerman, “Requiem für einen jungen Dichter”

“Requiem für einen jungen Dichter” (1977-79) by Bernd Alois Zimmerman is an ambitious genre-defying work for two speakers, tape, baritone and soprano, orchestra, chorus, and jazz band. The piece interleaves the traditional text of the mass for the dead with a whole host of literary, political, and philosophical fragments, including Wittgenstein, Camus, Hitler, and Chamberlain, as well as a dizzying range of musical quotations (“Tristan und Isolde,” The Beatles’s “Hey Jude,” Beethoven Nine). 

One of the taped sequences is from Molly Bloom’s nocturnal soliloquy that concludes the novel; like Ulysses, the “Requiem” works through the juxtaposition of different cultural forms, genres, and media. They both share an all-encompassing impulse, accumulating and accreting allusion and quotations to create their expressive worlds.


From Allan Sherman to Bernd Alois Zimmerman, a playlist in honor of James Joyce's Ulysses. #bloomsday @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet

Bernd Alois Zimmerman, “Présence”

Zimmerman turned to Molly Bloom before the “Requiem” in “Présence” (1961), a dance piece in five scenes whose musical accompaniment comes from piano, violin, and cello; the final two scenes are given to music inspired by Molly. The final sequence of Ulysses is infamously unpunctuated (this is in fact not quite true, as there are seven period marks in the chapter). But the effect is to create the impression of a continuously unfolding consciousness, where the lack of apostrophe, comma, and semicolon makes the distinction between Molly’s present—lying in bed waiting for Bloom to come home—and her remembrances hard to parse.

Ulysses is a novel of cycles of different orders and scales: birth and death, in the funeral of Paddy Dignam and maternity hospital of “Oxen of the Sun”; bodily rhythms—Molly’s period coming during “Penelope,” or Bloom shitting after breakfast; the mundane routines of Bloom’s day and week (where to get the best kidney for breakfast, he wonders). 

Cycle over line, repetition over linearity, is key to Bernd Alois ZImmerman’s imagination too, as his music sought to explore a “sphericality of time,” inspired by Joyce’s writings, alongside those of Augustine and Henri Bergson. 


Gustave Lange, “Blumenlied” Op. 39

Every quotation in Ulysses is a crossroads, leading in multiple directions, something reflected in Joyce’s proliferating wordplay. Gustav Lange’s “Blumenlied” (1867) is one such case. It homophonically and symbolically shares a name with Leopold Bloom, who gives a copy of the music to his daughter Milly; it also speaks to Bloom’s amorous nom de plume Henry Flower (Esq.), whose signature he adopts in his epistolary affair with Martha. 


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, “Don Giovanni,” Act I: “La ci darem la mano” 

Like Ulysses, “Don Giovanni” takes place in a day. It pops into Bloom’s head several times—not least because his wife Molly, a soprano, is due to to sing “La ci darem la mano” that day in a concert fixed by Blazes Boylan, another singer with whom Molly is set to have an assignation. Bloom misremembers a line from the duet between Zerlina and Don Giovanni—“Voglio e non vorrei. Wonder if she pronounces that right: voglio.”—which returns throughout the novel. Bloom hums it in the street later as he thinks about his own bit on the side, Martha. 

The novel’s elevation of the list to an art form in itself is perhaps another long range parallel with the Don’s factotum, Leporello. There are hints of the Don in Bloom—he fancies himself the great seducer in “Nausicaa,” even if he’s more likely a public nuisance pervert—but it’s Leporello who is more properly his spirit animal. Bloom, unlike the cerebral and annoying Stephen, is most often concerned with what’s in his belly, and how best to satisfy it; Leporello begins the opera complaining of bad meals and ends stuffing pheasant into his starving face. Both are creatures of appetite. ¶

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