Old sweet song

In Brief

The other number on the "programme" for Molly's upcoming concert tour, "Love's Old Sweet Song," balances Mozart's lusty duet of sexual seduction with a sentimental celebration of enduring love. An English poet, G. Clifton Bingham, wrote the lyrics of this Victorian popular song, and the Irish composer James Lynam Molloy set them to music. Published in 1884 as sheet music, the song enjoyed great popularity in home parlors as well as on the concert stage.

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The song begins with low notes supporting a verbal picture of some vaguely ancient time when "mists began to fall" on the world, but even as it mentions the mists the musical line is rising in pitch. With "dreams that rose in happy throng," the music reaches a fourth above the beginning tonic ("dreams"), and then a fifth ("throng"). The feeling of happy confidence expressed in this rise continues into the beautiful melody of the chorus, where the fifth is attained twice more at "twilight" and "weary," and then surpassed by a soaring sixth on the second iteration of "twilight." The fifth returns once more at "old song," and the final line of the song reaches up to a climactic octave.

Once in the dear dead days beyond recall,
When on the world the mists began to fall,
Out of the dreams that rose in happy throng,
Low to our hearts Love sang an old sweet song;
And in the dusk where fell the firelight gleam
Softly it wove itself into our dream.

(Chorus)
Just a song at twilight, when the lights are low,
And the flick'ring shadows softly come and go;
Though the heart be weary, sad the day and long,
Still to us at twilight comes Love's old song,
Comes Love's old sweet song.


Even today we hear Love's song of yore,
Deep in our heart it dwells forevermore;
Footsteps may falter, weary grow the way,
Still we can hear it at the close of day;
So till the end, when life's dim shadows fall,
Love will be found the sweetest song of all.

(Chorus)

Zack Bowen argues that this song "tends to reenforce the image of the Boylan-Molly intimacy and is destined also to recur many times through the rest of the book, each time with the overtones of Molly's promiscuity" (Musical Allusions in the Works of James Joyce, 87). It is hard to imagine how he could think this. With its appeal to a past so distant that it can barely be remembered, its evocation of a dream that survives deep in the heart, its mention of a long sad day that leaves the traveler weary, and its tender promise that Love will ultimately "be found the sweetest song of all," Bingham's text seems tailor-made to suggest that an enduring love in the Blooms' relationship may overcome the transient flash of sexual excitement that Molly experiences with Boylan.

The texts and emotional registers of Là ci darem and Love's Old Sweet Song could not be more different. Bowen is certainly right, though, about their pairing and their pervasive presence in the novel (nine and twelve mentions, respectively). One cannot adequately read Ulysses without having the tunes of many songs run through one's brain whenever they appear in the text. These two in particular are so central that they could be called the theme songs of Ulysses. Their interplay initiates and sustains an uncertainty about the outcome of Molly's affair that carries into her monologue in Penelope.

When Bloom returns home in Ithaca, the piano in his parlor has a copy of Love's Old Sweet Song on the musicrest. Its title page lists not only the composer, the lyricist, and the key, but also "Madam Antoinette Sterling," an American contralto with a big, rich voice. Sterling gave many concerts in England in the 1870s and 80s, moving in her later years from oratorios and lieder to sentimental ballads like Molloy's. She was immensely popular.

In Penelope Molly hears a long train whistle whose "frseeeeeeeefronnnng" makes her think of "the end of Loves old sweeeetsonnnng." She is thinking of the last two syllables of the chorus: "sweet", given two simple eighth notes in the score, often lends itself to melismatic elaboration, and "song" occupies the space of a whole note. Many pages later she hears the train again and thinks of the song in more detail: "Frseeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeefrong that train again weeping tone once in the dear deaead days beyondre call close my eyes breath my lips forward kiss sad look eyes open piano ere oer the world the mists began I hate that istsbeg comes loves sweet sooooooooooong Ill let that out full when I get in front of the footlights again."

She is thinking, of course, about how she will perform the piece: the emotion she can communicate with her eyes and her lips, how she can get a "weeping tone" by lengthening the single syllable of "dead" into "deaead" over the course of a quarter note, the dotted rhythm of "days beyondre call" ("days" and "call" are longer notes, and "ond" and "re" are joined because they are both eighth notes), the difficulty of articulating all the clustered consonants of "mists began," the extended whole note of the final "song" (in the 3/4 time signature of the sheet music, a dotted half note tied to a quarter note with a fermata). Molly is an artist of some skill and refinement. She thinks later of how naturally Simon Dedalus sings two syllables, as opposed to the stupidity of Bartell Darcy: "sweetheart sweetheart he always sang it not like Bartell Darcy sweet tart." 

JH 2017
1910 sheet music of Love's Old Sweet Song, advertising performance by Madame Antoinette Sterling. Source: www.dustymusic.com.