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Spring 2001


Joycean High Note at the New York Public Library

 

 

n 1934 James Joyce, author of arguably the greatest English-language fictional work of the 20th century, Ulysses, wrote a letter of introduction to the famed Irish tenor John McCormack for his son Giorgio Joyce, who was hoping to start a singing career. The young bass brought the letter to New York City where McCormack was offering regular programs over NBC radio.

John McCormack
John McCormack

The father, no mean Irish tenor himself, went back a long way with McCormack. In fact, the two had sung together at a memorable Dublin concert in 1904. And just how profoundly the tenor voice affected Joyce is memorably shown in the operatic aria Simon Dedalus sings at Dublin's Ormond Bar in the "Sirens" episode of Ulysses. No one has captured better in words the rapturous effect of a tenor's climactic high note (in this case a B-flat) than Joyce does here:

It soared, a bird, it held its flight, a swift pure cry, soar silver orb it leaped serene, speeding, sustained, to come, don't spin it out too long breath he breath long life, soaring high, high resplendent, aflame, crowned, high in the effulgence symbolistic, high, of the ethereal bosom, high, of the vast irradiation everywhere all soaring all around about the all, the endlessnessnessness. . .

James Joyce
James Joyce

Giorgio's career never took off, and he returned to Europe. But the letter stayed put. McCormack died in 1945, and in 1968 his brother James generously passed it on to budding Joyce scholar and NYU grad student John Scarry. Five years later, Dr. Scarry began teaching at Hostos Community College, as he does to this day. The gift of the letter-which is filled with associations from Joyce's life and work, particularly touching on the importance of vocal art in his work-proved inspirational. "This letter was of central importance in my graduate work at NYU and for my later publications as a CUNY professor," Scarry says. Late in December, just after Christie's auctioned off a draft of the "Circe" episode in Ulysses for $1.5 million, Scarry repeated the apt and generous act that brought the letter into his hands: he donated it to the venerable Berg Collection of rare books and manuscripts in the New York Public Library.