In his program notes for Finnegans Wake: An Operoar, composer Martin Pearlman says that the Wake’s textual complexity may “be seen as a kind of mask, something that allows the characters to examine uncomfortable issues with an honesty and perseverance that would be much more difficult” in plain English. He then adds, “This language is generally abstract like music.” For me, the opening sounds of Pearlman’s music call each of us to don such a mask, at first “grave and awkward” like the one Adrienne Rich describes in “Diving Into the Wreck,”1 and to follow Joyce’s characters into their murky, muddied, emotional world. The notes pull us down through layers of time and bring us up again, reprising the effects of Finn’s rise and fall, almost like a comic version of descending to a place where we “breathe differently” together, in Rich’s words (23), where we each find our own recondite allusions, wrestle with our own feelings, and finally remind our own demons just to stay dead: “Now [End Page 789] be aisy, good Mr Finnimore, sir. And take your laysure like a god on pension and don’t be walking abroad” (FW 24.16–17).
The call to don and to follow begins slowly with the emerging sound of a cymbal that grows gradually louder, recedes, sounds again, yet louder, and again recedes. Next comes the rising sound of a viola and then a violin, climbing and leveling, taking their rhythm from the last line of the book, “[a] way a lone a last” (FW 628.15–16), until piano, flute, and double bass produce a sustained chord, and flourishes of bells, clarinet, vibraphone, piano, and more bells lead us to the riverrun and the versatile voice of our narrator, the actor Adam Harvey.2 Often the instruments support the expectations set by Joyce’s text as in the clash of cymbals before “wills gen wonts” and the martial percussion preceding and accompanying “[o]f the first was he to bare arms” (FW 4.01, 5.05). Sometimes sounds surprise as the music attains carnival speed or slows to the notes of a plaintive clarinet or even stops so that we experience silence, as happens, for example, after “a setdown secular pho enish” (FW 4.17). Occasionally, the only instrument is Harvey’s voice. What remains consistent, to my ear at least, is the recurring return to the rise and fall of the music, carried by a single instrument or several at once, until we return to some of the beginning sounds, with an emphatic chord following the words “Zee End” from the piano and a flute solo that sustains a long B note, then slowly descends and ascends, extending over an entire octave, and then “Finn no more!” (FW 28.29, 28.34).
To accept Pearlman’s new composition—several experienced listeners say that he has created a new musical form here—is to remain open to it, without what John Keats called an “irritable reaching after” immediate explication.3 For me, the test of a successful work is not that I understand everything in it on first or second hearing but that I want to return to it again and again, sometimes finding more than I had before. In fact, during my fourth experience of this piece, I heard five familiar notes from the opening of “Adeste, Fideles,” the eighteenth-century Christmas carol, just before Harvey speaks the words “dusty fidelios” (FW 6.25–26). But I have yet to hear a reference to Ludwig von Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, even though I realize it is also a part of this passage. I know I have missed many other references as well.
Pearlman’s work differs from other musical treatments of the Wake, such as Samuel Barber’s “Nuvoletta” and John Cage’s “Roaratorio,” in its arrangement of musical references and in the length of the treated text...