The Music of Irish Writers

Angela Leighton on the influence and role of music in Irish literature
Piano - Duane Street Loft. Photograph by Rain Worthington.
'With Joyce and Beckett the argument is more familiar. Joyce’s ability to “write general noise on paper”, as his brother put it, records a lifelong love of music, especially opera. From Bellini to the “The Lass of Aughrim” in “The Dead”; from Rheingold to “The Croppy Boy” in “Sirens” (Ulysses), the musical languages in Joyce are not only a matter of frequent allusion (there are 3,000 references to opera in Finnegans Wake), but also of hearing language as if it were played or sung; as if a bel canto of the imagination drove the rhythmic interior monologues of his works. Joyce once asked a friend “whether he didn’t think the musical effect of Ulysses superior to Wagner’s music drama” – a comparison not meant to be taken lightly. If this is “fiction adulterated by music” or, yet again, a kind of “verbal opera”, certainly Joyce’s language is one which constantly listens to non-linguistic sounds, to a rhythm and pitch which drum their own kinds of playful, self-estranging music. Beckett, like Joyce, was a good amateur pianist, and if his tastes inclined more to chamber music than opera, he too peppered his writings with musical sound effects. Moreover, his insistence that his plays be performed with absolute faithfulness to certain tempi and speech dynamics could be exacting. “No one can possibly follow the text at that speed”, one of his actors complained. “It’s like music, a piece of Schoenberg in his head.” The point at which language gives way to composed sound is always close for Beckett, as is the point where it gives way to silence – a silence which, in his works, always has the timed expressiveness of a rest in music. '

There's a feature today's Times Literary Supplement exploring the role of music in the Irish literary imagination. The piece makes numerous references to Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, and the poet W. B. Yeats, tracing the musical trends that punctuate and flavour their writing. George Bernard Shaw, J. M. Synge and Thomas Moore also receive worthy mentions. You can read the article online by clicking here.