On this day…22 May

22 May 1813 Richard Wagner was born.

Wagner was a towering influence over European culture at the end of the nineteenth century. His early works Tannhäuser and Lohengrin were staples of the touring opera companies that visited Dublin theatres in the 1890s and early 1900s, where Joyce is certain to have seen them. But it was not only directly through Wagner’s own works that Joyce was influenced: many others whose works Joyce read were also influenced by Wagner and his ideas.

Joyce’s Trieste library contained the scores of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer, Die Meistersinger, Das Rheingold, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung. He also had volumes of Wagner’s letters and essays, including a copy of Wagner’s notorious tract Judaism in Music. Other books included May Byron’s A Day with Wagner, Wolfgang Golther’s Richard Wagner as Poet, Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Case of Wagner and Nietzsche Contra Wagner, John F Runiciman’s biography of Wagner, and George Bernard Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite.

Wagner was a major influence on writers of the French Symbolist movement. Many of these writers were included in Arthur Symons’ book Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899) which Joyce had read avidly. Joyce was introduced to Symons by WB Yeats, and it was largely thanks to Symons’ efforts that Joyce’s first book, Chamber Music, was published.

The Irish novelist George Moore was also influenced by Wagner’s music and attempted to render Wagner’s musical techniques in prose. Joyce was a keen reader of Moore’s works even if he was not always complimentary about them. His copy of Evelyn Innes is heavily marked, and his Trieste library also contained Moore’s Sister Teresa and The Lake, both of which betray the influence of Wagner on Moore.

Edouard Dujardin, editor of the French Revue wagnérienne, was the author of Les Lauriers sont coupés which Joyce read in 1903. Joyce later claimed that it was this book’s use of ‘interior monologue’ that influenced his own writing techniques, particularly in Ulysses. For his part, Dujardin claimed that what he was trying to achieve with ‘interior monologue’ was a prose equivalent of Wagner’s ‘endless melody.’

One of Joyce’s favourite Italian writers, Gabriele D’Annunzio, had also been influenced by Wagner and wrote about him in in the novel Il fuoco which Joyce knew well. Apparently the young D’Annunzio was one of the pall-bearers who carried Wagner’s coffin through Venice (where Wagner died in 1883) on its journey back to Wagner’s home in Bayreuth. Likewise, the main character in Il fuoco carries Wagner’s coffin, and discourses at length on Wagner’s aesthetics.


Sources & Further Reading:

Martin, Timothy: Joyce and Wagner – A Study of Influence, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.