Music Was Everywhere

Ulysses: an Inevitable Creation for a Singing Novelist

“Though the heart be weary, sad the day and long,
Still to us at twilight comes love’s old sweet song”.

J.L. Molloy & G. Clifton Bingham.

Music was Everywhere
Perhaps Ulysses was an inevitable creation for a singing novelist in a melodious metropolis. It is a very musical book. Snatches of music-hall favourites here, bursts of full-blown opera there, peppered with dirty ditties that betray the earthy nature of Dublin life and stirring folk-ballads that echo the struggle for independence. And then there’s Sirens: a whole chapter devoted to the love and appreciation of song which the author presents as a musical study in itself. But before we follow in the footsteps of Bloom. It is key to understand that the dynamics of the 1904 Dublin musical scene not only form the backdrop to Ulysses but also herald a musical revolution for the world.

In the early 1900s, entertainment in Dublin meant being there. There were no radio stations, and records were virtually unheard of. The city’s first cinema had yet to be opened (a situation later rectified by Joyce himself). It was live performances only, in the theatre, music-hall or bar, with sheet music the medium of the day. That was all about to change, and Ulysses signals an explosion in the music scene, signalling new levels of industry encompassing performance, the cult of celebrity, recording, publishing, promotion, advertising, media and eventually, broadcasting. There was to be no business like showbusiness.

The conductor takes up his baton: ‘One of the most remarkable features of Dublin life in the heyday of Bloom was the boundless enthusiasm of all citizens for music, especially of the vocal and operatic varieties. This passion is illustrated by their cult of the diva, carried to a degree unknown even in Italy…’ Joyce’s remarks to Stuart Gilbert demonstrate the popularity of bel canto – the singing style with religious roots in the Catholic castrati and Jewish cantors which combined perfect tone, pitch and control with stunning vocal acrobatics and trills. Its passionate expression and magnificent crescendos were rendered more florid by the vowel-endings of the Italian language which lent naturally to the genre. Verdi, Donizetti and Bellini were among the leading exponents – and favourites of the Italian-fluent Joyce. Opera was a favourite topic of conversation for both James and his father, and they would often reminisce about great operatic performances (manifest in Joyce’s work).

Meanwhile, early English madrigals were also enjoying something of a revival among intellectuals thanks to the efforts of ‘Arts & Crafts’ musician Arnold Dolmetsch. He inspired composers Elgar, Holst and Vaughan-Williams as well as writers Shaw, Yeats and Joyce, who merits him a mention in Ulysses when Stephen Dedalus lists his musical predilections.

The Voice
The Irish love of ‘beautiful singing’ stretched back to the early 1800s and Joyce was aware of this heritage: ‘All the great singers came to Dublin and the names Campanini, Maas, Piccolomini, Tictiens, Giuglini and Trebelli were household words’. Other legends who graced the city in the mid-19th century included the soprano Giulia Grisi, and her partner Giovanni Matteo Mario who was reputed to be as striking as he was talented. (Observing the newspaper owner in Ulysses, Bloom says he is ‘like Mario the tenor’.) Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, ‘the world’s sweetest voice’ commanded £600 a night (about £15,000 today) for her 1848 Dublin performances in La Sonnambula.

Despite Pope Leo’s ban on castrati in 1902, and the expulsion of female church singers by the regressive Pope Pius a year later (referred to in Joyce’s novel The Dead), the vehicles for the heavenly voice did not slow down at the dawn of the 20th century, and an evergreen Irish road lay ahead. With reputable touring opera companies such as Carl Rosa, Elster Grimes and Moody-Manners (all mentioned in Joyce’s work) the sirens continued to visit, among them the famous bel canto sopranos Adelina Patti, Emma Calvé, contralto Emma Albani, and the queen of the prima donnas Nellie Melba, whom George Bernard Shaw held above all, for ‘her perfect intonation’. The biggest sensation of the time was the ‘Great’ Caruso. His fame is evident in the Cyclops episode of Ulysses when the singing nationalist is described as Caruso-Garibaldi, and in The Dead when D’Arcy argues that Caruso is as good as any singer from the past.

Stars in Your Eyes
The cult of such celebrity was the subject of much tittle-tattle even then, as Joyce reports: ‘The personalities and careers of these artists were an unfailing theme of conversation.’  The Dublin public weren’t afraid of physical displays of affection either. Joyce relates how locals unhorsed Trebelli’s carriage and drew her around the city in state (such an anecdote appears in The Dead), and another Dublin opera buff recalls a similar incident: ‘It was Tietjens last night and the house was crammed from top to bottom. The “boys” from the gallery let down with a rope a splendid basket ornamented with flowers containing a dove and an address to Tietjens. This she read amid thunders of applause. When the opera was over, they dragged her carriage back to her hotel.’. The star-status of singers is underlined in a quote from the Daily Express after Caruso was guest of honour at a Dublin dinner in 1909: ‘When heard that someone has achieved worldwide celebrity do not jump to the conclusion that it is as a philosopher, scientist, historian, or even statesman; more likely he or she would be a poet or a novelist, but most likely of all a vocalist.’

Ireland’s Got Talent
There were plenty of native voices too. Operetta’s Lucy Shaw (sister of George Bernard), soprano Catherine ‘Nightingale’ Hayes, baritone William ‘Ludwig’ Ledwidge, bass Allan ‘Signor Foli’ Foley, and the three tenors Michael Kelly, Barton McGuckin and Joe O’Mara.

These luminaries complemented home-grown composers such as Michael Balfe, Thomas Moore and William Vincent Wallace, and were the inspiration for institutions such as Dublin’s Palestrina choir.

Ironically, it was while Caruso was in Ireland that his place as partner to Melba was taken by another Irish tenor John McCormack. Born in Athlone in 1884, McCormack became the youngest winner of the solo tenor gold medal in Dublin’s Feis Ceoil festival in 1903. Like Joyce, McCormack’s life changed in June 1904. He went to hear Caruso sing, immediately fell under his spell, and decided to study Italian opera, destined for international stardom. His vocal purity and technical brilliance were said to make him a singer’s singer and earned him the epithet ‘the true redeemer of bel canto’. Publisher Sylvia Beach reported that Joyce ‘followed the career of McCormack step by step’. Bloom mentions McCormack as a possible stage partner to his wife Molly in Ulysses.

In August 1904, one could attend a concert at which both McCormack and Joyce himself performed. This brings us to a Joyce’s own prowess for music, a talent which ran in the family. His great-aunts were said to be pupils of Balfe, and his father was reputed to be one of the best tenors in Ireland (he was once told he could sing the Carl Rosa company off the stage). James had a fine voice too, as is evident from his performances, including an appearance at the Feis Ceoil in 1904. A critic once remarked: ‘Mr Joyce possesses a light tenor voice, which he is inclined to force on the high notes but sings with artistic emotionalism’. He was also proficient at many instruments including the piano and guitar and once considered a career in music.

The Stage is Set
There was a variety of venues for entertainment in Bloom’s world. The most visited theatres being the Queen’s (‘Old’ Royal), the Theatre Royal, the Gaiety, and the Abbey (opened December 1904). The theatres were not necessarily in direct competition with each other and tended to specialise in straight plays, melodrama or pantomimes alternating with grand opera, light opera or musical comedy. Established concert houses focussing on musical evenings included the Rotunda, the Antient Concert Rooms and the Kingstown Pavilion, while the most popular music halls were the Empire Palace and the Tivoli. Music halls generally attracted a more raucous audience than the theatres mainly because of their different licence – the acts were uncensored and the clientele were allowed to drink and smoke in the auditorium.

If Bloom wanted to indulge in his passion for music during the spring and summer of 1904 there were plenty of opportunities. For a start, he would have been able to see McCormack perform in Dublin alongside his wife-to-be Lily Foley. At the ‘Old’ Royal Elster Grime’s company put on performances of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, Balfe’s Bohemian Girl and Wallace’s Maritana (entrance 4s). Rossini’s Stabat Mater could be heard at the Rotunda (1s) and at the Pavilion there were record attendances for a series of concerts featuring the works of Handel, Liszt and Mendelssohn (1s). Popular too, was music of a lighter variety. The Pavilion played host to Walter George’s light opera singers (6d) while D’Orly Carte productions of HMS Pinafore and Mikado could be seen at the Gaiety (4s). On Bloomsday itselfthe notoriously expensive Theatre Royal (up to 30s a seat) featured Al Jolson’s predecessor Eugene Stratton in the minstrel show Fun on the Bristol.

To advertise all these events boys would be sent out into the principal streets of Dublin with bundles of handbills. Special puffs would appear in the newspapers, and billboards would be pasted up across the city. Boylan is employed as a billsticker, and Bloom comes across the Stratton hoardings on his way to Paddy Dignam’s funeral. Publishers would do anything to get their latest song into the public mind. Aside from dictating the music press, they would employ ‘pluggers’ – young lads with half-decent voices. They would belt out the latest tunes on street corners, in restaurants, at sporting events, or serenade a crowd from passing bicycles. In addition, they would place ‘singing stooges’ among a theatre audience to ‘spontaneously’ join in when a ‘catchy’ new tune was performed.

Sheet-music was the main medium at this time and big business. Joyce possessed every piece mentioned by Bloom. Copies of old favourites such as the Croppy Boy could sell for up to 1s/6d, while new songs cost up to 4 shillings. A Dublin newspaper of the day highlighted the ‘ridiculously high price’ of sheet-music in a report on musical copyright. Piracy flourished. In one local case a dodgy-dealer nearly escaped a £5 fine when 1,000 counterfeited copies displayed outside the courtroom as evidence were eaten by a passing goat!

Press to Record
Technology slowly began to challenge the printed press and concert halls as the chief medium of music. Stars eagerly signed up for recording deals as they could receive higher sums than for live performances. Caruso charged £100 for his first studio appearance. However, some scrapped their sessions because they did not like the way their voice sounded!

The talking machine, no longer a faddish toy, was soon part of the furniture. Bloom contemplates placing such machines into coffins to record voices from the grave. They weren’t cheap – a new gramophone could cost £10 while second-hand ones went for about £4. A gramophone is being played through an open window in the Circe scene of Ulysses. Coin-operated versions appeared just a few years after the invention of recording. These lucrative jukeboxes featured songs by the popular artists of the day interspersed with commercial announcements. We can imagine ad-man Bloom being secretly impressed by spoken interruptions such as ‘Smoke Carrolls’ or ‘Wash the baby with Pears soap.’

The actual recordings were expensive too. Record cylinders cost 1s/3d. The famous red seal disc-shaped records, introduced in 1902, sold for up to 4 shillings. Nellie Melba’s discs retailed for an extortionate £1/1s, but were still best-sellers.

Another invention at this time was the Pianola, a mechanical piano that could reproduce popular tunes with the use of perforated music rolls. They cost between £50-£60 but many bars and saloons had coin-operated versions and Joyce places one of these in the Circe episode:‘She drops two pennies in the slot. Gold, pink and violet lights start forth. The drum turns purring in low hesitation waltz.’

If you were talented enough you could always play music yourself. Keyboard instruments were the preferred choice of any budding musician. New harmonium organs cost between £4-£30, although a second-hand piano could be picked up for £2-£3. Stephen contemplates purchasing a lute for 65 guineas, whereas Bloom is considering a melodian squeezebox that he sees in an antique shop for a ‘bargain six bob.’

In terms of popular musical style, bel canto, opera and classical were still the most ineluctable modalities of the audible. But inevitably, as the classics were being recorded, companies such as Columbia sought a new supply of composing and song-writing skills to keep up the huge revenue streams. This in turn fuelled an incessant appetite for new titles and opened the door for different styles.  In particular, the ragtime of Scott Joplin. This was still in its infancy in 1904, but within a decade it was being was combined by Jelly Roll Morton into the Dixieland sound. Morton, who was inspired by New Orleans opera – particularly Donizetti, Flotow and Verdi – soon claimed he had invented jazz. Elsewhere, Gershwin, Porter and Berlin, though still young, were already writing. Their new instant rhythms were to prove more infectious, and the ‘shorter’ song was far more profitable for the recording companies.

Meanwhile, a story from the Dublin Evening Telegraph in 1904 reported that experiments in wireless telephony had resulted in the transmission of music over distances of 100 yards. The times they were a-changin’.

100 years ago, James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ was published. 18 years ago, the official ‘soundtrack’ to the book ‘Classical Ulysses’ was compiled & produced by yours truly. It’s still available from the James Joyce Centre shop in Dublin.…

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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