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Music and the Irish Imagination

Thierry Dubost
Alexandra Slaby

Writing Irish music

The Art of Irish Counterpointing: William Trevor’s “A Day”

Claire Majola-Leblond


This paper aims at understanding how the presence of a musical structure at work in a text can sharpen our understanding of words on paper and make our reading experience more intense. Counterpointing will be traced as an essential form in Irish music before being studied in relation to William Trevor’s “A Day”, a short story of betrayal, elusion and patient acceptance perspicuously written fugato.

Le but de cette étude de la nouvelle de William Trevor, « A Day », est de tenter de découvrir comment la conscience d’un mode d’écriture musicale à l’œuvre dans un texte peut aiguiser notre écoute et notre perception des mots sur le papier. Ainsi le contrepoint, forme essentielle quoique souvent secrète de la musique irlandaise, se révélera-t-il un précieux instrument d’analyse littéraire.

Texte intégral

  • 1 William Trevor, After Rain, London, Penguin, 1996. All references to this book are taken from this (...)

1Anyone faced with After Rain1 cannot but be amazed by the multiplicity of voices and perspectives, as well as by the complexity of their arrangement: successive viewpoints, overlapping discourses, perceptual embeddings, verbal pursuits, alternatively harmonious or dissonant. In music, the phenomenon is known as counterpoint and the term most readily comes to mind to try and give a formal account of recurrent stylistic choices undoubtedly motivated by the infinitely complex and painful web of generational interaction or love interplay to be found in Trevor’s short stories.

  • 2 I would like to thank here Micheline Planes, Professor of Harp at the National Music School in Anne (...)

2Yet, when one mentions counterpoint to Irish music specialists2 the reaction is more than often surprise. Traditional Irish music is not thought of as being contrapuntal; most airs, reels or jigs consist in two sections of eight measures each, which are repeated as many times as necessary for the purpose of the dance. They form an AA/BB structure sometimes to be found with an accompaniment which is harmonic, chordal, i.e. vertical (not horizontal or contrapuntal), as shown in the following example:

Traditional Irish music structure: extract from “Paddy Clancy’s Jig”

Traditional Irish music structure: extract from “Paddy Clancy’s Jig”
  • 3 André Hodeir, Les Formes de la musique, Paris, PUF, 1951, p. 44.
  • 4 Padrig Sicard, La Musique celtique, Rennes, Éditions Ouest-France, 1997, p. 8.

3This seems mainly due to the essentially traditional nature of Irish music, the importance of oral transmission and collecting of simple melodies, the accompaniment of which has been lost, or else never written… Yet, the “tune / turn” structure is to be linked to more elaborate forms like the “Cantus Firmus / Discantus” of the Organum3 or the “Antecedent / Consequent” of the Canon. The “kan ha diskan” of nearby Brittany offers another interesting addition with an overlapping structure: as Sicard explains, the singer (“kaner”) first sings a musical phrase which is then repeated by one or more additional singers (“diskaner”), each singer beginning on the last words of the preceding singer.4

  • 5 See in particular Hugues de Courson’s O’Stravaganza, EMI, 2003.
  • 6 The meeting may not have actually occurred, since Carolan’s Concerto, which is very unlike a concer (...)

4These remarks may look like an incongruous medley of notions belonging to many different spheres and ages. Yet chance meetings are often fertile in music! Thus, in the 18th century, Irish music and Italian baroque music met; in the 21st century some musicians pursue the adventure.5 The story begins with a supposed meeting between the blind harper Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738) and his Italian contemporary “Il Furibondo Geminiani” (1687-1762), who had settled in London in 1714 before moving to Dublin in 1733. Geminiani, who had heard about Carolan, is believed to have hidden an Irish tune in a piece of music he had specially composed for him; Carolan thought the melody to be “limping” and amended Geminiani’s music; Geminiani henceforth held Carolan a genius! Another more controversial anecdote has the two musicians meet at Lord Mayo’s, one of Carolan’s patrons; a friendly contest would have led Carolan to write his famous “Concerto”!6 The veracity of these stories ultimately matters little; what does matter is the authentic meeting of two musical forms. Derek Bell (1935-2002), a famous 20th-century harpist, testified, across space and time, to the importance of the encounter:

Did Carolan have enough talent to be a serious European Art composer?


On my second record [Carolan’s Favourite, Claddagh Records] I scored five numbers for harp and string orchestra. The slow ones for no other purpose than to carpet the harp, but the fast ones I wrote were elaborately contrapuntal. It was a joke of mine to try and perpetrate on the world something I thought Carolan would have come up with had he actually had such training. Beethoven is thought to have said that had Carolan had a European training, he could have become one of the greatest European composers.


If it’s arranged highly contrapuntal it can have as much value as Bach.7

5It took a harpist’s immense talent to bring out the true contrapuntal dimension of Irish traditional, harmonic music, for all to hear.

  • 8 See Erick Falc’her Poyroux, L’Identité musicale irlandaise, PhD thesis, université de Rennes II, 19 (...)

6Yet, the harp is not the only instrument emblematic of Ireland offering rich polyphonic possibilities; the uilleann pipes with their chanter and three regulators invent harmonic, but also rhythmical accompaniments to a melody, which can obviously develop along contrapuntal lines.8

  • 9 Pierre Petit explains this process in the “Fugue” article of Encyclopaedia Universalis and conclude (...)

7The intimately contrapuntal dimension of Irish music therefore seems more and more convincing a hypothesis, confirmed, if need be by the experience of any listener receptive to the complexity of improvisation and the inventiveness of dialogue between the different instruments involved in a session. If counterpoint, strictly speaking, is “horizontal”, in so far as it can be defined as the art of developing apparently independent melodic lines and combining them into a coherent whole which enhances the beauty of each line without sacrificing its singularity, it cannot be convincingly irreducibly opposed to harmony. Harmony developed thanks to counterpointing, when some musician in the High Middle Ages (when music was monophonic) decided to put together two (or more) monodies and had to organise their combination;9 harmony reads vertically the very score that counterpoint offers to read horizontally; and both combine into an equilibrium.

  • 10 Mikhail Bakhtine, Esthétique et théorie du roman [1975], Daria Olivier (trans.), Paris, Gallimard, (...)

8This double directionality of music could easily be associated to Jakobson’s double axis of language (paradigmatic and syntagmatic). Writing, like music, develops on a double plane, which is also a possible way of accounting for the polyphonic dimension of literature that Bakhtin was among the first to theorise, making ample use of musical vocabulary in his analysis,10 opening the path to Julia Kristeva’s work on intertextuality and the chora or Gilles Deleuze’s reflection on lignes d’erre (wandering lines) to name but two.

9The approach privileged here is one of métissage, close to Derek Bell’s in his arrangement of Carolan’s music or Hugues de Courson’s in O’Stravaganza, Vivaldi in Ireland. The idea is to make the underlying contrapuntal melodic lines of William Trevor’s “A Day” audible, to follow as precisely as possible the development of themes, voices and perspectives in order to sharpen our aural sensitivity to the polyphony of text. If counterpointing is a mode of writing, it necessarily relies on the listener’s perceptiveness and memory.

10“A Day”, as the title indicates, spans the small hours of the morning to the evening of a July day. It brings us into the complex mentalscape of an alcoholic woman, Mrs Lethwes, who, seven years before, during holidays spent in the South of France at Hôtel Saint Georges, had discovered that her husband had had an affair with a musician, Elspeth. The short story is composed of seven parts; the first one, divided in seven paragraphs is exemplary, as if specially designed to make us hear the seven notes of the selected musical scale. Three melodic lines can be identified, reality, imagination and memory. Four major themes can be heard, marriage and childhood (forte), adultery and alcoholism (piano). Space and time are structured around four poles. The bedroom, the Bunches’ garden, the Lethwes’ garden, Elspeth’s imagined home are the places of this exposition sequence; night, childhood’s distant past, the small hours of morning and the preceding evening provide the time beat. The perspective is also quaternary; a wide, sometimes ironical, narrative perspective combines with Mrs Lethwes’s limited and subjective perspective, Elspeth’s perspective as imagined by Mrs Lethwes and the perspective of Mrs Lethwes’s husband (who is always identified as such). Discourse is double-tongued: narrative discourse mingles with the characters’ free direct speech. Time is also double; alternately retrospective (and difficult to situate precisely on a calendar), and prospective (chronologically extremely precise: “chiming five”, “an hour and three quarters later”, p. 185). Linearity is nevertheless blurred by the constant use of the present tense and ING forms which create a sense of immediacy, and make scenes coming from a distant past or belonging to a hypothetical future intensely present and observable, adding an impression of depth pertaining to verticality. All those elements create a picture composed of superposed melodic lines; the text could easily be rewritten as a musical score for four voices and then performed so that the different perspectives become clearly audible (Mrs Lethwes’s, her husband’s, Elspeth’s, the narrator’s, each respectively identified as Mrs L, Mr L, E, N in the following diagram; the numbers in parentheses correspond to the paragraphs of the first part of the short story, p. 184-185).

  • 11 See the “Vivaldi” entry in Encyclopaedia Universalis.

11The contrapuntal nature of William Trevor’s writing has hopefully by now become fully apparent, overlapping perspectives and voices tracing horizontal and vertical lines in the text. And if the musician mentioned here is Vivaldi who is known to have given new impulse to the art of counterpointing,11 it cannot be mere chance.

12The architecture of the short story as described here will remain basically unchanged even if themes and perspectives are to be developed and combined in new ways. The place of remembering shifts from the Bunches’ courtyard to the terrace of Hôtel Saint Georges; waiting and transgression remain acutely relevant even if the objects are displaced; waiting for a brother has now become waiting for a husband and childish disobedience has turned into adult betrayal. The very theme of childhood takes on a new dimension with the development of the double motif of sterility and frustration, transforming a secondary element into a textual cornerstone. Sterility is what opposes Mrs Lethwes to her maid Marietta, creating a first contrapuntal structure. It also represents a rather complex and ambivalent link between Mrs Lethwes and her husband, potentially justifying her husband’s adultery in the eyes of the sterile wife. Lastly, the frustrated desire for a child turns into delirium when Mrs Lethwes imagines welcoming the daughter of her husband and his mistress, the latter being too busy as a professional musician to assume her role as a mother!

Why couldn’t it be? Mrs Lethwes wonders at ten past five when a film featuring George Formby comes to an end. Why couldn’t it be that he would come back this evening and confess there has been a miscalculation? “She is to have a child”: why shouldn’t it be that he might say simply that? And how could Elspeth, busy with her orchestra, travelling to Cleveland and Chicago and San Francisco, to Rome and Seville and Nice and Berlin, possibly be a mother? And yet of course, Elspeth would want this child, women do when they’re in love. Vividly, Mrs Lethwes sees this child, a tiny girl on a rug in the garden, a sunshade propped up, Mr Yatt bent among the dwarf sweet peas. And Marietta saying in the kitchen, “My, my, there’s looks for you!” The child is his, Mrs Lethwes reflects, pouring again; at least what has happened is half way there to what might have been if the child was hers also. Beggars can’t be choosers. (p. 194)

13The end of the fourth section sees this incredible scenario develop; the character’s despair and distress is equal to the amount of alcohol she has drunk, and the imaginary scene will only find a halt with the husband’s return from work in the seventh and last part, bringing the story full circle, back to its origin:

On the mottled worktop in the kitchen the meat is where Mrs Lethwes left it, the fat partly cut away, the knife still separating it from one of the chops. The potatoes she scraped earlier in the day are in a saucepan of cold water, the peas she shelled in another. Often in the evenings, it is like that in the kitchen when her husband returns to their house. He is gentle when he carries her, as he always is. (p. 197)

14Developing an ear for the contrapuntal dimension of literary writing is, paradoxically, considering the legendary rigorous nature of counterpoint, developing “free floating” reading, following textual diagonals to make different themes and motifs meet and create new meanings, change perspectives, trace a subject in its various modulations and developments. And unsurprisingly in the context of such writing techniques, music soon emerges as a thematic element of the short story in its own right. Vivaldi, Telemann and Mahler are part of the world Mrs Lethwes imagines to be her husband’s mistress’s, a world she can only enter via intellectual curiosity: “Once curious about the music a flautist plays, she read the information that accompanied half a dozen compact discs in a music shop. She didn’t buy the discs but, curious again, she borrowed some from the music section of the library and played them all one morning” (p. 187). If Mrs Lethwes stands in sharp antagonism to Elspeth, what is here expressed is also a deeply ambivalent desire to come closer. The dialectics of distance and proximity is also to be found in onomastics: Elspeth is the quasi anagram of Lethwes, seven letters in an inverted order at the beginning, showing opposition and difference (“p” replacing “w” for variation’s sake) while stressing proximity. Elspeth and Lethwes both include in their names Else and Lethe; one thematises otherness while the other thematises death and oblivion.

15Pictural references develop the same “subject / countersubject” in another tonality; Mrs Lethwes goes to a café called Le Trompe l’œil (p. 186), yet, when she tries to put back the “heart-leafed plants” she has rooted out by mistake in her garden, she knows “that this is not going to work” (p. 188). Furthermore, she imagines Elspeth to have in her flat the reproduction of Monet’s painting Field of Poppies; there can hardly be more radical a contrast between the extreme precision of “trompe-l’œil” and Impressionistic painting; and yet the double pictorial reference ensures tonal coherence. Counterpointing is all the more complex and subtle as Monet’s picture rather enigmatically represents the woman-child pair twice, once in the foreground, once in the background. Is it the same pair whose progression is depicted in the painting? If they are two separate pairs, do they not seem far away from each other to be sharing the same walk? Is it possible to read the painting as a representation of Mrs Lethwes’s desire to adopt Elspeth’s child, thus stepping into the foreground as substitute mother? Many interrogations, which open the contrapuntal structure onto an infinity of interpretations.

16Such micro-readings can trace multiple melodic lines which are as many variations on a “distance / link” theme eventually to be considered as the “subject / countersubject” of a free fugue. And even if our purpose cannot be here to superpose an extremely complex musical structure “punctus contra punctum” onto a writing structure, counterpointing seems to find its true dimension and meaning. Adultery and alcoholism are but symptoms of a flight from reality and it is most appropriate that the literary forms used to translate that should be structurally close to the musical fugue. The effectiveness of the transmission depends on the subtleness of the means used. The itinerary of the verb “know”, a key word in this short story, can be traced as an example. It is to be found for the first time at the end of the first part, signing awareness of a sincere interpersonal relation: “she says she’s sorry, knowing now” (p. 185). The second occurrence concerns the discovery of the adulterous relation: “There was a letter, round feminine handwriting on an airmail envelope, an English stamp: she knew at once. […] From the letter itself, which she read and then destroyed, she learned all there was otherwise to know” (p. 187). In a movement of inversion, knowledge becomes an individual issue, to be kept secret; rime and rhythm are emphatic: “He doesn’t know she knows; she hopes that nothing ever shows” (p. 190). The same idea is taken up again a few pages later, in a different perspective: “She knew she must never say she had discovered what she had. She knew she didn’t want him ever not to be there” (p. 195). Yet, when knowledge is not confronted to the Other, it becomes delirious. “His other woman has played her part although she never knew it; without his other woman there could not be a happy ending” (p. 195) is followed by “She knows it will happen tonight. She knows he will enter with a worry in his features […]” (p. 196); discourse is as blurred as consciousness, hesitating between free direct thought and free indirect thought, thereby showing the wanderings of the reflector’s subjectivity. It is only thanks to the subtleties of the fugue structure underlining the entire short story that the final cadence: “He is gentle when he carries her, as he always is” (p. 196) can be read in relation to the weaker cadence to be found at the end of the exposition page 185: “In another of her dreams during the night that has passed he carried her and his voice spoke softly, soothing her. Or was it quite a dream, or only something like one? She tries to smile; she says she’s sorry, knowing now”. There it opened on to new developing voices; here it works as a closure; the husband’s perspective, dominant in this passage, seems strangely peaceful; it is embedded both in the narrator’s, free of ironical overtones, and more surprisingly, in his wife’s: “her husband”, “their house”. The husband’s tenderness and the reconciliation of perspectives elsewhere dissonant turn this resignedly pragmatic gesture into a deeply felt ritual of love. It is thanks to this fugal echoing that something more than absurdity and despair can possibly be heard in the final section of the text.

17The blue note which, chromatically speaking, punctuates “A Day”: “her blue-quilted twin bed” (p. 184), “her blue dress light on her body” (p. 186), “her light-blue eyes” (p. 193), “opaque, blue to match the bathroom paint, the container she drinks from now is a tooth brush beaker” (p. 192), is undoubtedly to be metaphorically associated to the bluesmen’s “worried note” or the Irish musicians’ “long note”,12 a haunting note expressing and sublimating suspension, incompletion, and possibly distress.


18There lies the most precious dimension of music, making us sensitive to the intense positivism of the ineffable dimension of reality, to echo Vladimir Jankélévitch’s analysis:

  • 13 Vladimir Jankélévitch, Music and the Ineffable, Carolyn Abbate (trans.), Princeton, Princeton Unive (...)

The musical mystery is not “what cannot be spoken of”, the untellable, but the ineffable. […] From a negative that is unsayable to a positive that is ineffable is a distance that is as vast as that between blind shadow and transparent night, or between silence that is mute, throttled, and silence that is tacit, for music takes root in the distant rumour of pianissimo, the border of silence. The meaning of the meaning is ineffable truth. If one considers life itself, then the meaning of the meaning is nothing more than a lethal absurdity – that is to say, death. The meaning of the meaning released by music is a mystery of the positive.13

19There also lies the treasure of literature, when the suspension of explicitness opens up an immensity of silence and transparency, an infinite space for interpretation. William Trevor, when asked about his past as a sculptor, established the following connection with his present as a writer:

If you think of what sculptors do, especially sculptors like myself who actually worked as a carver, you carve away a huge amount of material. You throw it away and you’ll get, you’ll be left with the essence of what you want to do. Most of that chips go onto the floor, are just burnt. I write in exactly the same way.14

  • 15 Seamus Heaney’s words in “The Rain-Stick”, the opening poem of The Spirit Level, London, Faber and (...)

20Counterpointing is the ultimate result of this carving away; it is eventually up to the reader to weave the melodic lines together, a work of infinite patience and disquieting uncertainty. Then and only then might be heard “a music that you never would have known / To listen for”.15


1 William Trevor, After Rain, London, Penguin, 1996. All references to this book are taken from this edition.

2 I would like to thank here Micheline Planes, Professor of Harp at the National Music School in Annecy for her precious help. I take full responsibility for any remaining mistakes regarding the musical aspect of this study.

3 André Hodeir, Les Formes de la musique, Paris, PUF, 1951, p. 44.

4 Padrig Sicard, La Musique celtique, Rennes, Éditions Ouest-France, 1997, p. 8.

5 See in particular Hugues de Courson’s O’Stravaganza, EMI, 2003.

6 The meeting may not have actually occurred, since Carolan’s Concerto, which is very unlike a concerto formally speaking, is also known as Mrs Power.

7 “An Interview with Derek Bell” (

8 See Erick Falc’her Poyroux, L’Identité musicale irlandaise, PhD thesis, université de Rennes II, 1996, p. 43.

9 Pierre Petit explains this process in the “Fugue” article of Encyclopaedia Universalis and concludes on the essential balance in the story of Western music between horizontal and vertical writing, the inseparable nature of counterpoint and harmony.

10 Mikhail Bakhtine, Esthétique et théorie du roman [1975], Daria Olivier (trans.), Paris, Gallimard, 1978, p. 89.

11 See the “Vivaldi” entry in Encyclopaedia Universalis.

12 See “there is note bending. Bent or blue notes, called in Ireland ‘long notes’, play a vital part in Irish music” (I underline).

13 Vladimir Jankélévitch, Music and the Ineffable, Carolyn Abbate (trans.), Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2003, p. 72-73. Vladimir Jankélévitch, La Musique et l’ineffable, Paris, Seuil, 1983, p. 94: “Le mystère musical n’est pas l’indicible, mais l’ineffable. […] De la négativité indicible à la positivité ineffable la distance n’est-elle pas aussi grande que de la ténèbre aveugle à la nuit transparente, ou du silence muet au silence tacite? Car c’est dans la rumeur lointaine des pianissimos que la musique germera. Le sens du sens est donc une ineffable vérité. Si le sens du sens, quand il s’agit de la vie, est non-sens, – car le sens du sens de la vie n’est autre que l’absurdité létale, c’est-à-dire la mort, le sens du sens que la musique dégage est un mystère de positivité”.

14 “Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with the novelist William Trevor”:

15 Seamus Heaney’s words in “The Rain-Stick”, the opening poem of The Spirit Level, London, Faber and Faber, 1996.

Table des illustrations

Titre Traditional Irish music structure: extract from “Paddy Clancy’s Jig”
Fichier image/jpeg, 48k
Fichier image/jpeg, 72k


Claire Majola-Leblond is an Associate Professor at the université Jean Moulin-Lyon III where she teaches Irish literature and discourse analysis. She has a special interest in contemporary short stories and more generally in the relationship between writing and the arts, point of view in fiction and the aesthetics of reception. She wrote her PhD on the question of point of view in Dylan Thomas’s short stories and has published articles on J. M. Synge, B. MacLaverty, J. McGahern, D. Madden, C. McCann. She is currently working on William Trevor’s stories.

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