Synge’s Violin

[To see this article in publication see Dublin Review of Books No.13: Spring 2010]

On returning to the Aran Islands J.M. Synge took with him his violin.  Although he had given up serious study of the instrument around 1894, abandoning lessons in Germany for a literary life in Paris, he evidently retained facility enough to impress with his tone the finest player in the Blaskets, who in Synge’s In West Kerry admits he has ‘never seen anyone the like of you for moving your hand and getting the sound out of it with the full drag of the bow.’  Telling the violin’s story in The Aran Islands Synge already starts to call his instrument a fiddle, a half-conscious translation into demotic idiom that prefigures the kind of musical translations he is to make.  Because, as he anticipates, he is asked by the young men of the island to play for a dance; not the sort of thing one imagines German conservatoires encouraged.  Synge’s description of the scene is, characteristically, spare enough but wonderfully revealing.  As the nascent playwright accommodates himself to the room he also must accommodate himself to the subordinate position of a musician playing for dancers in a country kitchen:

At first I tried to play standing, but on the upward stroke my bow came in contact with the salt-fish and oilskins that hung from the rafters, so I settled myself at last on a table in the corner, where I was out of the way, and got one of the people to hold up my music before me, as I had no stand.

It’s hard not to see this bothersome intrusion of salt-fish and oilskins symbolically, as representing the chastening intervention of real things into what had seemed a narrowly aesthetic realm.  They also have the effect of pushing the performer rather rudely offstage.  Both of these things we might see as important to Synge’s artistic development; he will become a playwright, directing from the wings as others take centre stage, whose work while finely constructed is sowed with the salt tang of reality.  For the time being seated rather like a fiddle player he is still violinist enough that while ‘as far as I can judge they do not feel modern music, though they listen eagerly’, he tries out a French melody ‘to get myself used to the people and the qualities of the room, which has little resonance between the earth floor and the thatch overhead.’  Then, sensing his audience’s impatience, he undoes a metaphorical button or two and strikes up a popular jig, whereupon ‘in a moment a tall man bounded out from his stool under the chimney and began flying round the kitchen with peculiarly sure and graceful bravado.’  Our player, now more certainly a fiddler, follows, but quickly finds the tempo is set for him by dancing feet:

the speed, however, was so violent that I had some difficulty in keeping up, as my fingers were not in practice, and I could not take off more than a small part of my attention to watch what was going on.

The expected climax to the scene founders as an old man, known as the best dancer on the island, joins the party and is urged to take part.  However:

He did not know the dances in my book, he said, and did not care to dance to music he was not familiar with.  When the people pressed him again he looked across at me.
“John,” he said, in shaking English, “have you got ‘Larry Grogan’, for it is an agreeable air?’.
I had not, so some of the young men danced again to the ‘Black Rogue’, and then the party broke up.

We can interpret this marvellous vignette in a number of ways.  Clearly it describes the meeting, even the clash, of two cultures, as the music of salon and concert hall is possessed and finally bested by that of the kitchen.  The scene is carefully structured to expose our classically-trained player, used to quiet homage and suitable acoustics, smoked from his comfort zone and forced to play to a different beat, rapidly losing control over his own notes.  It ends with a divide not quite bridged: still reliant on the sheet music propped up by a local, our fiddler has no store of aural memory from which to play the old man’s request.  So, whilst he can make attempts at translation into the local idiom, they are at least as shaky as the English of the old man.  This evidently represents a sharp challenge to all his conventional training and book learning: a caution against assuming an easy passage when trying to slip across a cultural barrier.  As such the scene is about more than music, but about translations of language and of an entire aural sense which can affect culture and consciousness to the root.  It seems to describe both the importance and the limits of all such cultural meetings and appropriations, of which the book itself, The Aran Islands, is one.

It also tells us an awful lot about the function and presence of music in Ireland.  Playing for dancers has taught this particular violinist a lesson in practical musicianship.  If he were anyone but Synge this might not matter; but as a musician and artist he must reflect on it, and he composes the scene as if to show us that if poetry makes nothing happen, music does.  In this case, plainly, it makes people dance.  No longer a pure, abstract thing, amidst oilskin and salt-fish music has a peculiar physical force.  Indeed, dancing seemed for Synge to represent a vivid, even dangerous attraction: the other extended musical vignette in the book describes a disturbing dream in which he imagines himself ‘swept away in a whirlwind of notes’ ‘tuned to a forgotten scale’, and trapped, wonderfully but agonizingly, in an unearthly ‘whirling of the dance’ where he can ‘only echo the notes of the rhythm.’  In conversation Lionel Pilkington has suggested the fear which the dream dramatizes of losing control and having one’s identity absorbed plays out certain suppressed sexual urges; the desire and unease it rehearses certainly appears to point to a defining tension in Synge’s character, probably attributable to residual guilt born of his strict religious upbringing.  Of most interest here though is what both these musical moments appear to say about the role of the artist.  If the dance functions as a joyful expression of community life, it might also break down the barriers of selfhood: in it one can lose oneself.  Both examples speak of the need for the artist to achieve an almost overwhelming intimacy with the subject and yet preserve distance; he must be close to his material, but with enough room to fashion it.  We notice that while playing the fiddler is so taken up by the music he is hard pressed to observe what is going on; and yet he must if the story is to get told.  In these images of music applied or put to life, making with dance something like a total artform, art might be at once the expression of a community and of an individual.  In Ireland, at least, music always did something.  It was a lesson Synge would not forget.

This discussion seems to have taken us a long way from a lonely Aran kitchen.  But it is not merely an abstract question: it is evidently important that such epiphanies should happen in music.  For music, arguably, was at the centre of all that Synge thought and all that he did and all that he wrote, as magic was at the centre for Yeats.  ‘Every life is a symphony’, he wrote opening his fragment of Autobiography, ‘and the translation of this life into music, and from music back to literature or sculpture or painting is the real effort of the artist.’  In this very concentration he seems to be continuing and renewing an Irish tradition.

Still, the phrasing and sentiment he adopts here are not unique to Ireland.  We have to remember that as Synge was writing, the winds blowing through literature brought a sharply musical savour to the palette.  In fact the tendency was to mix metaphors in exactly this fashion: a chronic synaesthesia was the ruling illness of late nineteenth-century culture, with colours and odours and sounds intermingled as they are in J.K. Huysmans’ Against Nature (1884), with its ‘mouth-organ’ playing liqueur music for the tongue.  Artists as different as Wagner and Mallarmé were exploring in very different ways what music and words might do together, side by side, or one remembering the other; Pater had inscribed his famous dictum in immovable italics, all art constantly aspires to the condition of music (and this in an essay for The Renaissance devoted to criticism of painting); Verlaine answered him with his own cry, placed prominently at the start of his poem ‘Art poetique’, ‘De la musique avant tout chose’.  In this context Synge’s preoccupation might appear unexceptional, merely something he picked up in Paris.  However the distinction the Irishman made even here was to put life at the beginning, at the point of origin, not music or art itself or any aspiration towards it: the hanging salt-fish nudges the elbow of the fiddler, the oilskins bother his bow.  Maybe it was this shift in emphasis which allowed him to write the plays he did, and include the kind of shifts that so upset the Abbey audience.  He certainly didn’t reject the careful organization that music demands, but perhaps the music of the west urged him towards ‘the reality, which is the root of all poetry’, and pushed him towards an art that was fundamentally collaborative – indeed to the idea that ‘all art is a collaboration’, all things he says in the preface to The Playboy of the Western World.  It may thus have made him a dramatist.  This should also remind us that W.B. Yeats believed even the patterns of his language owed something to music and the dance.  ‘He made word and phrase dance to a strange rhythm’, Yeats wrote introducing The Well of the Saints, ‘which will always, till his plays have created their own tradition, be difficult to actors who have not learned it from his lips.’

By opening his Autobiograhpy with a musical credo, Synge opens wide the window on what is surely the most abiding preoccupation of Irish letters.  As we peer inside all sorts of writers tumble out.  From Thomas Moore to Roddy Doyle, from Bernard Shaw to Ciaran Carson, it is something of a phenomenon that Irish writing is so saturated with music; that so many writers in Ireland have found themselves thrown upon and enwound by music’s resources.  Some play with the idea or an image of music, some play with actual music itself, and many of course do both; but manifestly music burrows deep into Irish writing, representing an ineradicable thread that can be traced back well over two centuries, and probably much further.  Why this is so is a surprisingly difficult question to answer.  Indeed it might be easier as well as more interesting to consider how this is so, to examine in detail all the diverse and magical things writers in Ireland have managed to do with music, which certainly appears to act as an astonishingly enabling force.  Still, in an essay this length this would be impossible, and although what should strike us most is the sheer diversity of responses to music – it seems wrong to discuss The Commitments and The Countess Cathleen on the same page – we ought not to shy away from the question.  We have at least to probe the phenomenon and try to account for it.  The most obvious answer relates to the centrality of music as a cultural presence in Ireland.

Because, long before the writers of the Revival appropriated it, music had become the pre-eminent symbol of Irish culture.  Since the days when the harper was ranked with the file or poet in the hierarchy of old Gaelic civilization, music had been indelibly associated with Ireland, and its arts defined as distinctive by recourse to music. Travelling the country in 1185 Giraldus de Barri, that sceptical Welshman (hence Cambrensis) found precious little evidence of culture in Ireland – except, that is, in music. ‘It is only in the case of musical instruments’, he declared, ‘that I find any commendable diligence in the people’.  In this Ireland was evidently exceptional.  He continues:

They seem to me to be incomparably more skilled in these than any other people that I have seen. […] They glide so subtly from one mode to another, and the grace notes so freely sport with such abandon and bewitching charm around the steady tone of the heavier sound, that the perfection of their art seems to lie in their concealing it.

Music, then, has always defined what it is to be Irish.  Even at this moment in its history the island’s identity is at stake: such an identification would have a long influence.  Indeed, to this early ideal of effortless artistic perfection we might hear an answering echo as far away as Yeats’s agonized poem about the making of poems, ‘Adam’s Curse’, where ‘to articulate sweet sounds together’, that most musical project for poetry, is to work harder even than those impoverished relief workers who figure in Synge’s notes from the congested districts, those who ‘break stones’ to build roadways ‘in all kinds of weather’ – quite a claim, this – and yet the resulting poem must seem utterly buoyant and effortless, ‘but a moments thought’, if it is to fly to the ear and nestle there.  Among many other things music in Ireland will become the quintessential emblem of an effortless art, which all musicians (and poets, if they thought about it) know is really far from effortless.  ‘Adam’s Curse’ was of course the curse of labour: Yeats’s poem describes an inevitable fall from music to labouring poetry, as it makes the transition from ear to page.

‘To articulate sweet sounds together.’  Yeats, whose musical ear has been doubted, imagines a phenomenon really possible only in music, which can accommodate sounds playing ‘together’, that is at the same time, in harmony.  And Giraldus makes it clear these early musicians are to an unusual degree proto-polyphonists, harmonizing their effortless melodies with octaves and fifths and gliding from one mode to another ‘with a rapidity that charms, a rhythmic pattern that is varied, and a concord achieved through elements discordant’.  Perhaps this should remind us that there is more than one way to read music into the Irish imagination.  There is, metaphorically at least, an ‘involved use of several instruments’, playing sometimes together, sometimes at variance.  Giraldus notes that Ireland uses and delights in two: the harp and the tympanum (nothing to do with timpani, but a plucked zither); to these Wales added the ‘crowd’, an instrument bowed a bit like Synge’s fiddle.  It is apparent even then that the harp in Ireland was beginning to assert its defining presence, so pervasively that it soon comes to mean something beyond itself.  The harp becomes the emblem of Ireland, just as music itself proliferates.  This makes it not an uncomplicated symbol.

It such an atmosphere it seems hardly surprising that writers of all kinds should seek to appropriate music’s cultural hegemony.  By the time of James Hardiman’s Irish Minstrelsy (1831) the editor mournfully concluded that ‘the music of Ireland is better known to the world, at the present day, than its poetry’, and openly hoped to borrow its cachet.  The Belfast Harp Festival of 1792 had been not only a defining moment for music, but a decisive moment for music’s interpenetration into print, and into letters: from Edward Bunting’s General Collection of the Ancient Irish Music came all the great manuscript and print music collections of the nineteenth century, and the ‘very admissable liberties’ of Thomas Moore who lifted tunes to which he set his words.  Never mind that all of this work was arranged for piano: we know the poets of the United Irishmen, and following them Thomas Moore would frequently invoke in the harp the expressive force in Irish music – in his Melodies Moore frequently compares himself metaphorically to a bard, or metonymically to an Irish harp – and this image of a once silenced Irish harp now sounding became a canonical emblem of the burgeoning national consciousness, finding by mid-century a place in the poetry, and on the cover, of Thomas Davis and the Young Irelanders’ Spirit of the Nation anthology (carefully printed in 1845 with music), and descending thereby into cliché.  Yeats was later to deride these poets and their continuing influence as the ‘Harps and Pepperpots’ school of Irish poetry (by pepperpots he meant the ubiquitous round towers), but even then he could not help their emblems finding their way into poems like ‘The Madness of King Goll’, where to a repeated burden of ‘They will not hush, the leaves a-flutter round me, the beech leaves old’ the disturbed King Goll picks up a harp that is lying ‘songless’ and for a moment achieves some freedom in song

My singing sang me fever free

Before, that is, his coherence is dissipated into madness:

My singing fades, the strings are torn
And I must wail by wood and sea.

Yeats invokes a figure hauntingly reminiscent of that miserable aged harper on the cover of The Spirit of the Nation who in Davis’s words ‘sat tranced and clutching his harp of broken chords’, an image rehearsed in J.B.Yeats’s portrait of his son as a distraught looking King Goll.  This might surprise us less if we observe that Yeats’s poem began life as part of Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland (1888), a volume named explicitly in honour of Davis’s nationalist movement.  Evidently ‘King Goll’ is one of several attempts to write a serviceable national ballad after Davis’s example, though Yeats’s attention is, even here, rather taken by the psychology of the harper’s distraction.  Notably after 1895 his revisions to the poem subtly change its direction by changing the image of music, taking us away from notions of national freedom to a struggle which, tellingly, seeks freedom from obsession.  His national ‘harp’ now displaced by Giraldus’s ‘tympan’, and murmuring a ‘fitful’ rather than a stirring ‘mountain tune’ King Goll’s nationalist energies are all but discharged, and the freedom of which he sings becomes, what it had always tended towards, a freedom artistic rather than political.  Of course, this is exactly the kind of movement we might expect given the familiar lineage of nineteenth-century cultural nationalism: fervent eighteenth century patriotism giving way to Moore’s milder constitutional nationalism, the antagonistic rousing marches of the Young Irelanders deferring to Yeats’s equally defiant and increasingly vocal demand that art be both national and unpropagandistic; even, if necessary, unpatriotic.  But here again, music is in the midst of all.  What we might have noticed is that pretty soon we are no longer talking about music itself per se: we are pitched headlong into tumultuous waters of cultural politics.  This is music, or rather an image of music harnessed for political and cultural expression, in a manner that is in fact inconceivable without print.  To use music thus might just recall the rather different uses to which it was put in Synge’s Aran kitchen.  Here music might be hijacked by iconography and politics.  But it would not go without meaning.  This does seem to speak to the particular condition of music in Ireland.  Here, as Synge discovered, music seems always to be for something.

Invariably, this has to do with its attachment with words.  We might, if we squint a certain way, look upon this as music being perennially hijacked by words, but this seems reductive: it is hard to find a time when words and music in Ireland were separated.  Some examples: George-Denis Zimmermann reports that it was possible to get arrested simply by whistling a particular tune – ‘Harvey Duff’ had a notorious effect on policemen – mostly because the tunes were associated with seditious words.  While deprecating Davis and Moore Yeats seriously envied their ability to spread their words in music, and admired William Allingham for having both Tennyson’s and the peasant’s ear.  So much comes down to Thomas Moore’s influence: the presence of his Melodies shaped ideas of Irish music and poetry for over a century.  As Frank O’Connor described it ‘his songs were the only real education that the vast majority of Irish people got during the nineteenth century and after, even if it was an education of the heart’.  This education in feeling, personal and national, was also an education in sound, in music, and in language; which last reminds us that Moore and subsequent writers had come upon a music already saturated with words.  It was just that these were not necessarily English words.  There is a slippage in all this talk of ‘translations’ which might make us forget the lurking presence of the Irish language as a subterranean bedrock.  Yeats for one was convinced that both ‘Gaelic music’ and ‘Gaelic speech’ lay behind most Irish ballads in English; such complicated entanglements find their way even into Friel’s Translations.  Putting them together in this way perhaps helps explain the one great irony about music and words’ actual proximity: that music in Ireland has so often been seen as a representative of an unlettered art.  For the Revival this was a key concept; and well before Yeats Samuel Ferguson’s verse is obsessed by music, which he plundered for ideas of orality’s permanence as against print and even Ogham inscription.  So, music in Ireland might be uniquely affective or image the unfettered imagination; it played for dancers and singers; it might lend ballast to a sense of patriotism; it could even be libellous or a blunt political instrument; it might appear to articulate a forgotten oral, even aural sense.  But music would never be far from a sense of national consciousness, and never far from words.  No wonder then that writers in Ireland might fall over themselves to employ it.

‘A line will take us hours maybe’ Yeats complained.  When Synge writes that translating music is the real effort of the artist we can tell he meant it, given his typescripts, each individually ordered by a capital letter and then scrawled over by hand, which disclose the number of times he drafted and redrafted his plays.  His effort for The Playboy of the Western World took him past K.  There is something of a paradox in working so hard on dialogue that must appear improvised, though perhaps less so for a musician who might practice to achieve spontaneity.  Still, it is a great effort for the critic, too, to describe with any precision these ‘translations’, from life to music to literature.  To write about music at all presents a proverbial difficulty: Yeats’s friend Arthur Symons, who did better than most, suggested ‘the reason why music is so much more difficult to write about than any other art, is because music is the one absolutely disembodied art, when it is heard, and no more than a proposition of Euclid, when it is written.’  Yeats and Synge considered music a rather more embodied thing, if we are to judge from their dancers and Yeats’s earthy sequence ‘Words for Music Perhaps’, but the point persists; the project is even harder when we have to consider words and music together.  Between the sciences of words and music Lawrence Kramer, a noted practitioner in this precarious terrain, has asserted with some truth that no ‘interdisciplinary method’ exists, adding that ‘extended comparative studies of musical and literary works are still rare; good ones are downright scarce.’  In this tricky traverse the tendency is for our guide to start bogging down in sticky analytical detail, clouding us in vague mists of diaphanous verbiage, or veering hopefully off the path into strained analogies that can maintain only an audience of one.  Putting music and words together might make things interesting for the artist but certainly makes them hard for the critic.

Nonetheless in a timely and provocative study, Harry White tries boldly to sketch the course of music in what he terms, not without caveat but on the whole helpfully, the Irish literary imagination.  He is not immune to straying from his way, and no doubt some will close with the feeling that they have not been taken everywhere they wanted to go.  What he has done, however, is to open up an important field with exceptional eloquence, a sure grasp of history, and a welcome perspicacity.  This is, necessarily given the subject, rather an ambitious book which does perhaps fall slightly short of its ambition.  Yet the attempt by a distinguished professor of music to take on the bastions of literary criticism is a worthy one, making for an exercise of genuine interdisciplinarity – two words which funding boards currently look upon kindly, but which represent something that has always been important.  As William Empson put it, ‘the idea that every question has been settled, if only you go to the right Faculty of your University, and that is why you must never mention it in the wrong one, seems to me merely harmful’.  White’s book does indeed have this deliberately unsettling effect, and nearly always for the right reasons.  It must be hugely commended for taking music seriously as a cultural phenomenon, and his preface generously hopes it will not be the last word on the subject.  We might be surprised then to find there is not more music in it.  There is not, for instance, a note of musical illustration in the book, not even a Moore melody.  While this absence in no way impedes its scope, it does tell us something about book’s balance: we are to expect more about words than notes.  The concentration is firmly upon music in literature.

Really the pith of the narrative is in the long introduction, intensely polished and articulate, which reads rhetorically like a sweeping survey of the terrain, an essay of keen conviction rather than pedantic detail.  To a greater or lesser degree the individual chapters, concentrating each on one author, all familiar figures, are designed to fill out the argument sketched in the opening, which allows them to dance along happily to the same tune.  The best of them, on Moore, Joyce, Beckett, and Friel (usually those drawing with great illumination upon White’s earlier work) maintain an admirable balance between readability and real insight; some put aside considered assaying for the sake of momentum, without perhaps leaving quite enough room for the thorough comparisons the others manage so vibrantly.  The prose, in fact, is never less than wonderfully engaging.  This can mean on occasion that musical analogy is put above analysis: an uncomfortable phrase ‘verbal music’ runs through the book which seems to refer to any kind of word-patterning; with this I confess I somewhat lost patience, before it became ‘verbal opera’ and with a dying fall (describing Waiting for Godot) ‘verbal ballet’.  Employing this kind of musical metaphor White seems to be doing rather what he deplores: replacing actual music with words, and not always for a clearly marked purpose.  Declaring Translations is ‘a great “music” play’ because it is a ‘great language play’, ‘tonally at one’ with the The Playboy of the Western World, its ‘harmony’ ‘counterpointed by high farce’ is not, alone, going to convince of its musicality, and compromises what is an otherwise delightfully persuasive discussion of Irish exchanges in the play as sound to be understood as a love duet.  Likewise to say Playboy is ‘reminiscent of opera’ is inexpressive, if justified only by a identification of a ‘quasi-choral commentary’ and the play’s ‘shifting tonalities’ – why does this first not recall Greek drama, the second Shakespeare?  Shaw’s notion that ‘opera taught me to shape my plays into recitatives, arias, duets, trios’ (and so on) is in this regard highly pregnant, and White’s discussion of Man and Superman provoking and intriguing.  Still, these musical set-pieces don’t directly call to mind those through-composed works of Wagner White adduces; further notice of Eduard Hanslick, Nietzsche, and Ibsen might help the reader to understand more of Shaw’s developing aesthetic, his march towards a drama of ideas.  What White treats as Shaw’s quixotic Brahmsian antipathy might be explained, for instance, by reference to Hanslick, author of On the Beautiful in Music (1854), who as Brahms’s champion was an inveterate antagonist of Wagner.  This is a small point, of course, but it has a larger significance.  The ground of their difference was the presence of language in music, Wagner believing that music was often completed by words, Hanslick arguing passionately it was not; it might even be suggested their antagonism shaped the path of words and music through the nineteenth century.

Where he exercises his musical judgment White’s authority is impeccable, and this book cements his position as a fine and daring critic of both words and music.  His comparison of Beckett and Webern’s attenuations for instance is both suggestive and hugely instructive, and one can only regret there was not room for more, perhaps an exploration of Beckett’s cooperation with his composer friend Marcel Mihalovici.  Certainly White strives to introduce a genuinely nuanced European perspective, whether of a literary or musical kind.  However the way he must go about it says much about the state of literary criticism on Irish subjects.  The weary reputational tug-of-war over the dead bodies of Irish writers (whether Joyce or Beckett or Shaw or who you will is really Irish or European) has been too long joined to need much rehearsal in a book of this nature, but White is occasionally tempted into the fray – and who can blame him, given the weight, deadening as it is, of criticism devoted to little else.  In scrupulously spending so much time trying to clear the ground he can be led into generalizations about ‘Europe’ and ‘modernism’, and deflected from what might be of more interest.  So, when he argues that ‘Friel confers specific meaning on Chopin’s music’ we might wonder what this is exactly, and we are not entirely enlightened.  The deluded Casimir’s story in Aristocrats (1979) describing Chopin’s praise for his Irish grandfather’s musical acuity is outlandish, but one wonders if it is only an aspiration to an undifferentiated ‘European masterwork’ as White’s text seems to imply.  One might also consider Chopin’s fellow outsider status as a Polish émigré in Paris (so important to Casimir), his debt to Ireland’s John Field (yes, the nocturne), and his unfashionable devotion to abstract music without words or programme which makes his acclamation ‘Bravo Irishman! Bravo’, so intriguing; although impossibly present at an impossible party attended by most of the major figures of the nineteenth century, the impossible Irish grandfather has told Balzac to stop singing.  Given White’s theme in which the Irish do nothing but, and a play in which all the characters inscribe their own meaning on Chopin by singing along, this moment casts an intriguing slant on the play’s relationship to storytelling, music, and history, and looking closer might have added a valuable strand to the narrative.  Still, it is hard to dissent for too long with a method that introduces such aptly-chosen materials and marshals them so skilfully, at its best requiring so little commentary that it recalls what Pound called the criticism of ‘luminous detail’.  It is only a regret that beneath the heavy roller of the narrative more room is not allowed for these ‘translations’ to flourish.

Perhaps it is that fearing criticism from seasoned literary hacks, the author has gone too far trying to placate them: so much metrical description appears slightly defensive, although it achieves happy consummation in a brilliant reading of Moore’s rhythms in relation to music.  When, as in the brief but excellent consideration of artistic independence in Seamus Heaney which closes the book, the author’s literary mettle is tested, he responds with fine judgment.  But although the chapter gestures towards Adorno and Shostakovich it doesn’t perhaps tell us quite as much as we’d like about Heaney’s relationship with music per se (is a man who so often takes the stage with Irish musicians, recording in 2002 an album with the piper Liam O’Flynn, really concerned with ‘words alone’?).  Still, it is an engaging and valuable counter to David Lloyd’s narrow political strictures, and the author’s powerful arguments concerning artistic autonomy in this final chapter bode well for future projects.

What is not in a book is hardly fair game, given contemporary publishing constraints.  The author I am sure wanted to make more of hugely alluring mentions of Tom Murphy and Derek Mahon; to regret the non-appearance of Mangan, Allingham, and Austin Clarke is only to say all would have been hugely welcome given the dexterity of the discussion.  The striking omission is probably Louis MacNeice, whose musical attention in poems like ‘Bagpipe Music’ is profound, and who went on concert tours with his partner Hedli Anderson, a gifted singer whose cabaret songs were written for her by Britten and Auden.  MacNeice’s absence leaves a slightly lopsided view of the North as coming to life only in the later twentieth century, and only a peripheral sense of Britain’s presence; examining the music of his BBC radio dramas (William Walton set his Christopher Columbus) perhaps in comparison with Yeats’s and Beckett’s briefly noted radio work, might also have allowed in a discussion of technology.  The profound changes in the way music was circulated, whether in drawing-rooms, salons, concert halls, or kitchens (and their associated instruments), in printed broadsides or respectable book collections, and the seismic advent of broadcast and recording technology, all made an enormous difference to music in Ireland and the way writers used it, but here, although a central tenet of White’s other studies like The Keeper’s Recital (1998), this is something we must infer.[1]

Challenging, innovative, entertaining, on occasion frustrating but always illuminating, the book probably stands and falls by its compelling central claim.  This argues, essentially, that words have come to replace music in Ireland, have somehow usurped its cultural space.  It is an observation made again and again throughout: ‘poetry fills the void created by the absence of art music’; Heaney’s poetry ‘answers the need for music’; ‘musical aspirations are expressive of […] language as a substitute for music itself.’  The author takes Synge’s comment that he ‘gave up music and took to literature instead’ as representative of the whole of Ireland.  It is an argument White has broached before, and although if this reader might have preferred it did not so decisively flavour the book it deserves serious consideration.  On its side is an elegant simplicity.  Given ‘a country that disdained the development of art music’ (in White’s words) whose recent literature rivals the dominance of nineteenth-century German music (not quite, although I’d back Ireland in a one-to-one fight with England, say), surely we must find the explanation for this in the appropriation of music by literature.  Leaving aside some assumptions about ‘art music’ (written music, one supposes) the question seems to be whether the cross-contamination of words and music retarded the development of this music and, correspondingly, promoted the development of literature.  It is an intriguing proposition and so lucidly drawn it is hard to know at first where to dissent from it.

Such an argument depends on Yeats and Thomas Moore, and White begins with a very helpful resurrection of the latter from what is no longer so grievous a neglect.  2008 was a good year for Moore studies; to this chapter we can add Sean Ryder’s stimulating November conference at NUI Galway, and an essential anniversary recording of the complete Melodies by Una Hunt and friends.[2] Accusations that Moore’s poems are formulaic on the page have forgotten he fashioned them to be sung, and White probes his enormous legacy, remembering in particular his influence in Europe.  While it is clear he decisively forged a combination of words and music it is not quite as clear that Moore acted as a brake on others.  His attention to the native repertory as living music might have been as vital a spur to composers in Ireland as his musically-embraced words were outside, as White’s welcome attention to the continental music he enabled attests (he discusses Schumann with finesse; Berlioz drank at the same fountain).  If Thomas Davis desired to reshape Moore’s achievement, he did so by putting out an appeal for native composers; and probably it was the publisher John O’Daly rather than James Clarence Mangan himself who repudiated Moore, sensing a commercial opportunity for new song settings which never quite arrived.  One wonders too if Balfe retarded his career by resetting Moore so deftly; C.V.Stanford’s attentions to the native repertory were themselves stimulated by Moore.  Still, if examining as White does Yeats’s occlusion of Moore from his personal canon of ‘Davis, Mangan, Ferguson’ is not entirely new, this is nevertheless hugely instructive, especially since Yeats’s characterization of those ‘that sang to sweeten Ireland’s wrong’ does sound so much like Moore.  In fact, we might chart Yeats’s changing attitude to music in his changing attitude to Moore (astutely noting Moore’s Melodies were ‘artificial and mechanical when separated from the music that gave them wings’, he later celebrated Moore’s own performances).  This progression might tell us even more about Yeats’s initial determination to obtain poetry’s independence, and his struggles to harness it once again with music.  The question then arises whether Yeats was an obstructive barrier upon music in Ireland.  It is an open question, although I take a different view of the available data.

For a long time it has been generally assumed W.B. Yeats had little to do with music. White notes that he was at once ‘hostile’, and ‘wholly indifferent’, which does seem perhaps a touch contradictory.  I wonder: the evidence of his poetry, and of a life spent bringing poetry to music, rather suggests that it fascinated him.  This left him, it is true, with pronounced convictions about how poetry and music should be combined, some of which White explores: ‘indifference’ however does not altogether account for Yeats justifiable objections to some warbling sub-Victorian settings, nor for his persistent attempts to forge and renew his own collaborations with so many musicians from Elgar and Arnold Dolmetsch to American avant-gardists George Antheil and Harry Partch.  In a thoughtful chapter White in fact does much to acknowledge music’s central presence in Yeats’s aesthetic, and we must agree I think his preoccupations were a determining influence.  For instance, his play The Countess Cathleen brought the lyric ‘Who Goes With Fergus’ to James Joyce’s ears: I say ears because Joyce first heard it being played and sung (to the inevitable harp) by Yeats’s longtime collaborator Florence Farr, of whom more can be found in Ronald Schuhard’s Last Minstrels: Yeats and the Revival of the Bardic Arts (2008).  A Portrait describes the scene, and the musical setting Joyce was inspired to compose he gives to Stephen to sing to his dying mother at the opening of Ulysses.  That lyrics might thus be literally musical led Joyce, in a spirit typically contrary to what he saw as Irish insularity, to the Elizabethan music of Dowland and Morley.  White does not follow him there, but thankfully he does not just dwell, as so many, only on the ‘Sirens’ episode in Ulysses, giving us instead, in one of the few extended comparisons in the book, a thoughtful and unusual reading of ‘Cyclops’ as oratorio.  Still, if Joyce really does replace music with words it is not clear why he should do so with opera and oratorio; so many song references surely provides access to music, not its replacement.  Even if it is really so that Shaw replaces music by operatic language, his influence is uncertain: more even than Yeats Beckett loathed opera.  We might wonder where Beckett’s radio plays Cascando and Words and Music, in which we can hear limited, stuttering words overwhelmed by the eloquence of actual music, fit into this larger narrative.

So did Yeats’s undoubted influence on literature in Ireland silence the claims of music?  It is a seductive argument, but this is where I would respectfully differ from White’s analysis.  All across Europe, it seems to me, the appearance of rejuvenated national musics was stimulated by both the local and structural possibilities of language, often through attention to native speech rhythms, or the distinctive modalities of folk music and singing.  It is often forgotten that Schönberg’s pioneering ‘atonal’ compositions were not built on a serial structure at all, but draped across an architecture provided by expressionist literature: ‘I discovered how to construct larger forms by following a text or poem’, he admitted.  Sibelius and Strauss drew heavily upon narratives old and new; Stravinsky’s Histoire du soldat (1918) incorporated a central narrator, while in Les Noces (1923) he constructed his own scenario; more intimately, Janacek’s pioneering operas from Jenufa (1903) onwards were wrought by his transcribing from Czech ‘the melodic curves of speech’.  Bartok’s music built directly on his researches into the applied music of folk song and dance, which made possible new modes and even scales.  Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams were pursuing productive folkloric expeditions in England explicitly on an Irish model, and this rejuvenated English composition all the way to Benjamin Britten.  To put it another way: words were the engine of change in new music, not so very far from Yeats’s idea.  This would seem to make a specifically Irish ‘silence’ because of its verbal attention puzzling.  In fact if we look I think we can find composers who flooded to fill this gap.

One such was the composer Arnold Bax, born in London but an adopted second generation revivalist.  On reading Yeats he found, according to his lively memoir, ‘the Celt in me stood revealed’, and hastened to Ireland, where he came under the wing of A.E. and Patrick Pearse.  It is true he spent a year or two writing sub-Yeatsian verse (with added national zest) and Syngeish plays under the pseudonym Dermot O’Byrne, but he also, beyond setting William Allingham and Padraic Colum, found time to compose programmatic orchestral tone-poems including Cathaleen-ni-Hoolihan (1904), Into the Twilight (1908), In the Fairy Hills (1909, rev. 1921), and The Garden of Fand (1916) directly inspired by the Irish themes, mythologies, and musical motifs in Yeats’s poetry, from the ‘The Wanderings of Oisin’ onwards.  His consciously lyrical chamber works and First Symphony (1923) memorializing the Easter Rising included the familiar harp, but set amidst an unaccustomed Debussy-influenced texture and harmonic language.  Yeats’s Revival and all that flowed from it seem less an obstructive example here.  An even more determined Yeatsian advocate was the gifted Peter Warlock, who as his nom-de-plume might suggest, pursued him into the depths of his magical philosophy.  Thus inspired (‘I believe this country is ripe for music’ he declared) he spent a formative year in Ireland, going west to study Irish and Cornish (and the uilleann pipes) in order to understand intimately the structure and scales of the music and produce unaccompanied works in these languages.  Following the Dublin Feis Ceoil in May 1918, and (remarkably) in place of Yeats, he gave an illustrated lecture on music from the Abbey stage, which would have pleased the poet by claiming Irish music’s eastern affinity, its untempered scale, its proximity to language, and denouncing the conservatism of professional musicians.  All these things were meat and drink to Yeats, as for any self-respecting avant-garde composer; Warlock was plainly hoping to be controversial, but although he played them Bartok the imminent threat of conscription meant minds were elsewhere.  Still, he mused in a private letter about the problems in drawing directly upon the native music:

I have lately made a great many experiments with Celtic tunes without approaching a solution of the problem of their adequate […] treatment.  As far as I can see at present, it is unsatisfactory to use more than fragmentary quotations from them in a composition: they do not seem suitable as “themes” for “treatment” – they are somehow too proud as well as too perfect, complete, rounded, etc. for that.

For this reason, Warlock concluded, it was difficult to employ the language of Irish music as Bartok had done with Hungarian to form new compositions, to ‘make works which structurally coincide with the structure of the melody’.  This is a fascinating glimpse into the painstaking workshop of a fine composer, and might go a long way to explain the ‘lack’ of an Irish Bartok or Stravinsky.  Yet even then Warlock did not despair; he determined to approach Irish music not by borrowing its tunes, but by returning to a ‘language-idea’ and to words; abandoning an opera drawn from Lady Gregory’s translations he would yet compose what is still the finest setting of Yeats’s poetry, the song-cycle The Curlew (1924).  His friend E.J. Moeran, a composer of Anglo-Irish descent, was another folk-song collector who after setting Joyce’s poems (we note) settled in Ireland to compose what are now highly-regarded symphonies with pronounced local inflection.  Well, enough.  It seems to me that if there was no purely native composer of sufficient genius to harness this material, this was not inevitable.  Words need not silence music; indeed quite the opposite.

Undoubtedly, as White attests, there was a pronounced conservatism within the musical establishments of both classical and traditional fields in these islands.  This ought one supposes to have retarded innovation, but surprisingly it does not appear always an impediment to new work; the Irishman Charles Villiers Stanford, whom Shaw so disparaged, is now regarded as a teacher with an immense productive influence on a whole generation of composers in Britain, including Moeran, Gustav Holst, Frank Bridge and others.  All this however does raise a larger, fascinating question as to how much art is caused by its cultural and social conditions.  Perhaps regrettably, there is no inevitable correlation between an ostensibly congenial artistic environment and the emergence of artists of stature, and the opposite might also be true.  This was something the artist J.B. Yeats, who knew something about the production of genius and what separated it from talent (his own), stressed to his son Jack:

The conditions of art may no doubt improve and as they improve we shall have more artists and a better appreciation of art […].  But the art itself is the same now as before.  But tho’ we can increase the number of artists and poets, can we make them better?

His son W.B. went further, preferring to see genius as antithetical to the age.  We don’t have to agree to wonder if that kind of retrospective determinism with which the wider field of cultural studies perforce has to trade is the only way to view the cultural landscape.  In this case, was Ireland inescapably fallow and Bartok and Ives predestined?  These are absorbing but finally unanswerable questions.  Was W.B. Yeats himself inevitable?

What might be said is that words and music are always combining and recombining without apparent lasting damage to either.  One might take a different emphasis: perhaps what’s really missing is not a ghostly Irish composer but further acknowledgment of the potential of the native repertory.  Certainly the book does not seem very keen to discuss traditional music, as when White says hopefully ‘Irish music meant comparatively little to Synge’.  To understand why I think we must imagine the author as Cuchulain shadow-boxing maddening waves of ethnomusicologists, a noble sport in which I might gladly join him.  However if Shaw, Joyce and Beckett showed not very much interest in Ireland’s native musics, other authors covered by the study – Moore, Yeats, Synge and Heaney spring to mind – made them an essential reference point of their art, whether as a part of folkloric collections, a repository of melodies, or just as an enabling imaginative resource and idea.  There is no reason, either, that the discussion need be reductive or simplistic; as Seán Crosson ably demonstrates in his scrupulous The Given Note: Traditional Music and Modern Irish Poetry (2008), the adoption or appropriation of traditional music by poets tells us a great deal about their anxieties concerning community, audience, and inheritance.[3] It might be as well to consider such things, and not doing so opens up wider problems.  In this vein, for instance, White is not convinced that Synge’s speech rhythms owe anything to music.  Here as we’ve seen he goes against Yeats’s conviction; but the point is entirely arguable were it not for his reasoning. ‘A fundamental property of folk music, and of most art music for that matter’, he suggests, ‘is a consistent metre which can be written down or transmitted orally, as the case may be.  The cadences of Synge’s dramatic writing have nothing to do with the prevailing order of regular metrical pulses, musical or otherwise.’  If this were really so, music and poetry are both insufferably regular, and thus neither could have anything to do with Synge’s lines of dialogue – many of which, as Hugh Kenner demonstrated long ago, fit into rather subtle syncopated measures with a three-stress termination, which, Kenner suggests, derived from Douglas Hyde’s imitations of Irish, and conceivably from patterns in folk verse and fiddle tunes.  Something like the same patterns are at work in Vaughan Williams’s opera of Synge’s The Riders to the Sea, where a falling three-stress intonation apparently derived from and married to Synge’s speech rhythms (marked sometimes in triplets, more often in groups of crotchets and quavers) seems so often to govern cadence points in the dialogue that the composer found in it his central motif.  Now, we don’t have to believe any of this to think that the book’s assertion seems to miss something of the point of poetic rhythm, which whether it is ‘wavering and meditative’ as Yeats imagined it in 1899, or ‘an elaboration of the rhythms of common speech and their association with profound feeling’ as he did in 1936, is manifestly by no means defined simply by regular pulses.  But it also makes for an unguarded statement from a musicologist.

In requiring ‘regular metrical pulses’ of ‘folk’ music White is surely smarting from an overexposure to the regular grumbling of the bodhran, which indeed the great and grumbling uilleann player Seamus Ennis suggested was best played with a knife.  Ennis’s point of course was folk music lives in the gaps of strict ‘metre’, and of course the uillean pipes themselves may be played far from the bounds of absolute regularity, to say nothing of the wilds of sean-nós singing, or the irregular phrasing, rolling rhythms, and tempo changes characteristic of many folk tunes, even in music for dancers, which we might have thought the form most likely to be ‘regular’. Even for music that can be adequately notated in bar lines and constant time signatures, not always so of folk music as Bartok found, what gives it life is rhythmic variation: indeed in this consists a chief skill of the art of performance.  It does not seem altogether a generous enough notion of music, whether by Chopin or the Chieftains, that minimizes the place for phrasing, for ritenuto or ornament to play against and disrupt the ‘regular’ metre; especially given the increasingly rubato-led style of late nineteenth-century performance practice Synge must have imbibed.  To be just, this is probably a slip in vocabulary, where the sense of ‘consistency’ slides unwarily into ‘regularity’.  Well, no matter.  What matters more is an awareness that more than any, music with words in it (as in recitative, as sean nós, as sprechstimme) comes closest to unhinging what we might think of as metrical consistency – and as we’ve seen music with words happens a lot in Ireland.  We know for instance from audience accounts that Moore performed what seemed regular enough melodies to his own idiosyncratic accompaniment in a kind of rolling recitative, something a late preface hopes to enjoin on us:

In this style of musical recitation, […] the words ought to be as nearly spoken as is consistent with the swell and the sweetness of intonation, and a strict and mechanical observation of time completely destroys all those pauses, lingerings, and abruptnesses, which the expression of passion and tenderness requires.

Warlock, with his own dig at some of the native repertory, nonetheless concluded with some acuity:

It is not until one hears a native speaker of the Irish language sing that one realizes that all Irish music (except the imbecile jigs and reels) is simply an exaltation of Irish speech – only that and nothing more.  The sounds of the language – of the spoken language – […] form such an integral part of the music that a tune in the abstract is nothing but a corpse, and a decayed one at that.

This makes it conceivable at least that in such Irish-inflected English (if you like Hiberno-English, though not the book’s misprinted ‘Hiberno-Irish’) Synge’s rhythms come close to music, if Irish music itself can come so close to speech.  This particular back-and-forth about Synge though matters less than the lacuna it appears to intimate in the book; it is a shame that the music of the title cannot mean traditional music, except by unfavourable comparison with ‘European masterworks’: our view of Friel, say, playing Cole Porter against Irish reels might then be subtly different.

To return to our opening.  Can we really be sure when Synge brought his violin to Inishmaan it was the last gasp for music in Ireland?  Should his turn from music to literature be seen as characteristic of a whole nation?  I’m not so sure.  For one thing we are not quite comparing like with like: Synge was training to be a performer of music, not its creator.  It is a distinction he draws himself and is worth attending to: ‘music is the finest art, for it alone can express directly what is not utterable, but I am not fitted to be a composer’.  Evidently he possessed a creative instinct that his abilities in music could not satisfy.  Such a tribute to music can be read as a tacit tribute to things that are utterable.  Of course we might speculate that training to be a practitioner of music, as with Joyce, left a useful and formative respect for the techne of art, what Synge called its ‘prepatory discipline’, the need to hone and develop the skills of a craft, even, one might say, the need to practise; certainly in their writing both Joyce and Synge practised assiduously, whether in sketches, revisions, or a good deal of apprentice poetry (Joyce’s called Chamber Music) for which they are now little known.  The practice of practising music remained with them.  Even this is not new: notoriously, Plato’s suspicion of music’s peculiar sway led him to exclude all but two musical modes from his Republic: so, claims Socrates, ‘musical training is a more potent instrument than any other because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul’.

We might go further and suggest that Synge stayed a musician but one who uttered for other people.  Much less a natural performer than Joyce, if his semi-autobiographical prose works are anything to go by he suffered agonies on stage; his Étude Morbide is structured round a nervous collapse during the narrator’s solo performance on the violin:

When I reached the difficult phrases I woke a little and felt a sort of hope, but my fingers were trembling and I missed everything.  I heard the gallery hissing: it got worse.  I thought I ought to give up, but was uncertain…

Perhaps as a consequence, whether in drama or prose, he preferred to keep himself offstage; the stories of his Aran Islanders are their stories, the reticent figure of John Synge hovering in the wings; his dramas too play with the voices of others as a musician might play certain musical styles, but hardly exude an obtrusive personality.  This made him a dramatist quite unlike, say, Wilde or Yeats or Shaw, whose personalities, defined in inimitable personal style, are thrust centre stage, in Shaw’s case with operatic bombast. Nor unlike them did he publicly campaign in prefaces and lectures: we note Synge’s curious absence from the Abbey stage during the Playboy riots, a curtain call that Yeats instead accepted with evident relish.  It might be trite to claim that musical stage-fright formed Synge as a dramatist.  Still, I’m doubtful we can concede his neurosis defined a whole nation.  In any case, what we should really call his choice did not make him or his art unreservedly happy.  In Étude Morbide his alter-ego speaks for him: ‘they say I must give up music and be cheerful.  The damned fools.’

Harry White, Music and the Irish Literary Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. xviii + 260 pp. £58. ISBN: 978-0199547326.


[1] Harry White, The Keeper’s Recital: Music and Cultural History in Ireland 1770-1970 (Cork: Cork University Press, 1998).

[2] Thomas Moore, My Gentle Harp: The Complete Collection of Moore’s Irish Melodies, Una Hunt et al. (Dublin: Claddagh Records, 2008).

[3] Seán Crosson, The Given Note: Traditional Music and Modern Irish Poetry (Sunderland: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2008).

[to see this article in publication see Dublin Review of Books No.13: Spring 2010]

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~ by thebicyclops on March 3, 2010.

One Response to “Synge’s Violin”

  1. […] Synge’s Violin « thebicyclops Book review of "Harry White, Music and the Irish Literary Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. xviii + 260 pp. £58. ISBN: 978-0199547326." Mentions Irish, Sean-Nós, W B Yeats, and Florence Farr. (tags: books reviews ireland) Share and Enjoy: […]

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