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A Dominant Boylan: Music, Meaning, and Sonata Form in the "Sirens" Episode of Ulysses

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 45, Number 1, Fall 2007
pp. 85-96 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0030

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The great majority of scholarship dealing with "Sirens" has used as a starting point the de facto assumption that the eleventh episode of Ulysses follows the form of a fugue. This assumption, though understandably derived from Joyce's own descriptions, is problematic for a number of reasons, both musical and extramusical. Specific evidence supporting Joyce's use of the fugal form is, however, largely superficial. There may be allusions to contrapuntal forms, but there is little structural basis for employing such forms to explain the episode.

Many critics have approached the subject. Stuart Gilbert famously argues that the episode takes the form of a fugue, most specifically the "fuga per canonem" that Joyce suggested in the Linati schema and a form that could be thought of as a more rigid, precisely constructed version of a fugue.1 Don Noel Smith describes "Sirens" as one part of a broad sonata form encompassing the whole novel.2 Zack Bowen rightly points out that were the episode truly a fugue, it would not begin with such a clear overture as it does.3 While the fugue is often accompanied by a prelude, thematic linkages between the two are rare and certainly not as explicit as those made by Joyce. The introduction to "Sirens" is a literal distillation of the episode to come, a formal feature wholly absent from the fugue.

The "Sirens" episode has also been widely compared to an operatic overture.4 Given Joyce's famous love of vocal music, as well as the clear function of the leitmotif in the episode, this seems a sensible reading. To have an operatic overture preceding a fugue, however, is problematic. Though Bowen is not to be wholly discredited in his careful statement that "the Sirens chapter [cannot] be limited to one musical form exclusively,"5 the first sixty-three lines of "Sirens" could be much more effectively incorporated into the structure of the episode as the introduction to a symphonic movement in sonata-allegro form.

Principal musical themes are often presaged or alluded to in fragmentary form over the course of an expansive introduction before they are stated explicitly at the beginning of the exposition. Ludwig van Beethoven, a true master of the sonata form, often precedes the exposition with a protracted introduction. Consider, for example, the Adagio molto section of his Second Symphony or the Poco sostenuto introduction to his Seventh Symphony. While both orchestral pieces stand as clear models of classical sonata form, they do not begin with explicitly expository material. It is to great works like these that scholars turned in crafting the definitions of form, and they certainly allowed for these broad introductory sections. This plan works quite satisfactorily, much more so than the awkward melding of operatic overture and fugue.

Several critics, including Gilbert and A. Walton Litz, have pointed out the presence of "Wagnerian" leitmotifs, such as Blazes Boylan's "jingle" (U 11.15).6 While such readings are all insightful and defensible, they fail to establish a connection between form and meaning. Though there are fugue-like elements in "Sirens," especially the presence of three independent but interlocking voices, it is not clear how this supports the development of Joyce's characters. One must also ask whether three independent voices necessarily establish a fugue. Musically, they do not. It is only the specific way in which they can be made to interact that defines the fugal form. In one of the few notable protests to the fugal reading of the episode, Harry Levin argues that "the strict treatment of canon is unsatisfied, for there is an unlimited amount of variation. Polyphonic prose . . . is rarely more than a loose metaphor."7 For this reason, the fugue is not a form that invites adaptation into literature. Its defining features are specifically musical, and it lacks the conceptual and developmental aspects that music and literature naturally have in common. It is something of a stretch to suppose that a literary subject might be "transposed" to a different pitch level, while, at the same time, remaining recognizable and identifiable within a complex polyphonic texture. Without these essential processes, a literary passage cannot function as a fugue in any truly essential way...

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