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Who Taught Molly to Say “Yes”?

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 48, Number 1, Fall 2010
pp. 156-161 | 10.1353/jjq.2010.0040

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Most versions of the Ulysses story have been diligently examined by Joyceans, but one that seems to have escaped close attention is Claudio Monteverdi’s opera Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, first performed in Venice in 1640. In a brief footnote appended to the revised biography, Richard Ellmann notes that Il Ritorno d’Ulisse ends with the word “sì” (the Italian for “yes”), but he dismisses the idea that this was in any way related to Molly Bloom’s final “Yes”: “It is probably only coincidence that Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse . . . ends with ‘Sì’” (JJII 516). Ellmann was thus able to maintain his contention that it was Lillian Wallace who supplied the final “yes,” when Joyce overheard her “repeating the word ‘yes’ over and over in different tones of voice” in the company of “a young painter” (JJI 531, JJII 516).

At first glance, this brusque dismissal of Il Ritorno d’Ulisse appears reasonable. Monteverdi’s style, built on recitatives and ariosi, seems an unlikely hunting ground for Joyce, who generally preferred the full-blooded arias of nineteenth-century opera. In any case, the operatic canon did not include Il Ritorno d’Ulisse during the years in which Joyce was writing Ulysses. The score was not published until 1922,1 and the earliest modern productions (both concert performances) were Vincent d’Indy’s in Paris (1924) and Charles Van den Borren’s in Brussels (1925). D’Indy gets a reference in Finnegans Wake—“dindy dandy sugar de candy” (FW 92.20)—but there is no evidence that Joyce knew of him (or of his interest in Monteverdi) prior to the publication of Ulysses.

Closer inspection suggests, however, that Ellmann’s dismissal of Il Ritorno d’Ulisse as a source for the final word of Ulysses may have been unduly peremptory. By restricting his attention to the last word of each text (the novel and the opera), he neglected the extent to which, in the closing stages, both give increasing emphasis to their respective affirmatives. The recurrence of “yes” increases exponentially in the last few pages of “Penelope,” while “sì” appears no fewer than forty-six times in the final duet between Ulysses and Penelope—an extraordinary achievement given that Monteverdi and his librettist, Giacomo Badoaro, had just nineteen lines in which to accumulate copies of the word.2

As for the assumption that Joyce preferred the nineteenth-century opera repertoire, his taste evidently broadened once he left Dublin. On more solemn occasions, he appreciated older music. John McCourt notes that, in Trieste, “Joyce sang just about everything from Gregorian liturgical chants . . . to Triestine drinking songs,” and he adds that Joyce’s love of chants was almost certainly inspired by his friend Romeo Bartoli, a respected teacher and choirmaster, and “a renowned expert in old music”—Monteverdi’s included.3 Another early favorite of Joyce’s was Henry Purcell (1659–1695). According to George Antheil, “Joyce’s madness was opera, preferably . . . Purcell,”4 and in 1919 Joyce unsuccessfully recommended Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas (first staged in 1689) for a performance at Zurich’s Municipal Theatre (JJII 454). Older and more solemn still is the brief passage from Monteverdi’s Orfeo that Max Meili, a renowned Zurich tenor, sang at Joyce’s funeral (JJII 742). The passage in question was “Addio terra, addio cielo,” the final line of the recitative prompted by Orfeo’s first loss of Euridice.5 It seems likely that this music was selected because Joyce had admired it, and he may have chosen it himself. If so, it seems reasonable to suppose that he also admired Monteverdi’s other operas.6 Suddenly the suggestion that he borrowed from the final duet of Il Ritorno d’Ulisse begins to look much more plausible.

There remains, however, a substantial obstacle in the path of this hypothesis: how did Joyce become familiar with the opera before 1922 if it was first published in that year and given its first modern performance in 1924? To answer this question, we need to examine the rehabilitation of Monteverdi’s operas in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

The musicologist who did the most to rescue Monteverdi from neglect...

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