We all know James Joyce as one of the great Irish writers. What we may not know is that he had a fine tenor voice, loved music and at one stage contemplated a career as a professional musician.
There was a legend that he was runner-up to John McCormack in the Dublin Feis in 1903 but that is untrue and has no foundation. Joyce got to know McCormack in 1904 and both men became friends.
Joyce spent many evenings practising with him and McCormack persuaded Joyce to enter for the Feis Cheoil of 1904. McCormack had won the gold medal himself the previous year.
Joyce hired a large room at 60 Shelbourne Road and hired a grand piano from the music shop Piggott’s. He was short of money. He paid the deposit on the piano but was advised that it could take six or seven weeks before Piggott’s would be in a position to seize the piano for non-payment of the instalments. Joyce reckoned that that gave him enough time to practise for the Feis.
The other problem was that it was customary for the person hiring instruments to pay the delivery men for their work. Joyce decided to be out when it arrived and arranged for an acquaintance to keep watch and tell him when it was safe to return. The piano was taken apart to get it into the house, re-assembled and then the delivery men waited. Eventually, their patience wore out, they left and Joyce returned. He had to borrow money from his fellow students to pay for singing lessons.
The only remaining problem was the entry fee for the Feis and he solved that issue by pawning his textbooks. Six weeks later Joyce took part in the Feis where he won the bronze medal. He had no further use for the piano.
Part of the competition consisted of singing a piece they had not seen before just from the sheet music. Joyce was not able to sight read music, threw away the sheet of manuscript and left the stage. This, in effect, meant that he could not win. The adjudicator, a gentleman named Luigi Denza – who wrote the music for Funiculi, Funicula – reportedly said that he would have had no problem giving the gold medal to Joyce were in not for the sight reading lapse. Joyce is supposed to have admitted later that he threw away the medal.
That almost spelt the end of Joyce’s musical career before it had really began but there was one more major outing, which could be said to be the highlight of his brief musical foray.
That August, a series of concerts was given in what is now Pearse Street in Dublin. They were held in association with the Irish Industrial Show and were continued during the Dublin Horse Show. The highlight was the Grand Irish Concert on the Saturday of Horse Show Week. In that concert the first tenor is listed as JF McCormack and the second tenor as JA Joyce. That concert marked the end of Joyce’s singing career and it could be said that he ended on a high.
The Grand Irish Concert when James Joyce joined John McCormack on stage took place on August 27, 1904 – 108 years ago this week.