The Joyce of Music

Behind the Scenes at Bloomsday

Love’s Old Sweet Songs – an Irish variety concert – music from the James Joyce Songbook signals the final trumpet-blast of a suite of events held in Melbourne to celebrate the centenary of publication of Ulysses, Joyce’s Annus Mirabilis. First, there was the now-streamable feature film, Love’s Bitter Mystery, on 4 June; then, a two-week season in June of the free adaptation of the Molly Bloom chapter; and on 8 October, a crisp and bubbly champagne of a concert with some dramatic interludes.


The very experienced Musical Director, Mary O’Driscoll, is at the piano and is preparing the soloists, and Tref Gare (you may remember him as the poker-faced butler who produced sonorous melodies by drumming on his chest in Travesties in 2019) is the theatrical director/MC/Musical Hall Host. His comedic (in particular, parodic) and musical instincts will again be called for.

Blazes (Torsten Strokirch) and Molly (Merryn Hughes) will sing Joyce songs from a number of genres, including Don Giovanni.

Molly and Blazes will make an appearance, and they are played by two rising stars of the singing world, Merryn Hughes (a recent graduate of the Melbourne University Conservatorium of Music and most recently in the Vic Opera production of Il Mago di Oz) and Torsten Strokirch, a veteran of the national Gondwanaland Boys Choir and a young composer.

Those readers familiar with Joyce biographies will know that his life might have had a very different trajectory: he might have been a world-class tenor but for a tantrum (?) at the Feis Ceoil of 1904, an eisteddfod held just before he walked out with Nora Barnacle for the first time. Unaccountably, he baulked at a simple sight-reading task. Could he not sight-read? Were his eyes a problem that day? Did he consider it beneath him? None of these explanations seems very credible. He was expected to win the gold medal, and the rest is history. The Feis debacle has its myths and surprising afterlife and concertgoers will get the good oil on what actually transpired. As well as a suite of the kind of songs early twentieth-century audiences adored.

Joyce was promiscuous in his tastes in music and relished it all, to the extent that there are several thousand allusions to music in his works. He deals with it with the same manic intensity that he catalogues the Dublin he left. So, this variety concert stages a cornucopia of bawdy ballads and kids’ rhymes, risqué and sacriligeous chants, opera in the grand tradition and operetta, popular songs and suggestive music-hall wit and melody, and even sacred music from both Jewish and Christian traditions.

Songs in Joyce’s fiction work hard, evoking moods, and giving telling insight into a character. Or he may use them for parodic effect, or to capture a political zeitgeist musically. Joyce spends a chapter of Ulysses worrying about the legitimate (and illegitimate) power of music to move us. In a letter, Joyce complained that in writing Ulysses he discovered all the emotional trickery composers can resort to. Whether or not you resist this impulse, it’s worth pondering its implications, and he does.

The Tatty Tenors: L-R Ron Jackson, Ted Chapman (kneeling), Ralph Devlin, Jim Aherne

Comedy is Joyce’s quick-release valve, and the Tatty Tenors, the comedy trio and maestro from Brisbane (who have worked with Bloomsday in Dublin and at the Spiegeltent) who have toured the world and Queensland with their musical mayhem will ensure the tone remains upbeat, and musical pomposity is challenged. They get to commandeer the Music Hall component of the concert, and will continue the celebration after at the Hawthorn Hotel over dinner (you’re advised to book early as seats are limited in number).

Frances Devlin-Glass, Artistic Director, Bloomsday in Melbourne.


Concert: Love’s Old Sweet Songs – an Irish variety concert – music from the James Joyce Songbook at Hawthorn Arts Centre, 360 Burwood Rd., 4.45 for 5pm, Saturday 8 Oct. 2022

Dinner: Hawthorn Hotel, 7pm, Saturday 8 Oct. 2022