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Music and the Irish Imagination

Thierry Dubost
Alexandra Slaby

Writing Irish music

Frame and Flow in Words and Music by Samuel Beckett and Morton Feldman

Pascale Amiot et Emmanuel Amiot


A product of the close collaboration between a literary critic and a music theorist, this essay explores the ways in which Samuel Beckett’s radio play, Words and Music (1962), combines a static and formalised compositional frame and a process of flow. It then analyses the solutions contrived by Morton Feldman, the musician of flow, to accommodate to the Beckettian frame, thus solving what the playwright calls the “formidable and perhaps insurmountable problems” set by the piece. It eventually foregrounds the profound unity that characterises the Wordman’s and the Noteman’s scores in the 1987 version of the play.

Fruit de la coopération entre une critique littéraire et un spécialiste d’analyse musicale, cette étude à quatre mains explore la manière dont Words and Music, pièce radiophonique écrite par Samuel Beckett en 1962, conjugue un cadre compositionnel extrêmement statique et formalisé et un processus de flux. Elle s’intéresse ensuite à la manière dont Morton Feldman, le musicien du flux, s’accommode du cadre Beckettien et relève les défis techniques et esthétiques posés aux compositeurs. Elle met enfin en lumière l’unité profonde qui lie les Mots de Beckett et la Musique de Feldman dans la partition de 1987 de la pièce.

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Extrait du texte

To where…
Towards where…
To whence one glimpse
Of that wellhead.1

In 1995, John Minihan, the Irish artist, published a beautiful book of photographs of Samuel Beckett, the most famous of which were taken at London Riverside Studios in 1984, during the rehearsal of Waiting for Godot.2 Two of them show the writer as musician, waving his arms in space as if he were conducting an invisible orchestra; the antepenultimate shot is entitled “Samuel Beckett enjoys a glass of Guinness at listening to traditional Irish music”.

Samuel Beckett’s lifelong passion for music is a well-known fact. A keen interpreter himself – he especially enjoyed playing Haydn’s piano Sonatas –, he took a deep interest in the work of Schubert, Beethoven, Bartók and Debussy. References to music are legion in his writings; as Mary Bryden points out in her excellent Samuel Beckett and Music, “in addition to overt citations of composers […] there is to be found in Beckett’s work a wealth of explicit allusions to the c...


Pascale Amiot is a Professor of Irish literature at the université de Perpignan Via Domitia. She is the author of a doctoral thesis on the poetry of Austin Clarke and has published articles on Oscar Wilde, Austin Clarke, Seamus Deane, Seumas O’Kelly, Flann O’Brien, Eavan Boland, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanain, Paula Meehan and Medbh McGuckian, among others. She edited Irlande: insularité, singularité? (Perpignan, Presses universitaires de Perpignan, 2001); L’Autobiographie irlandaise: voix communes, voix singulières (Caen, Presses universitaires de Caen, 2004); and Déclinaisons de la voie: avoiement, dévoiement, fourvoiement (Perpignan, Presses universitaires de Perpignan, 2006). In 2011, she published Les Métamorphoses de “Sweeney” dans la littérature irlandaise contemporaine (Caen, Presses universitaires de Caen). She is a member of the board of directors of Études irlandaises and vice-president of the Société française d’études irlandaises.

Emmanuel Amiot teaches mathematics in Classes Préparatoires in Perpignan. After studying mathematics (ENS Saint-Cloud) and music (Conservatoire de Nice), he defended his PhD in computer science. A founding member of the Society for Mathematics and Computation in Music, he has been researching the cutting edge of mathematical music theory, with contributions on periodic rhythms as well as scale theory, covering musical topics ranging from Bach to contemporary composers. He gives lectures in Europe (IRCAM, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Italy), Canada and the USA (American Musical Society and Society for Music Theory Conventions). He is a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Mathematics and Music.

© Presses universitaires de Caen, 2013

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