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‘Communicating by intervals’: the Music of Sounds and Silences in Samuel Beckett’s How it Is

Samuel Beckett has a perennial association with music. Being an accomplished pianist and having an acute musical knowledge, it seems unreasonable that he should keep music and literature as separate, ‘distinct genres’ in his oeuvre. I wish to analyse the potentiality for a musical reading of Beckett’s text, paying attention to instances where the arrangement and environment of his words could be seen to behave musically. How does the careful use of sound and silence within his text extend his communication with the reader? I will address notions of time, context and meaning in How It Is, with reference to other works that Beckett used alongside the writing of his novel, so as to decipher the extent to which musical qualities and composition can be uncovered within the structuring and syntax of the work.

For Beckett, music appears as a communicative key to extend that which is largely inexplicable with words alone. Music’s inveterate involvement with Beckett’s childhood reflects in How It Is - a work that aims to synthesize and contrast temporal perspectives of innocence, sexuality and memory:

‘Music is the Idea itself, unaware of the world of phenomena existing ideally outside of the universe, apprehended not in space but in time only and consequently untouched by the teleological hypothesis.’

As with many of Beckett’s works, How It Is gives further attention to Cartesian perceptions of the dualism between the inner and outer self. The narrative voice is notably important in this work as the stream of consciousness emanating from the first-person protagonist is the only voice and our only source of information. This contrasts with other works where Beckett has designated music ‘a prominent role’, instigating ‘direct competition’ between the sounds and the words, such as in Words and Music. How It Is uses repetition and pause within the protagonist’s dialogue to reference different characters and temporal scenes within the narrative.

‘you are there somewhere alive somewhere vast stretch of time then it’s over you are there no more alive no more then again you are there again alive again it wasn’t over an error you begin again all over more or less in the same place or in another as when another image above in the light you come to in hospital in the dark’

The first-person perspective of the protagonist is consistent throughout the novel and the reader is confronted with the ‘difficulty experienced by […] the protagonist of How It Is in determining whether the voice within is identical to that without’ – a notion demonstrated musically in Beckett’s well-loved 7th Symphony of Beethoven (Algretto, Third Sonata), where the call and response of two octaves – one piano and the other fortissimo – is emblematic of the dialogues between the inner and outer voice:

‘The rhythmic pattern […] is played relentlessly, either in three parts, or in only one, then in all parts together. It appears first in the lower strings , […] played piano, then is repeated soon after in a pianissimo full of melancholy and mystery. From there [..] rises from octave to octave, reaches the first violins who then pass it in a crescendo […] where it bursts out in its full force. […] Conflicting rhythms clash painfully with each other; these are tears, sobs and supplications, this is the expression of limitless grief and all-consuming suffering… But [...] these heartbreaking sounds are followed by a transparent melody, pure, simple, gentle, sad and resigned like patience smiling to suffering.’

Breath is particularly important when reading How It Is as it is suggestive of a wavering sense of rationality. The syntax of the language produces a performative process when read aloud, as it restricts the reader’s space to breathe. The protagonist ‘emits a stream of grammatically incomplete phrases punctuated only by gaps in the page’, and it is then the choice of the reader to contribute their own stresses and pauses which are, for the most part, likely to be determined by the reader’s breath. Catherine Laws’ analysis of Richard Barrett’s Ne songe pas à fuir highlights the importance of the body and breath in music, drawing comparisons between the upward and downward bowing on a violin ‘to imply inhalation and exhalation’. Furthermore, ‘instances of heavy bow pressure or the bow grinding to a sudden halt are inevitably suggestive of strangulation (ibid.), or at least running out of breath.’ In correspondence with Donald McWhinnie, Beckett explains that as the protagonist expresses his inner feelings, ‘the noise of his panting fills his ears and it is only when this abates that he can catch and murmer forth a fragment of what is being stated within’. Beckett details how he wished for Pat Magee to ‘gasp it out very short of breath, into a microphone. It is thought that he wished for the paragraphs not to be spoken very loudly and for breath to fall between the paragraph breaks, causing the words between the breaks to be murmured and full of natural panic. The sound of breathlessness interferes largely when reading the text orally, a symptom that intentionally adds further depth to the meaning of the words. Beckett deliberately invites the reader to perform the text whilst reading, encouraging them to consider their own body in line with the text and thus place themselves within a narrative that focusses on spaces between exhalation and inhalation; chaos and order; life and death.

Beckett will often allude to a sense of musicality by careful arrangement of numerical structures within his choosing of words and syntax. The absence of punctuation creates space for a very strict and measured sense of rhythm, which can be understood as the reason why the work possesses an inherent orality. Just as the Frog Song in the hyper-rationalist novel Watt lends itself to theistic interpretations by virtue of its use of the Fibonnaci sequence in the construction of the music, How It Is is also structurally designed to suggest certain theological lineages. The recurrence of the number ‘3’ resonates with a multitude of musical, literary and philosophical references. In Words and Music (which examines notions of theology), many instances in which the ‘Lord’ speaks are accompanied by multiplex dissonant occurrences of the tri-tone (sometimes referred to as ‘the Devil’s interval’)– perhaps one of music’s most subversive intervals by cause of its associations with the devil and antitheism. The tri-tone, then, as an interval of three notes, could be aligned with heteroglossial voices within Beckett’s narratives in both Words and Music and How It is, and perhaps even the differing, simultaneous voices of the Holy Trinity. Morton Feldman’s dominant use of shrill variations of the tri-tone in Neither is congruous with this idea. We get a deafening sense of uncertainty in Words and Music, where the characters are swamped by the disorientating effects of Biblical interpretation, and where all questions seem ‘unanswerable’:

‘what is this love […] what is this soul […] Love of woman, I mean, if that is what my Lord means. […] [Faltering] Age is… age is when… old age I mean… if that is what my Lord means…’.

This sense of uncertainty is echoed in How It Is, where the lack of caesura or pause in the frantic dialogue of the protagonist’s voice creates a stream of consciousness, ceaselessly spewing rhetorical and inconclusive speculations:

‘always understood everything except for example history and geography understood everything and forgave nothing never could never disapproved anything even cruelty to animals never loved anything’.

It is with such suggestions that Beckett draws on the gnostic dichotomy of religion; of the differing images of physical truth and spiritual truth. It’s worth observing, then, that the entirety of How It Is is split into three parts, resonating with Beckett’s description of the trilogy of ‘Time’, ‘Habit’ and ‘Memory’ in Proust, aligning with the temporal structure of the work which exists in three separate accounts depicting the past, present and future. Thus, it is significant again that Beckett’s favourite of Beethoven’s Symphonies, Number 7, often features ternary forms (forms of three) and its third part, the allegretto, is based on an Austrian pilgrim’s hymn which illustrates the memory of a spiritual journey.

Further to the reading of the number ‘3’ as a significant figure in the work, it can be linked intertextually to Dante Aghlieri’s Inferno, which is said to have influenced Beckett’s work along with other modernist writers such as James Joyce and T.S Eliot. There are three parts to Dante’s Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio & Paradiso. Similarly in How It Is, the work is in three parts. ‘The first, a solitary journey in the dark and mud terminating with discovery of a similar creature known as Pim, the second life with Pim both motionless in the dark and mud terminating with departure of Pim, the third solitude motionless in the dark and mud.’ The mud in which the scene is set is a recurring symbol of death within Beckett’s oeuvre, not to mention a depiction of an intermediate space, again lending itself to Cartesian concepts that consider the dualistic brink of ontological existence. It is understandable then that the work can be read as a display of purgatory – the stillness and chaos of limbo – aligned with the Wrathful brink of the fifth circle of Hell in The Inferno, where ‘muddy people in that bog… gurgle in their throat, for they cannot get the words out plainly.’

`”We, though, within ourselves nursed sullen fumes,

and come to misery in this black ooze.”

That is the hymn each gurgles in his gorge,

unable to articulate a single phrase.’

Beckett intelligently chose to instil an absence of punctuation in the work, as it disassembles our established understanding of how to read a fictional work of literature in that it fragments notions of temporal progression and enforced an ‘[abandonment] of linear argument’.

‘Narrative time, even dechronologized, is “the extended duration between beginning and ending.” [25] In How It Is, the absence of definable sentences dissolves any narrative sequence or linear time. This disallows any beginnings or endings, thereby denying a coherent plot or synthesis of roles [26] – hence the reason Pim, Bom, the narrator, and the others meld into each other at one time or another: “me Pim you Pim we Pim but me Bom you Pim something very wrong there.[27]’

This means we are challenged when approaching the reading of the novel as a traditional left-to-right/start-to-finish process – the work begins to take the form of a musical score, where repeat signs , simile marks and volta brackets urge the reader’s attention to dart this way and that on the score, just as Beckett urges us to with his use of repetitive motifs and phrases. The protagonist even hints this to the reader:

‘that cognizance of the present communication be taken backward and once studied from left to right its course be traced from right to left no objection.'

Ceaseless, unrestricted language that appears in fragmented paragraphs detailing disjointed impressionistic glimpses of time is implicative of a collection of diary entries. This is likely to be drawn from the fact that Beckett was reading The Black Diaries of Roger Casement during the period in which How It Is was written. Casement was an Irish-born civil servant, poet, activist and Irish Nationalist who was executed for treason in 1916. The diary entries feature dislocated moments in Casement’s life, mirrored on the page by various notes. The juxtaposition of brief heartfelt expressions of emotion and mundane jottings which depict minor day-to day calculations of expenditure and other practical memoirs read like an abstract and non-linear demonstration of the course of his life. Beckett was interested in the document both politically and artistically, and the sense of otherness and isolation surrounding Casement can be readily applied to the protagonist of How It Is:

‘Hell, it would seem for both Casement and Beckett’s narrator, is a manmade condition produced with the illusion of being contained to locations not always in close proximity to home. Once the illusion is dispelled, however, there was very little distance “from hell to home to hell”.’

Similar to the protagonist in How It Is, Casement’s Otherness saw him trapped in a kind of purgatory, constantly escaping the scorn that accompanied his sexuality, occupation and heritage. Beckett and his wife Suzanne were avid followers of French politics, and the torturous atrocities in the Congo and India witnessed and documented by Casement in his diaries clearly had an impact on Beckett’s writing:

‘Casement regularly chronicles the removal of body parts as used as motivational punishment to gather rubber: “some had their ears cut off; others were tied up with ropes around their necks and bodies taken away.” [57] Read in parallel, Casement’s accounts of suffering haunt Beckett’s text as the narrator provides descriptions of violence inflicted on ears, tongues, heads and other appendages. Some of these seem to directly suggest dismemberment, or death of a black body: “an arm colour of mud the hand in the sack”. [58] In the Congo report, Casement includes a testimony…: “the soldiers made me carry the basket with the things of dead people and the hands they cut off”.’

Furthermore, the dialogue between inner and outer voices, seen often in music as a dialogue between octaves (as aforementioned in Beethoven’s 7th Symphony) and the ‘domination… of mutual tormentors’ reflects the discordance expressed in Casement’s viewing of the many contrasting layers in the roles of torment. This is expressed in How It Is, where the narrator is ‘each one of us is at the same time Bom and Pim tormentor and tormented. The incessant reminiscence of both Casement and Beckett’s narrator’s past as he ‘says it as he hears it’ pertains to a loss of control in fighting the reprehensible memory of torment.

When reading The Black Diaries, what becomes clear is that Casement had very little control over the tortuous fates he was set to endure. Beckett suggests this loss of control with a sense of musicality in How It Is, because just as one cannot control the pace or caesura in a piece of music that is being played, the reader cannot seek refuge between sentences or chapters. As though we are on a boat, unable to steer or control the passage of its course, drawing on Casement, the son of a ship-owner and also Charon, the dangerous boatman of hell in Inferno.

‘Geulincx compares human freedom to that of a man, on board a boat carrying him irresistibly westward, free to move eastward within the limits of the boat itself, as far as the stern, and (b) by Ulysses’ relation to Dante (Inf. 26) of his second voyage (a medieval tradition) to and beyond the Pillars of Hercules, his shipwreck and death.’

Beckett has frequently introduced musical features such as drumming, knocking and songs within his text, and it has been argued that this is Beckett’s mechanism to communicate spiritually, where words do not suffice. How It Is is a work which aims to rest in between the brink of knowledge and ignorance, existence and non- existence and sound and silence. Perhaps this is why the work has been interpreted more readily through audial means than on stage, as seen in radio recordings or musical renditions such as Roger Marsh’s Bits & Scraps and Gare St Lazare’s Here All Night.

‘”first lesson theme song…thump with fist…end of first lesson”. The musical divertissement clearly elaborates Molloys … system of communicating with his aged mother by “knocking her on the skull” […] also subverts the way in which his his “three little taps” allow [Marcel] to communicate with his grandmother at Balbec‘.

Perhaps Beckett himself is toying with the concept of control as many of his characters do, deciphering where the meaning lies in his work – in the sounds or in the silences; in the words or between them? Is Beckett’s instrumental treatment of words simply a tool to ‘get [us] from point to point’, or does it aim to place emphasis on philosophical considerations of ontological existence? As if a player in Beckett’s orchestra, one’s (‘tap tap ) tapping to the beat of Lucky’s ‘acacacademy’ or joining in teaching Pim to sing may indicate our receiving of Beckett’s intricate form of narrative communication. Notwithstanding, in exploring the parameters of musicality within Beckett’s writing, it appears that these ‘genres’ aren’t so clear and distinct after all, and if music does win, it’s not very clear by what means. The combination of sounds and intervals ostensibly delivers from his text entirely new consequential meanings, resonating with Beckett’s wishes that ‘the experience of [his] reader shall be between the phrases, in the silence’.


  • Adam Piette, Remembering and the Sounds of Words: Mallarmé, Proust, Beckett, (Oxford: 1996), Clarendon Press

  • Anthony Uhlmann, Samuel Beckett and the Philosophical Image, (Cambridge: 2006), Cambridge University Press

  • Catherine Laws, Headaches Among the Overtones: Music in Beckett/Beckett in Music, (further enquiry needed for full citation)

  • C.J Ackerly, Obscure Locks, Simple Keys: The Annotated Watt, (Edinburgh: 2009), Edinburgh University Press

  • David Roesner, Musicality in Theatre: Music as Model, Method and Metaphor in Theatre-Making, (2014), Ashgate Publishing

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  • Gare St Lazare, (2010-present) available at:

  • Hector Berlioz, A Critical Study of the Symphonies of Beethoven: A Travers Chants, [trans. Michel Austin], available at: ,VII Symphony in A

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  • Roger Casement, The Black Diaries, taken from The Black Diaries: An account of Roger Casement’s Life and Rochester’s Sodom, (France: 1959), Copy no. 845 of 1500, Olympia Press

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  • Samuel Beckett, Dream Notebook, (Reading:1999), Beckett International Foundation

  • Samuel Beckett, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, (1993), Arcade Publishing, p138

  • Samuel Beckett, How It Is, (London:1964), Calder and Boyars

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  • Sarah West, Say It: The Performative Voice in the Dramatic Works of Samuel Beckett, (Amsterdam: 2010), Faux Titre

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  • Steven Connor, Samuel Beckett: Repetition, Theory & Text, (Oxford: 1998), Basil Blackwell

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