How James Joyce Almost Became a Famous Singer

The author of Ulysses had extraordinary vocal skills, and in 1904 came within inches of stardom—before stubbornness, not lack of talent, derailed him

I’ve often heard people comment on the musicality of novelist James Joyce—but they’re usually talking about the sound of his prose when read aloud. Few realize how much genuine musical ability Joyce actually possessed, or how close he came to genuine fame for his vocal skills

At a key juncture in 1904, Joyce almost won the most prestigious music competition in Ireland. And he failed not due to lack of talent, but rather because of his own stubbornness—the same trait that gained him such renown in the literary world.

But in this one instance, his penchant for rule-breaking proved to be a liability. Joyce was embittered by the turn of events, and though he continued to hatch plans to make his name in music for years to come, the opportunity had passed.

The novelist’s entire family was musical. In 1875 Joyce’s father John performed in a concert at the Antient Concert Rooms, where his singing caught the attention of the celebrated tenor Barton McGuckin, who allegedly declared that the elder Joyce possessed the best tenor voice in Ireland. Joyce’s son Giorgio was also a singer, whose vocal work was even profiled in The New Yorker by James Thurber. Joyce’s daughter was a dancer of exceptional ability, and was runner-up at Paris’s first international festival of dance. 

Yet the novelist himself probably had the most musical talent in the family. Spurred on by a combination of native skill and extraordinary self-confidence, Joyce decided to enter the most illustrious Irish music competitions of his day, the Feis Ceoil (Festival of Music), in 1904. That contest still takes place every year in Dublin, and is still the leading Irish showcase of its kind. It’s not going too far to compare Joyce’s entry as akin to showing up on American Idol or The Voice—or, at least, Ireland’s Got Talent. A victory in that setting could have served as a springboard for a successful performing career, perhaps even more lucrative than writing for this renegade talent. 

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The previous year, Joyce’s friend John McCormack had won this same competition, and his victory earned him a large following that he later parlayed into worldwide fame and fortune. McCormack would tour extensively, appear on hundreds of recordings as well as in movies (he shows up briefly in Citizen Kane), and own a Hollywood mansion—although he never lost his Irish ties and fans. A statue of McCormack now stands in Dublin near the National Concert Hall. 

Joyce was probably the best singer in the competition in 1904. The judge Luigi Denza (famous as composer of “Funiculì, Funiculà”) was so impressed with his singing that he was prepared to give Joyce the gold medal—until the young author refused to participate in the sight-singing part of the event. 

When the music was put in front of him, Joyce didn’t sing a note, but defiantly stalked off the stage. By the rules of the competition, Joyce was excluded from consideration for a medal—although he was later awarded the bronze when another contestant was disqualified.  

Sight-reading was Joyce’s weakness—yet this would have been an easy disability to overcome if he had just put a little work into it before the competition. But he had a strong ear—which allowed him to compose melodies and deliver those he had heard with great accuracy—and, like many before and after him, he avoided the rigors of reading music because learning by ear was faster and less burdensome. 

Joyce could learn a song after only hearing it once. He once stopped his father’s friend Alfred Bergan (who later appears as a character in Ulysses) on the street and insisted that he sing “McSorley’s Twins” on the spot—and Joyce retained enough of what he heard to perform the piece at a private gathering that evening.  

Joyce was angry at his defeat in the competition—but in typical fashion, blamed the rules, not his own shortcomings. He complained about the pigheadedness of judges who evaluated contestants in singing music they had never rehearsed. Who cared how a musician learned a song, he argued, when the real measure of ability is what you do after you learn it?

Even after he left Dublin to embark on a career as (at least in his own mind) a literary exile who would redeem his homeland with his writing, Joyce continued to consider an alternative vocation in music. In Trieste he took lessons from Giuseppe Sinico, a celebrated composer and conductor, who told the writer that if he stayed under his tutelage for two years he would be ready to perform opera on stage. Joyce took this advice seriously, as his correspondence with his brother attests—a setting in which Joyce could boast about his high range and the “beautiful timbre” to his voice. But Simico died in 1907, depriving him of an influential teacher and advocate. At other moments, Joyce dreamed of bypassing the stage entirely, and instead going on the road as a traveling troubadour, a kind of modern updating of the medieval minstrel.

But these ambitions went nowhere, and the struggles Joyce faced in bringing his short story collection Dubliners to marketa work rejected by 15 different publishers and embroiling the author in endless battles and complicationstook up most of his spare energy at this point in his life. Music studies were put aside for a time, and Joyce stopped looking for opportunities to perform. Yet his wife (and muse) Nora Barnacle was later known to say that her husband’s biggest mistake was to give up on his singing career.

When Joyce’s first book, the poetry collection Chamber Music, was released, he directed his publisher to send copies to composers who might set his texts to music. Even while recognizing the musicality of his poetry, Joyce started to have mixed feelings about the plaintive lyricism of these works. He was now striving for a harder edge in his writing, and his musical leanings, with all the sentimentality they stirred up in his psyche, were now viewed as a possible liability. The story is told that he only accepted the title Chamber Music, suggested by his brother Stanislaus, when his impromptu recitation of one of his poems at a drinking session was interrupted by an uninhibited widow in attendance, who stepped behind a screen to use the chamber pot. Joyce’s friend Gogarty called out: “There’s a critic for you.” Stanislaus later told his brother that the incident was a favorable omen, and Joyce must have agreed since he accepted the proffered title. 

Indeed, Joyce may have felt more reconciled to showcasing his own talent for lyrical writing because a scatological joke was behind it. In a surviving letter to Stanislaus, Joyce states: “I should prefer a title that to a certain extent repudiated the book.” This may be why Joyce felt compelled to share the inside joke with others—in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom muses: “Chamber Music. Could make a kind of pun on that.” Yet Joyce also took pride in the positive response to Chamber Music afters its publication, and was delighted when Geoffrey Molyneux Palmer requested permission to turn the poems into actual songs—Palmer eventually provided musical settings for 32 out of the 36 pieces in Joyce’s book. Others have followed his example, recognizing the melodic possibilities of Joyce’s poetry. 

Yet Joyce may still have been thinking about his own abandoned musical career around this same time. When he read news reports of John McCormack’s debut performance at Covent Garden in 1907, he boasted that the tenor was fortunate that Joyce had given up singing. But McCormack soon relocated to America, where he got a recording contract with the Victor label, enjoying a series of hits, followed by success in movies. Joyce, for his part, also left Ireland, but for nondescript work teaching English in Trieste and Zürich. Any rivalry with McCormack, at this juncture, existed merely in Joyce’s over-heated imagination.

Even so, Joyce resumed vocal lessons in late 1908, this time with Romeo Bartoli, and secured a piano that allowed him to host musical evenings at home. He also took a marked interest in opera—attending eight consecutive performances of La Bohème. For a time, he considered relocating to Florence or Milan, where he had dreams of making his name as a singer. 

Can you imagine James Joyce as an Italian opera singer? This father of modernist experimental prose was surprisingly traditional when it came to his musical tastes. His friend Philipp Jarnach, an assistant to composer Ferruccio Busoni, was shocked to learn that Joyce did not share his enthusiasm for experimental music, and instead favored “the old Italian hackneyed things” by Donizetti and Bellini. The allegation was not entirely fair: Joyce once told Otto Luening that Schoenberg and Palestrina were the two composers that most interested him, and he worked hard to convince avant-garde composer George Antheil to fulfill his promise to compose an opera based on the Cyclops section of Ulysses. Yet Joyce the music fan did prefer the old to the new, and clearly attended more performances of Italian opera than concerts of experimental music.

In December 1918, Joyce made his last gesture as a public performer in a professional setting.  As part of a production by the English Players, a short-lived Zurich drama company for which Joyce was business manager, he sang “Amante Tradito” (“Betrayed Lover”) by Giovanni Stefani to guitar accompaniment. But when Charlotte Sauermann offered to get him an audition at the Stadttheater, he turned down the invitation. By this time, his fortunes as a writer had turned, and he was focused on finishing Ulysses, not on switching careers, whether to music or any other field.  

From this point on, any musical ambitions would be pursued vicariously through others. Joyce encouraged his children’s musical pursuits, and Giorgio even decided upon a career as a singer, albeit with only modest success. In truth, Giorgio Joyce might have been able to parlay his famous last name into a flourishing career as an Irish tenor, except that his European accent and manners made obvious how little connection he had with Ireland. On the other hand, when he sang in Italian, he inserted an English ‘h’ sound in his vowels—thus cuore (or ‘heart’) got turned into “cuo-h-ore.” In a music world that still pigeonholed performers into national categories (and, let’s be bluntly honest, it still does today), he simply didn’t fit. 

Joyce the senior, for all his paternal affection, recognized these obstacles. But he had one last plan for concert hall success, this time focused on the Irish tenor John Sullivan, whose career Joyce was determined to advance at all costs. Indeed his fixation on this young man went beyond all reasonable bounds, and can only be called an obsession. Told about the singer by his brother Stanislaus, who noted that Sullivan also had read Joyce’s work, the novelist was soon making the most grand pronouncements about his new protégé’s genius. 

Has any singer in history ever received a more grandiose blurb? “I do not believe there can have existed in the past a greater tenor than his,” wrote Joyce to Herbert Hughes, “and as for the future I think it is doubtful that human ears (the kind they breed nowadays) will ever hear such another until the Archangel Michael sings his grand aria in the last act.”  With the ardor of a fan, Joyce counted the high notes Sullivan sang, and bragged about them to anyone who would listen. “I have been through the score of Guillaume Tell,” he enthused, “and I discover that Sullivan sings 456 G’s, 93 A-flats, 54 B-flats, 15 B’s, 19 C’s and 2 C-sharps.” As if this were not enough, Joyce confided to Samuel Beckett that “Sullivan’s voice has three dimensions.” 

Joyce was shameless in his advocacy. He twisted arms to secure favorable reviews and high-profile engagements for the singer. He prodded his followers to join him at Sullivan’s performances, and led them in raucous outbursts and applause. But the most embarrassing gesture of all came during a Sullivan performance at the Paris Opera in 1930s, where Joyce stood up in the middle of Guillaume Tell and announced to the befuddled audience that a miracle had taken place, and his eyesight, which had gradually diminished almost to the point of blindness, had suddenly been given back to him as a result of his favorite singer’s vocal pyrotechnics. The newspapers reported on this strange event, but Sullivan’s new reputation as miracle-worker did little to advance his music career.

Some have suggested that Joyce had latched on to Sullivan in response to some resentment against John McCormack, that old Dublin mate whose singing talent would eventually bring him millions of dollars, 13 Rolls Royces, a valuable art collection, and the friendship of movie stars and celebrities. But Sullivan’s career, although not without its glories and triumphs, would never approach that kind of renown or remuneration. Around the time Sullivan turned sixty, Joyce seemed to realize that this once up-and-coming talent was now past his prime and all the pulled strings and publicity stunts in the world would never turn him into another Caruso or McCormack. 

From this point on, the real musical legacy from James Joyce comes to us on the printed page in the form of texts that demand to voiced aloud, and which beguile us as much with sound as with sense. The story has come to us of a disagreement between Joyce and one of his students, who contradicted the author’s description of the symbolic meaning of his poems, and insisted that such considerations were unimportant since the poetry in question was pure music. Joyce was taken aback, but forced to admit: “You do understand my poems.” 

As Joyce’s fame mounted higher and higher, he grew more explicit in describing his literary work as a kind of music. He told Georges Borach that the “Sirens” episode in Ulysses was a “fugue with all the musical notations.” He made similar claims to Ottocaro Weiss, and when the two friends were at a performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre, Joyce raised the issue again during the intermission: “Don’t you find the musical effects of my ‘Sirens’  better than Wagner’s?” When Weiss answered “No,” Joyce was so irritated that he stormed out of the theater and missed the rest of the performance. 

“I’d like a language which is above all languages,” Joyce once confided to Stefan Zweig, “ a language to which all will do service.”  He eventually found this language, and the more zealously he pursued it the more closely it resembled song. Otto Luening, an avant-garde composer and early pioneer in electronic music, reports on a revealing conversation he had with Joyce during his student years in Zurich. The author insisted that he could translate a melody into language, and offered a demonstration by taking a flute solo from Gluck and working his verbal alchemy on it. Luening describes the process:  “He began going through the piece, note by note and phrase by phrase, literally transposing it first into word inflections and then into verbal images. At the end of this evening with Joyce I had learned more about the relationship of language to music than ever before or since.”

His final, enigmatic novel Finnegans Wake is the culmination of these attempts to translate language into music. Joyce seemed to have two conflicting opinions of how this book should be embraced by readers. In correspondence with Harriet Weaver, he would sometimes explain the many layers of meaning, offering her elaborate glosses—so useful in her reading of the text, that she asked to him to consider “along with an ordinary edition, also an annotated edition (at double or treble price, say?)” In an extreme instance, he once offered her seven different interpretations of a nine-word passage from Finnegans Wake, each one raising more questions than it answered. Yet at other times, he would suggest that no such interpretive work was necessary to read his work. It could be enjoyed, like music, for the sound alone. “It is all so simple,” he explained to Claud Sykes. “If anyone doesn’t understand a passage, all he need to do is read it aloud.” 

Or perhaps sing it aloud. Joyce himself adopted a kind of intermediate approach between spoke language and music. An observer who saw him perform a section of Finnegans Wake describes the scene: “Against his own low accompaniment he recited. . . . He neither spoke it or sang it: he used something like the sprechstimme, or pitch-controlled speech, familiar from Moses and Aaron, and other works by Schoenberg.  And the sound of it was lovely beyond description.” Again and again, those who heard Joyce perform Finnegans Wake had a much more positive reaction than those who merely read it on the page. The surviving recordings of Joyce delivering this work give us a sense of how magical these firsthand experiences must have been. Certainly the more arduous approach of word-by-word analysis has its place, and in a world in which academics dominate the interpretation of our literary heritage it’s bound to remain the most common approach to this prickly book. But the verdict of history tells an opposite story: those who get the most enjoyment out of Finnegans Wake respond first and foremost to its musical qualities, which carry us over the rough patches where interpretation du texte falls short. 

So Finnegans Wake was James Joyce’s final song. Well, almost. Dr. Daniel O’Brien shares a story of the author in the last days of his life, when Joyce was forced to abandon Paris after the onset of World War II. In La Baule where he resided with his family, Joyce went with O’Brien to a large restaurant where some two or three hundred French and British soldiers from a nearby encampment were enjoying a rare moment of revelry before the coming invasion.  

When these troops started up an impromptu rendition of “La Marseillaise," Joyce surprised his friend by joining in with such enthusiasm and vitality, that his singing soon drew on him the attention of the gathered parties. “They turned and stared at him,” O’Brien explained, “and then a group hoisted him onto a table so he might sing it all over again.”  These soldiers had no idea of the literary fame and following of their fellow celebrant, but they could feel the magnetism of his personality as it expressed itself in song. 

“You never saw such an exhibition of one man dominating and thrilling a whole audience,” O’Brien recalled many years later. “He stood there and sang the ‘Marseillaise’ and they sang it again afterwards with him, and if a whole German regiment  had attacked  at that moment, they would never have got through. That was the feeling. Oh, Joyce and his voice dominated them all!”