Samuel Barber's "Nuvoletta"
"Nuvoletta" is a delightfully impish song adapted from the "Mookse and Gripes" section of Finnegans Wake. It is one of Barber's more complex songs, and like Joyce's text itself, the music is varied and colorful, skipping and whirling, coming to sudden stops, falling into a mock reverential hush and then suddenly breaking free -- much like the moods of Nuvoletta herself. Indeed, Barber called it "slightly ironic," and he even uncharacteristically quotes Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.
(1947; Allegretto, op. 25; From Finnegans Wake)
Nuvoletta in her lightdress,
spunn of sisteen shimmers,
was looking down on them,
leaning over the bannistars
and listening all she childishly could. . . .
She was alone.
All her nubied companions
were asleeping with the squirrels. . . .
She tried all the winsome wonsome ways
he four winds had taught her.
She tossed her sfumastelliacinous hair
like la princesse de la Petite Bretagne
and she rounded her mignons arms
like Mrs. Cornwallis-West
and she smiled over herself
like the image of a pose of a daughter
of the Emerour of Irelande
and she sighed after herself
as were she born to bride with Tristus
But, sweet madonine, she might fair as well
have carried her daisy's worth to Florida. . . .
Oh, how it was duusk!
From Vallee Maraia to Grasyaplainia,
A dew! Ah dew! It was so duusk
that the tears of night beagn to fall,
first by ones and twos,
then by threes and fours,
at last by fives and sixes of sevens,
for the tired ones were wecking,
as we weep now with them.
O! O! O! Par la pluie! . . .
Then Nuvoletta reflected for the last time
in her little long life
And she made up all her myriads
of drifting minds in one.
She cancelled all her engauzements.
She climbed over the bannistars;
she gave a childy cloudy cry:
A lightdress fluttered
She was gone.
The origin of the song is a long passage from Finnegans Wake, 157.8 to 159.10, which I reprint below, with the relevant text highlighted in red:
Nuvoletta in her lightdress, spunn of sisteen shimmers, was
looking down on them, leaning over the bannistars and listening
all she childishly could. How she was brightened when Should-
rups in his glaubering hochskied his welkinstuck and how she
was overclused when Kneesknobs on his zwivvel was makeact-
ing such a paulse of himshelp! She was alone. All her nubied
companions were asleeping with the squirrels. Their mivver,
Mrs Moonan, was off in the Fuerst quarter scrubbing the back-
steps of Number 28. Fuvver, that Skand, he was up in Norwood's
sokaparlour, eating oceans of Voking's Blemish. Nuvoletta lis-
tened as she reflected herself, though the heavenly one with his
constellatria and his emanations stood between, and she tried all
she tried to make the Mookse look up at her (but he was fore too
adiaptotously farseeing) and to make the Gripes hear how coy
she could be (though he was much too schystimatically auricular
about his ens to heed her) but it was all mild's vapour moist. Not
even her feignt reflection, Nuvoluccia, could they toke their
gnoses off for their minds with intrepifide fate and bungless
curiasity, were conclaved with Heliogobbleus and Commodus
and Enobarbarus and whatever the coordinal dickens they did
as their damprauch of papyrs and buchstubs said. As if that was
their spiration! As if theirs could duiparate her queendim! As if
she would be third perty to search on search proceedings! She
tried all the winsome wonsome ways her four winds had taught
her. She tossed her sfumastelliacinous hair like le princesse de la
Petite Bretagne and she rounded her mignons arms like Mrs
Cornwallis-West and she smiled over herself like the beauty of
the image of the pose of the daughter of the queen of the Em-
perour of Irelande and she sighed after herself as were she born
to bride with Tristis Tristior Tristissimus. But, sweet madonine,
she might fair as well have carried her daisy's worth to Florida.
For the Mookse, a dogmad Accanite, were not amoosed and the
Gripes, a dubliboused Catalick, wis pinefully obliviscent.
--I see, she sighed. There are menner.
The siss of the whisp of the sigh of the softzing at the stir of
the ver grose O arundo of a long one in midias reeds: and shades
began to glidder along the banks, greepsing, greepsing, duusk
unto duusk, and it was as glooming as gloaming could be in the
waste of all peacable worlds. Metamnisia was allsoonome coloro-
form brune; citherior spiane an eaulande, innemorous and un-
numerose. The Mookse had a sound eyes right but he could not
all hear. The Gripes had light ears left yet he could but ill see.
He ceased. And he ceased, tung and trit, and it was neversoever
so dusk of both of them. But still Moo thought on the deeps of
the undths he would profoundth come the morrokse and still
Gri feeled of the scripes he would escipe if by grice he had luck
Oh, how it was duusk! From Vallee Maraia to Grasyaplaina,
dormimust echo! Ah dew! Ah dew! It was so duusk that the
tears of night began to fall, first by ones and twos, then by threes
and fours, at last by fives and sixes of sevens, for the tired ones
were wecking, as we weep now with them. O! O! O! Par la
Then there came down to the thither bank a woman of no
appearance (I believe she was a Black with chills at her feet) and
she gathered up his hoariness the Mookse motamourfully where
he was spread and carried him away to her invisible dwelling,
thats hights, Aquila Rapax, for he was the holy sacred solem and
poshup spit of her boshop's apron. So you see the Mookse he
had reason as I knew and you knew and he knew all along. And
there came down to the hither bank a woman to all important
(though they say that she was comely, spite the cold in her heed)
and, for he was as like it as blow it to a hawker's hank, she
plucked down the Gripes, torn panicky autotone, in angeu from
his limb and cariad away its beotitubes with her to her unseen
shieling, it is, De Rore Coeli. And so the poor Gripes got wrong;
for that is always how a Gripes is, always was and always will be.
And it was never so thoughtful of either of them. And there were
left now an only elmtree and but a stone. Polled with pietrous,
Sierre but saule. O! Yes! And Nuvoletta, a lass.
Then Nuvoletta reflected for the last time in her little long life
and she made up all her myriads of drifting minds in one. She
cancelled all her engauzements. She climbed over the bannistars;
she gave a childy cloudy cry: Nuée! Nuée! A lightdress fluttered.
She was gone.
There are three commonly found recordings of "Nuvoletta," but I recommend the Cheryl Studer version on Secrets of the Old, a 2-disc set of Samuel Barber's complete songs. (It used to just be called "Samuel Barber -- The Songs Complete.") Not only is it performed beautifully -- Studer colors the song with the perfect amount of cheerful impetuousness -- but the collection contains all of Barber's Joycean songs. It is put out by Deutsche Grammophon and has the serial number 435 867-2.
You may listen to sound samples and/or purchase Samuel Barber CDs online from Amazon.com below:
Barber: Secrets of the Old --The Complete Songs (2 CD set)
$26.67; Samuel Barber / Audio CD / Released 1994
(Complete -- contains all nine Joycean songs!)
Barber: Songs / Roberta Alexander
$15.49; Samuel Barber(Composer), et al / Audio CD / Released 1992
(Three Songs, op. 10; "Nuvoletta")
Leontyne Price sings Barber: Knoxville, etc / Barber
$10.49; Samuel Barber(Composer), et al / Audio CD / Released 1994
(Three Songs, op. 10, No. 2 -- "Sleep Now," "Nuvoletta")
Chamber Music Songs -- These six songs are settings of poems from Chamber Music.
Solitary Hotel -- A song with lyrics adapted from Ulysses.
Now I Have Eaten Up the Rose -- This song is based on a James Joyce translation of a German poem by Gottfried Keller.
Fadograph of a Yestern Scene -- A short instrumental inspired from a line in Finnegans Wake.