(b Dublin, 2 Feb 1882; d Zürich, 13 April 1941). Irish writer. ‘Musical’ was for Joyce perhaps the highest term of praise that could be accorded a piece of writing: he gave the title Chamber Music to his first book, and musical imagery recurs abundantly in his work thereafter. There are references above all to Irish popular song, the music of the Roman Catholic rite and opera; but the musicality of Joyce's prose, his attention to sound and rhythm, is ubiquitous, and in Finnegans Wake phonetic (and visual) considerations are as important as meaning and etymology in the construction of a language of polyglot pun and neologism. Some have seen this work as a composition based on musical principles and in particular on the leitmotif technique of Wagner. However that may be, the ‘Sirens’ episode of Ulysses seems to have been planned as a musical structure, stating its themes and then developing them.
Joyce appears to have had little interest in the composers of his time, with the exception of Antheil, whom he met through Pound. He suggested that Antheil compose an opera on Byron's Cain, but the project lapsed after Joyce had declined to tamper with the work of ‘a great English poet’. Antheil was one of the 18 contributors of songs to The Joyce Book (London, 1933). Of these settings Joyce wrote to a third party that he liked Bliss's best, but in another letter he remarked that the volume was a mystery to him. He nevertheless wrote to Bax to praise his song for its singability, a quality he was well qualified to judge: as a young man he had appeared in public as a light tenor, and a career as a singer remained for some time a possibility.
Other composers to have set Joyce's poems include Barber, Berio, Casanova, Del Tredici, Goossens, Bill Hopkins, Salvador Ley, Moeran, Persichetti, Roussel, Serly and Szymanowski. After Joyce's death the phonetic and formal qualities of his prose also began to excite attention from composers, among them Berio again, Boulez (in his Piano Sonata no.3), Cage, Dallapiccola, Partch, Searle and Seiber.