Into the choir

Into the choir

In Brief

In Lotus Eaters Bloom thinks that his scheme of "getting Molly into the choir," probably at St. Xavier's church near his home, failed because the priest he asked for help saw through him. In Penelope Molly adds that "the jesuits found out he was a freemason"—a secular spiritualist at best, at worst perhaps even a Protestant. But the Jesuits might have had a different reason for rejecting Bloom's request: in 1903 the pope had argued that women should not be allowed to sing in church choirs, and many churches had complied. The pope saw this as a return to the good old days when only boys or castrated men could sing the high parts.

Read More

Joyce had already spotlighted this issue in The Dead, where Kate Morkan bitterly remarks that her sister Julia "was simply thrown away in that choir. But she never would be said by me":

     — No, continued Aunt Kate, she wouldn't be said or led by anyone, slaving there in that choir night and day, night and day. Six o'clock on Christmas morning! And all for what?
     — Well, isn't it for the honour of God, Aunt Kate? asked Mary Jane, twisting round on the piano-stool and smiling.
    Aunt Kate turned fiercely on her niece and said:
    — I know all about the honour of God, Mary Jane, but I think it's not at all honourable for the pope to turn out the women out of the choirs that have slaved there all their lives and put little whipper-snappers of boys over their heads. I suppose it is for the good of the Church if the pope does it. But it's not just, Mary Jane, and it's not right.
Kate is alluding to a 22 November 1903 edict from Pope Pius X issued motu proprio, on his own behalf, but of course carrying great authority. Like the 16th century efforts to outlaw polyphony that led to Palestrina's composition of the "mass for pope Marcellus," Pius' Inter sollicitudines ("Among the concerns") was an effort to purify liturgical music; he wrote that all instruments but organs and all voices but male ones should be eliminated. As Gifford notes by quoting from the letter, the ban relied on the principle that only men could hold ecclesiastical office: "Singers in churches have a real liturgical office, and...therefore women, as being incapable of exercising such office, cannot be admitted to form part of the choir or of the musical chapel. Whenever, then, it is desired to employ the acute voices of sopranos and contraltos, these parts must be taken by boys, according to the most ancient usage of the church."

Of course, the church had another "most ancient usage" for obtaining high voices, one which Bloom recalls a bit later in Lotus Eaters: "Still, having eunuchs in their choir that was coming it a bit thick." Eunuchs were employed in Byzantine church choirs from the 5th century until the sack of Constantinople in the early 13th. Catholic Italy and France too started using castrati in the 16th century, and they sang in the Sistine Chapel until 1903. In the 1589 papal bull Cum pro nostro pastorali munere Pope Sixtus V specifically declared that eunuchs must be included in the choir of St. Peter's church in Rome. It was his way of assuaging popular demand for female voices to sing the lovely high notes. Women had long been banned from church choirs on the authority of St. Paul ("mulieres in ecclesiis tacesant": "in churches women should keep silent"), and in 1588 Sixtus had banned them from opera houses and other musical stages as well. But the public wanted what it wanted, so some testicles had to go.

To the argument that only men can hold liturgical office one might reply that singers are not exactly officers and eunuchs and boys are not exactly men; one might also register dismay that the transgender surgeries so repellent to religious conservatives today were for centuries promoted by papal edict. But Sixtus and Pius would shrug off such contradictions. What these princes of the church cared about was misogyny: women must not be allowed to invade the sacred temple of male privilege. In The Dead Joyce lodged a dignified feminist objection: just imagine, the outraged Kate says, "elevating little whipper-snappers of boys over" grown, capable women! Ulysses glances back at this turmoil in the quietest possible way: Bloom's wife is kept out of the choir and he does not even seem aware of the church's benighted policy.

In addition to keeping women in their place, Pope Pius apparently also wanted to purify church music, making it more spiritual. Bloom, in stark contrast, cares for churches only as places where glorious music may be commissioned and performed: "Some of that old sacred music is splendid. Mercadante: seven last words. Mozart's twelfth mass: the Gloria in that. Those old popes were keen on music, on art and statues and pictures of all kinds. Palestrina for example too. They had a gay old time while it lasted." Molly may have been refused a spot in the choir at St. Xavier's, but she once landed a solo performance in that church: "Molly was in fine voice that day, the Stabat Mater of Rossini. Father Bernard Vaughan's sermon first. Christ or Pilate? Christ, but don't keep us all night over it. Music they wanted. Footdrill stopped. Could hear a pin drop. I told her to pitch her voice against that corner. I could feel the thrill in the air, the full, the people looking up: / Quis est homo." Molly has a thrilling full voice, as Kate's sister Julia once did, and the church has given her the opportunity to turn it loose on the operatic splendor of Rossini's Stabat Mater. Next to this, papal pronouncements on female inferiority are fluff in a gale.

JH 2022
Helena Carroll (center) as Kate Morkan in John Huston's film The Dead.
Source: scrapsfromtheloft.com.