On 25 March 1909 Geoffrey Molyneux Palmer sent Joyce his cantata.
Geoffrey Molyneux Palmer (1882-1957) was a composer born in England of Irish parents who composed settings for many of Joyce’s poems. A graduate of Oxford, he studied at the Royal College of Music from 1904 to 1907 under Irish composer CV Stanford. In 1910 he moved to Mallow, Co. Cork, where he had a position as an organist, and later in his life lived with his sisters in Sandycove.
Palmer wrote to Joyce in 1907, not long after the publication of Chamber Music, asking permission to set some of the poems to music. Joyce was ill with rheumatic fever at the time and his brother Stanislaus wrote to Palmer and to Elkin Mathews, publisher of Chamber Music, to say that Joyce was happy to have Palmer set the poems to music if Mathews was agreeable.
In February 1909 Joyce wrote to thank Palmer for settings of five poems which he had just received, adding that he hoped Palmer would attempt a setting of the poem ‘Bid Adieu’ which Joyce himself had tried to set to music.
After that, Palmer seems to have sent Joyce a cantata. It seems likely that this was The Abbot of Inisfalen – A Killarney Legend (op. 5, 1908), scored for baritone, choir and orchestra. The cantata was a setting of a poem of the same name by William Allingham (1824-1889) published in 1865.
In his letter thanking him for the cantata, Joyce told Palmer that it was a bit low for his own voice and therefore probably wouldn’t suit John McCormack’s voice either. Joyce added that he was pleased to hear that Palmer was setting more of his poems, and admitted that he was very flattered that Palmer liked his poems enough to set them. Enclosed with the letter was a copy of Joyce’s article on Oscar Wilde from Il Piccolo della Sera, written on the occasion of the performance of Richard Strauss’ opera Salome in Trieste in March 1909.
By July 1909, Joyce was writing again to thank Palmer for the settings of another three poems. He told Palmer that these three pleased him even more than the previous five and said that he would take the songs to Dublin with him in the hope of generating interest in them there. Joyce hoped that Palmer might set all the poems and that he had intended that the poems should be set to music.
In all, Palmer set thirty-two of the thirty-six poems of Chamber Music.
Sources & Further Reading:
Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Fargnoli, A Nicholas, & Michael Patrick Gillespie: James Joyce A-Z – An Encyclopedic Guide to his Life and Work, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1995.
Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. I, edited by Stuart Gilbert, London: Faber & Faber, 1957; vol. II, edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1966.
Geoffrey Molyneux Palmer’s papers, including letters from Joyce, are part of the collections at the National Library of Ireland. To view images of the Joyce letters, click here.