The testimony of James Joyce's contemporaries and his biographers demonstrates how thoroughly imbued his life was with music. Raised in Dublin in the household of his father's much respected tenor voice, he sang all his life. He attended musical events even when nearly penniless; he communicated with family and friends through song. Of all music, he favored opera especially. The famous story of James's rapprochement with his father underscores music's importance, as does the role of James's singing and piano playing at the deaths of his mother and of his brother George. That music, especially opera, should occupy a major part in his writing comes as no revelation.
Mozart's much-beloved opera Don Giovanni figures prominently in Ulysses. Critics traditionally have seen this in terms of the roles played by the novel's characters, as mythic figuration. The role of the opera, however, may also be seen structurally, semiotically, and as representing the central themes of Joyce's novel—in short, as a complex intertextual presence, audible through the entire book and completed in Molly's final words.
The Reception of Don Giovanni in Joyce's Day
Opera at the turn of the twentieth century was found in every major European city and many provincial centers as well, including Dublin, Trieste, Zürich, and, of course, Paris. In most cities this entertainment served all classes; amateur as well as professional musicians learned arias and piano reductions of a wide range of operas. The most enduring of all operas was Mozart's Don Giovanni. It played regularly in Dublin during Joyce's youth, especially around its 1887 centenary. According to Joyce's biographers, Don Giovanni was not staged during Joyce's Trieste years, but Zürich saw several productions, including the 1917 collaboration of Richard Strauss conducting with Elisabeth Schumann as Zerlina.1
The influence of Mozart's opera on successive generations of composers was profound.2 Rossini, Gounod, Tchaikovsky, and Debussy all adored Mozart; Wagner cited the Overture to Don Giovanni as the paradigm of operatic overtures; Beethoven and Chopin wrote early chamber works as [End Page 383] variations on the Là ci darem duet so well known to Ulysses readers. A Mozart renaissance—"zurück zu Mozart"—arose in the first decade of the 1900s, led by Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, among others.3 Ferruccio Busoni, whom Joyce met only once but whose work he knew through his neighbor Phillip Jarnach, was particularly devoted to Mozart. His 1917 opera Arlecchino quotes the music of Don Giovanni, albeit with words from the fifth canto of Dante's Inferno—the same canto Stephen Dedalus recalls during "Aeolus."4
Although Don Juan was originally an early seventeenth-century Spanish Counterreformation morality play, its most prominent literary form before Mozart was Molière's play of 1665. Lorenzo da Ponte drew on Tirso da Molina's Spanish as well as Molière and other subsequent Italian plays to create the libretto for Don Giovanni. Mozart's opera subsequently led to a dazzling outpouring of literary efforts.5 Don Giovanni/Don Juan became an heroic figure, as seen in the works by many of the best-known writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: E. T. A. Hoffmann (who called it the Oper aller Opern), Byron, Mérimée, Balzac, Dumas, de Musset, George Sand, Baudelaire, Valéry, Flaubert, Pushkin, Sacher-Masoch, and Shaw. Goethe himself claimed to have seen Don Giovanni sixty-eight times. It was the favorite opera of figures as diverse as Freud and Shaw, the latter of whom measured singers and operas against it. Though not based primarily on Mozart, Byron's comic and satiric epic poem Don Juan, which also uses Homer's Odyssey as a structural device, was well known to Joyce, his copy heavily underlined.6 The first two decades of the twentieth century saw at least sixty-six new versions of the Don Juan story, including one by D'Annunzio and two by Apollinaire, one of them frankly pornographic. Joyce copied French words from a pseudonymous "Flip" in La Vie Parisienne, as Rodney Wilson Owen has shown.7