La Seraphine

‘La Seraphine’

Programme notes

‘Sun of the sleepless’ takes the audience on a circular journey starting and finishing in the Dublin of James Joyce (1882­1941). The opening reading comes from a postcard which Joyce sent to his future wife Nora Barnacle on her failure to turn up for their first meeting. This second attempt however proved succesful and the pair had their first tryst on june 16th 1904, the date which provided the setting for Ulysses.


The first song ‘Bid adieu to girlish days’ (arr G. Cumberland) is Joyce’s only musical setting of one of his own poems (from ‘Chamber music’ 1907) which invokes Nora’s entrance to womanhood and sexual awakening. ‘Down by the salley gardens’ (arr G. Ferries) is a setting of W.B. Yeats’ famous poem which Joyce himself sang in an afternoon concert on the 22nd August of the same year claiming in a letter to Nora that he was ‘singing­just for her’ The short reading comes from a contemporary newspaper review of the event.


‘The lass of Aughrim’ (arr G. Ferries) is a traditional Irish song concerning the seduction of an Irish peasant girl by a landowner which leads to pregnancy, destitution and ultimately the death of her child. The song features very strongly in the final story ‘The dead’ from Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’, (finally published in 1914 after years of legal dispute) acting as an emotional catalyst for Gretta Conroy upon hearing the song at the end of a highly charged New year’s party. ‘La ci darem la mano’ from Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ is one of two musical leitmotifs encountered in Joyce’s second great novel ‘Ulysses’ (1922). The song describes the succesfulseduction on her wedding day of Zerlina by Don Giovanni and  parallels the infidelity of Leopold Bloom’s wife Molly with the puffed up lothario Hugh ‘blazes’ Boylan in ‘Ulysses’. The reading comes from the ‘Calypso’ episode of ‘Ulysses’ (our first encounter with Leopold and Molly Bloom) and the accompanying guitar version of Mozart’s famous duet is by J.K. Mertz a 19thcentury Hungarian guitarist/composer. ‘Batti, batti o bel maseto’ also comes from Mozart’s opera and is presented here in an arrangement by the the great Spanish guitarist/composer Fernando Sor. This aria deals with Zerlina’s attempt to soothe Maseto following his beating and cuckolding at the hands of Don Giovanni.

The great Irish poet Thomas Moore (1779­1852) is a frequent presence in the work of James Joyce. His pairing of poetry with traditional melodies is very similar in style and intention to the work of Robert Burns and James Johnson in their ‘Scotch musical museum’ and still remains a mainstay of Irish music. ‘Oft in the stilly night’ (arr G. Ferries) is preceeded by an excerpt from ‘A portrait of the artist as a young man’ (1916) and followed by one of Moore’s most famous and enduring works ‘The lastrose of summer’ (arr P. Cooney).

Many of the songs of Franz Schubert (1797­1828), including the two given here, were published contemporaneously in guitar as well as piano versions, with many having been first composed on the guitar which the composer had hanging above his bed. The text of ‘Gretchen am spinnrade’ comes from ‘Faust’ part 1 by Moore’s older German contemporary J.W. Goethe, whose figure loomed large over the 19th century Romantic movement. Either side of the song are two short verses from the ‘invocation’ from Act I of ‘Manfred’, a ‘Faustian’ drama by Lord Byron (1788­1824) which in its own right also held a prized place in the Romantic imaginations of figures as important as Berlioz, Tchaikovsky and Schumann.‘Nacht und traume’ captures perfectly the saturnine and serene beauty of Von Collin’s text with its meditation on the unfamiliar and intoxicating landscape of dreams and the night.

This is followed by my short song cycle ‘Sun of the sleepless’ which features original settings of poems by Lord Byron for voice and guitar.

Thomas Moore seems like an unlikely connection between Byron and Joyce but in fact Moore was a great and trusted friend of Byron’s as well as being his first biographer following Byron’s death. We won’t dwell on the fact that Moore was one of those present when Byron’s memoirs (originally given by Byron to Moore) were burned at the home of his publisher John Murray, although it seems certain that those present simply wanted to protect the poet’s postumous reputation.

We know too that Joyce himself was an admirer of Byron and in ‘A portrait of the artist as a young man’ we find Stephen Dedalus (Joyce’s alter ego of sorts) involved in the following altercation:

  • And who is the best poet, Heron? asked Boland.
  • Lord Tennyson, of course answered Heron. 
  • Oh, yes, Lord Tennyson, said Nash. We have all his poetry at home in a book.
  • At this point Stephen forgot the silent vows he had been making and burst out:
  • Tennyson a poet! Why, he’s only a rhymester!
  • O, get out! said Heron, Everyone knows that Tennyson is the greatest poet.
  • And who do you think is the greatest poet? asked Boland, nudging his neighbour.
  • Byron, of course, answered Stephen.

Byron and Joyce in fact share some striking biographical similarities. Both felt themselves at odds with the contemporary literary, moral, political and religious life of their respective countries and both published scathing polemical texts attacking the establishment. Joyce’s broadsides ‘Gas from a burner’ and ‘The holy of ice’ offer us an insight into a young man disillusioned with the hypocrisy of Dublin’s leading lights and Byron’s unrelenting attack on the Edinburgh literary scene ‘English bards and Scotch reviewers’ was so merciless that he even felt the need towards the end of his life to sneak an apology into canto ten of ‘Don Juan’, claiming it due to ‘a fit of wrath and rhyme, when juvenile and curly’. Scotland’s apparent failure to recognise Byron’s Scottish heritage may indeed be in part due to this early satire which was provoked by a particularly savage review in the ‘Edinburgh review’ of his earliest set of published poems ‘Hours of idleness’ Again in ‘Don Juan’ however, Byron reclaims his love of ‘the land of mountain and of flood’. Most importantly Joyce and Byron both left Ireland and England respectively and lived out the rest of their lives in self imposed continental exile, alongside popular notoriety and disgrace. All of the texts in ‘Sun of the sleepless’ are concerned with night, the moon and the ocean;  peristent motifs of Byron and of the Romantic movement in general.

The first and last songs both concern Thomas Moore; the first ‘So,we’ll go no more a roving’ was contained in a letter to Moore concerning Byron’s tiring of his dissipations at the Venetian Carnival and the last ‘My boat is on the shore’ is a drinking song dedicated to and featuring Moore in the refrain. Both songs feature modal harmonies which reflect both Moore’s Irish nationality and Byron’s lifelong sympathy with Irish liberty.’She walks in beauty’ comes from ‘Hebrew melodies’ and is surely one of Byron’s most eloquent lyrics. It was written following his observation of his cousin Anne Wilmot at a party in 1814 during the height of his fame. ‘Sun of the sleepless’ is also taken from ‘Hebrew melodies’ and is a paean to the moon in all its romantic splendour.
‘They say that hope is happiness’ was published postumously. The latin epigraph from Virgil is used as part of the song and is translated as ‘Happy is the person who can understand the causes of things’. ‘And I have loved thee ocean’ (dedicated to Claire Ferries) is a setting of the penultimate verse of ‘Childe Harold’s pilgrimage and like much of the poem it captures beautifully Byron’s great love and respect of the sea’s enduring power.

The final song in the programme, in Joyce’s words ‘brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation’ back to the beginning with the second major musical leimotif of ‘Ulysses’, J L Molloy’s ‘Love’s old sweet song’ (arr G. Ferries), an extremely popular Irish parlour ballad. In the novel alongside ‘La ci darem la mano’ Molly Bloom is to sing both songs as part of a concert tour arranged by Boylan. His ‘dropping round to sort out the details’ however ends in the novels ineluctable infidelity. Although ‘La ci darem’ is an out and out song of seduction, ‘Love’s old sweet song’ however offers us a reconcilliation of sorts as the song’s crepuscular refrain again runs through Molly’s head in her final monologue during the small hours, whilst her husband Leopold, returned from his travels lies asleep, top to tail in bed beside her. The short reading before the song comes from ‘Ithaca’ the penultimate episode of ‘Ulysses’ which employs what Joyce described as ‘mathematical catechism’. Joyce spoke of a particular pride in this episode.

copyright G. Ferries 2014

‘La seraphine’ ­ Petrea Cooney: voice, violin, harp

Gordon Ferries: guitar

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