On this day…16 March

On 16 March 1932 the Joyce Book was performed for the first time.

The Joyce Book contained settings of Joyce’s Pomes Penyeach by various contemporary composers. The first performance took place at the London Contemporary Music Centre on 16 March 1932. Joyce was unable to attend as he had already promised to attend a lunch in his honour at the American Club in Paris on St Patrick’s Day, 17 March.

The idea for the Joyce Book originated with Herbert Hughes, Eugene Goossens, and Arthur Bliss. They attended a concert of contemporary music with Joyce at the Palais Royal on 28 October 1929 and during the evening came up with the idea of setting some of his poems to music. Eventually, the idea expanded to cover all thirteen poems in Pomes Penyeach, each with a different composer, as follows:

‘Tilly’ by EJ Moeran – ‘Watching the Needleboats at San Sabba’ by Arnold Bax – ‘A Flower given to my Daughter’ by Albert Roussel – ‘She weeps over Rahoon’ by Herbert Hughes – ‘Tutto è Sciolto’ by John Ireland – ‘On the Beach at Fontana’ by Roger Sessions – ‘Simples’ by Arthur Bliss – ‘Flood’ by Herbert Howells – ‘Nightpiece’ by George Antheil – ‘Alone’ by Edgardo Carducci – ‘A Memory of the Players in a Mirror at Midnight’ by Eugene Goossens – ‘Bahnhofstrasse’ by CW Orr – ‘A Prayer’ by Bernard Van Dieren.

The project also extended to include the publication of the Joyce Book. The book was to be a beautifully produced limited edition and Joyce asked his daughter Lucia to design initial capitals for the poems. By the time she finished the work in November 1931, however, the book had already been set and they couldn’t be included.

The Joyce Book was published in a limited edition of five hundred copies on 2 February 1933, Joyce’s fifty-first birthday. It was published by the Sylvan Press and Humphrey Milford in association with Oxford University Press. The book was designed by Hubert Foss and, in addition to the composers’ settings of Joyce’s poems, it contained a frontispiece portrait of Joyce by Augustus John, a prologue by James Stephens, an essay on ‘James Joyce as a Poet’ by Padraic Colum, and an epilogue by Arthur Symons.

Joyce was very pleased with the book and wrote another poem, ‘Pennipomes Twoguineaseach,’ to celebrate the publication. Of all the settings, Joyce claimed to like Arthur Bliss’ setting of ‘Simples’ best of all. None of the composers was paid for their contribution and the intention was that Joyce would get any net profit from the book. However, the book was not a financial success and as late as December 1935 Joyce was still complaining that he hadn’t received a penny for it.


Sources & Further Reading:

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Norburn, Roger: A James Joyce Chronology, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.