Of all the unsingable books in the world, you might think James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake" must rank near the top -- close to the daily stock market listings or the Dublin telephone directory. Joyce's words are slippery and multilayered, in form and in meaning. They are tortured by alterations of spelling and sound, so that they often contain their own contradictions. They are utterly undisciplined in syntax; nouns are verbed unceremoniously, and proper names are transformed into improper slogans or hints of metaphorical dream landscapes.
But above all, "Finnegans Wake" is unsingable because it is its own music. Mostly, it is the music of a somnolent Irish voice drifting through a night of deep sleep and near-awakening and containing in itself myriad other voices: men and women of all ages, nationalities and historic or prehistoric periods; voices angry, ecstatic, agonized, weary, resigned; duets and choruses and endless, incoherent monologues. This is a book to be sipped slowly again and again, weighed and pondered, footnoted and catalogued. But sung? Set to music? Only if you could use the stars and planets as instruments for the accompaniment.
In spite of such daunting obstacles, Stephen Albert has managed the trick several times, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for music last year with one of those efforts: "RiverRun," which was given its premiere by the National Symphony Orchestra.
Last night at the National Academy of Sciences, National Musical Arts presented one of Albert's earlier and more modest efforts to set "Finnegans Wake" to music: "To Wake the Dead," for soprano and chamber ensemble, which dates from 1978. It is beautiful music, enormously varied in style and instrumental colors but unified in impact. Albert has cunningly approached his task, which looks as if it may absorb most of his career before he finishes finding gold in those pages. He does not try to take the book by storm or to encompass all its moods and flavors. Instead, he isolates a few of the many strands that Joyce has woven together and sets them in a special light. And by nuance and implication, in a cycle of six songs and an instrumental interlude, he evokes a substantial part of the book's themes and meanings.
The memory that lingers from this performance is one of melodic sweetness in many styles, including pure folk cadences, barroom ballads and angular but tonal contemporary style. One suspects that Joyce (who was himself a fine tenor and an intense if rather conservative music lover) might have enjoyed substantial parts of it. Highlights are many; perhaps the best is the final song, "Passing Out" -- sad and consoling in the same syllables and deeply evocative of the book's final pages, which lead into its rebirth.
The program opened with pop Beethoven: three of his many folk song settings, using Scottish melodies that made a curiously apt prelude to the Celtic twilight of "To Wake the Dead." When he set these songs for voice and piano trio, Beethoven was writing primarily for money, but his integrity can be heard in the gentle, idiomatic treatment of the timeless melodies. Both the Beethoven and the Albert works were exquisitely sung by soprano Carmen Pelton.
In the second half, cellist David Hardy played brilliantly in "Trois Strophes sur le nom de SACHER" of Henri Dutilleux -- a technically dazzling and thematically fascinating work that demands nearly everything that can be done on an unaccompanied cello. The program concluded with an idiomatic performance of Ernst von Dohnanyi's pleasantly old-fashioned Serenade, Op. 10, for string trio.