Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Joyce Book of Songs: 13 songs by (mainly) British Composers

As part of my background reading for the review of The C.W. Orr Songbook I consulted Jane Wilson’s excellent biography – C.W. Orr – The Unknown Song Composer. This book was published in 1989 by Thames Publishing.  I discovered a reference to The Joyce Book of Songs.
Wilson explains that in 1929 friends of James Joyce were concerned about the writer facing poverty in Paris after the scandal resulting from the publication and subsequent banning of Ulysses.  Apparently, the composers Herbert Hughes and Arthur Bliss met in Paris whilst attending a chamber music festival organised by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge.  It was decided to publish a volume of songs which were to be settings of James Joyce’s collection Pomes Penyeach.  Thirteen composers were to set one poem each.  Naturally, this was to be ‘gratis’ as all royalties were to go to the author.
According to Jane Wilson, Herbert Hughes was to be editor. Hubert Foss designed the book. Augustus John drew the frontispiece which was a sketch of Joyce. The Irish poet James Stephens wrote the 'Prologue' and a poem. Padraic Colum and Arthur Symons provided a written text.  Only 500 copies of the music were published.
The songs were as follows:-
E.J. Moeran: Tilly
Arnold Bax: Watching the Needleboats at San Sabba
Albert Roussel: A Flower given to my daughter
Herbert Hughes: She weeps over Rahoon
John Ireland: Tutto e sciolto
Roger Sessions: On the beach at Fontana
Arthur Bliss: Simples
Herbert Howells: Flood
George Antheil: Nightpiece
Edgardo Carducci: Alone
Eugene Goossens: A memory of the players in a mirror at midnight
C.W. Orr: Bahnhofstrasse
Bernard van Dieren: A prayer
Finally, Wilson notes that ‘the publicity gained for the songs in The Joyce Book of Songs was minimal as there does to appear to have been a performance of them until the Joyce Centenary in 1982.’  As far as I am aware, there is not a recording of the entire sequence of songs, although some have been issued as individual items.
Stephen Banfield in his essential study of English Song, Sense and Sensibility has given a good discussion of the songbook. Finally, the composer Peter Dickinson wrote an essay on The Joyce Book of Songs for the BBC in 1982.  They are leads that can be explored.

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