Ulysses Suite, by Geraldina Mendez*
The Ulysses Suite was commissioned by Festival Bloomsday Montreal for the online celebration of Ulysses centenary on February 2 2022. At the time and since Bloomsday 2021, I was working towards the Canadian première of the Six commentaires pour Ulysses de James Joyce, op 71 of the Ukrainian composer Thomas de Hartmann. As the original key was too high for my voice, and the original was written on a French translation, I worked with the copyright holder, Tom Daly, who surprisingly happened to live here in Montreal, to both copy the original English words on the sheet music and transcribe the very complex work in its 30 page entirety by myself, to be able to transport it to a more confortable key for me to sing it. Here it is:
In result of those long hours of work on the Hartmann, I was able to really understand first-hand his way of putting this prose to music, and I told myself that it would be fun to try to do it myself, so I started with the third movement, the Gloria, to be able to show something to Kevin Wright, president of Bloomsday Montreal, and to my friend Montreal actress Kathleen Fee, artistic director of the Festival, to have it approved, in which I luckily succeeded. I was told to write a musical piece of a maximum length of ten minutes, which was to be included in the literary event.
This is the fragment chosen from the first episode, Telemachus:
In a dream, silently, she had come to him, her wasted body within its loose graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath bent over him with mute secret words, a faint odour of wetted ashes.
Her glazing eyes, staring out of death, to shake and bend my soul. On me alone.
The phantasmagoric character of Stephen’s vision was expressed by the key of this movement (E-flat minor), altered harmony and the presence of diminished intervals (dissonances) in the melody. This is an usual ressource of musical rethorics, which I’m very familiar with because of my long-term close relationship with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
2. A shout in the street
For this movement I chose Stephen’s cryptic fox riddle, and his famous frase about History:
The cock crew The sky was blue: The bells in heaven Were striking eleven. 'Tis time for this poor soul To go to heaven
She was no more(…) and on a heath beneath winking stars a fox, red reek of rapine in his fur, with merciless bright eyes scraped in the earth, listened, scraped up the earth, listened, scraped and scraped.
—History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
—That is God.
—A shout in the street(…)
The movement is written in a style inspired on Stephen Sondheim’s, in terms of the declamation of the words and its harmony. I was looking to depict irony. The underlying thread keeps being Stephen’s mother’s death. I consider her to be Hamlet’s/Stephen’s shakesperian ghost.
The third movement is based on Scylla and Charybdis’ mockery of the Catholic mass fragment:
He Who Himself begot, middler the Holy Ghost, and Himself sent Himself, Agenbuyer, between Himself and others, Who, put upon by His fiends, stripped and whipped, was nailed like bat to barndoor, starved on crosstree, Who let Him bury, stood up, harrowed hell, fared into heaven and there these nineteen hundred years sitteth on the right hand of His Own Self but yet shall come in the latter day to doom the quick and dead when all the quick shall be dead already.
He lifts his hands. Veils fall. O, flowers! Bells with bells with bells aquiring.
This was the first movement to be composed. Even being a miniature, it has a complex quaternary structure.
The beginning and the third section imitate Gregorian chants, harmonically accompanied by intervals of fifths, which was the only godly harmony in Middle Age. In the middle section, Con moto, the fifths are changed to sevenths and their inverted sisters, minor seconds (dissonances again!) to depict Crucifixion.
In the paroxysm of the movement, the original Gregorian chant of the Gloria is harmonized not with fifths, but with augmented fifths, which are commonly known as tritones (there are three whole steps inside this interval). In middle age musical rethorics this interval actually simbolized the Devil, and was called in Latin “diabolus in musica”.
The coda simbolizes church bells, and its inspired on the sixth movement of Franz Liszt's Christmas Tree suite Glockenspiel.
4. The morn is breaking
It’s based on the beginning of the Sirens episode:
Bronze by gold heard the hoofirons, steelyringing.
Chips, picking chips off rocky thumbnail, chips.
Horrid! And gold flushed more.
A husky fifenote blew.
Blew. Blue bloom is on the
Gold pinnacled hair.
A jumping rose on satiny breasts of satin, rose of Castile.
Trilling, trilling: Idolores.
Peep! Who’s in the… peepofgold?
Tink cried to bronze in pity.
And a call, pure, long and throbbing. Longindying call.
Decoy. Soft word. But look! The bright stars fade. O rose! Notes chirruping answer. Castile. The morn is breaking.
For this movement, I decided to go against the text, which is already obscure and complex, and went for a Habanera rythm with a very traditional harmony for the first section, and a musical-like second section. The ending is a romantic Adagio with big intervals in the melody and a jazzy harmony.
5. His heart was going like mad
This is the ending of the Ulysses and of Molly Bloom’s soliloqy:
and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
For Spanish people, it’s very controversial, to say the least, to consider Molly Bloom as Spanish, given the political conflict in Gibraltar. But this confusion gives me, a Venezuelan musician, the opportunity to showcase Spanish classical music at the Festival Bloomsday Montreal. In 2021 I played Isaac Albeniz Asturias during Molly Bloom’s soliloqy reading and sang two of Manuel de Falla Siete canciones españolas at the online concert.
It was in fact De Falla who inspired me to write this last movement in an “cultural appropriated Spanish-like” style (I take the opportunity to remind everyone that we, Latin Americans, are not Spaniards even when we share their language). So the whole Molly Bloom affair stylistically it’s what we Venezuelans would call “un arroz con mango”, which means something like a mango risotto.
*Venezuelan pianist and singer