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OUP, 1930

 

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Seven Poems of James Joyce
R51

a - Strings in the Earth and Air
b - The Merry Greenwood
c - Brightcap
d - The Pleasant Valley
e - Donneycarney
f - Rain Has Fallen
e - Now O Now in this Brown Land


James Joyce in 1929

1929 saw the start of Moeran's renaissance as a creative composer, following the barren years spent with Warlock in Eynsford where drinking and partying tended to push musical composition into a rather forgotten corner. It was a series of poems by James Joyce entitled 'Chamber Music' which finally galvanised Moeran back into action and produced this set, plus a couple of other songs - Tilly (R105) and Rosefrail (R52). Joyce was apparently delighted with Moeran's settings, though it has been suggested that he was almost always generous with his praise for any composer choosing to set his texts!

That said, without doubt the Moeran settings in the Seven Poems are truly delightful, and despite quite a range of expression and mood - The Merry Greenwood and Bright Cap are particularly upbeat by contrast to the other songs, which often have an almost melancholy reflective wistfulness about them - there is a real unity holding them together above and beyond the words. Geoffrey Self points out the commonality of a single chord underpinning three of the seven songs - a widely spread G-D-B-A - which he associates with Joyce's idea of 'music of the transient seasons' underpinning his texts.

In The Cool Valley anyone familiar with Moeran's piano music will immediately recall his 1925 piece Summer Valley (R37), for here Moeran reworks this as an instrumental prelude to the song. Self even goes as far as to ask whether Moeran did not already have the Joyce poem in mind when writing the original piano piece - perhaps he had had these poems in the back of his mind for several years. It is certainly interesting that the central song is the one which looks back so clearly to a work which came at the tail-end of his previous burst of intense creativity.

Another apparent parallel though turns out to be impossible. When I first heard the opening three notes of Donneycarney, I was immediately reminded of the jazz song 'Misty' - where the words "Look at me..." match so closely in tune and rhythm Moeran's opening "Oh It was out..." it is uncanny. But no, Moeran was not secretly tuning into shortwave jazz broadcasts of BIllie Holliday from the USA in the '20s - it turns out that Errol Garner wrote the music for Misty around 1957, so in this case any likeness is totally coincidental! So there goes another tempting Moeran theory...

The final song of this set, Now, O Now in this Brown Land, is by far the longest of the set, more than double the length of any other. Examining the score, Self notes that the opening bars for the piano here appear to predict the opening of Moeran's Violin Concerto. It's one of those things which doesn't necessarily jump out at you when you hear the piece, but listen carefully and you may well hear it. As in all of these cases there is a clear temptation to read hidden meanings into these things, and Self presumes this deliberately implies the Ireland that Joyce appears to be writing about, the same Ireland with which the Violin Concerto is associated so strongly. Well, in these instances one can only go on instinct, and I am inclined again to veer towards coincidence. Yes, on the page there is clear similarity, but to the ear they seem quite different and to the majority it's a link which needs careful pointing out. Having been so brazen in his use of Summer Valley earlier in this cycle, would Moeran choose to do this more covertly later?

This does in fact raise an important issue with Moeran's music in general. As a composer he often wears his heart on his sleeve, and parallels have been drawn between many different works and those of Moeran, where it is sometimes suggested that Moeran is taking rather too much from those who preceeded him. Yet a composer with such a gift for lyricism surely has no need to borrow from anyone else, and his music always makes musical sense regardless of whether a snatch of this or a snippet of that sounds like something else. Recall Bax's quote: "I well remember his perturbation when I pointed out to him that a passage in his Symphony bore a remarkable resemblance to the famous whirlwind in [Sibelius'] Tapiola". There is also a debate about similarities between the first movement of the Symphony and that of Stenhammer's 2nd.

I would suggest that the Seven Poems of James Joyce suggests not only that Moeran very occasionally quoted conciously, but also that there are a number of genuinely coincidental similarities between his music and that not only of other composers but also of his own. Moeran is clear where he deliberately quotes. It is little more than unfortunate where he accidentally quotes, but is surely not worth getting worked up about to the extent that it might impair one's enjoyment of his music.

 

 

...there's often an almost melancholy reflective wistfulness about them...

©2001 The Worldwide Moeran Database