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.
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. .
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.