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Virginia Woolf and Music

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These essays explore music and its relationship to language, aesthetics, and culture in the life and work of the preeminent Modernist writer Virginia Woolf (Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, A Room of One's Own, and other works). Approaching Woolf from musicology, literary criticism, and gender studies, the collection examines her musical background; music in her fiction and critical writings; and the importance of music in the Bloomsbury milieu and its role within the larger framework of Modernism. Making use of Woolf's diaries, letters, fiction, and the testimony of her contemporaries, these essays illuminate the rich and deeply musical nature of Woolf's works.

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1 Bloomsbury and Music

ePub

Rosemary Lloyd

LOOKING BACK ON THE HEADY DAYS IN CAMBRIDGE WHEN MANY of those who would come to be known as the Bloomsbury Group first met, Leonard Woolf recognized how important music had been for himself and his friends. He affirms in his biography that they were “intellectuals, intellectuals with three genuine and, I think, profound passions: a passion for friendship, a passion for literature and music (it is significant that the plastic arts came a good deal later), a passion for what we called the truth” (S 173). If the heyday of Bloomsbury can be seen as starting in March 1905, when the four young Stephens – Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia, and Adrian – opened their home in Gordon Square for Thursday evening gatherings, and continuing until the end of World War I, a calamity that, according to Vanessa Bell at least, also killed Bloomsbury (Selected Letters 364), its origins date back to 1899, when Lytton Strachey, Thoby Stephen, and Leonard Woolf first met at Cambridge University, and it continued in an altered form until 1939, when the dark days of World War II loomed.1 Clever, witty, and sexually unconventional, the Bloomsberries, as they called themselves, were associated above all with new movements in art and literature. As a group, they reveled in free and open discussions, attempting to reach a less stuffy, less hypocritical form of ethics than the previous generation and to shape their lives and their thinking around love and beauty, giving value to what Leonard Woolf termed the “passion for friendship” (S 173). Rebelling against the stuffiness of their parents’ generation, they turned to forms of art that exalted the sensual. For many of them, the family home had had little of aesthetic interest and the family ethos had been driven by a scornful rejection of aesthetic values. Although Virginia Woolf would later assert that her father had “no feeling for pictures; no ear for music; no sense of the sound of words” (MB 68), the other members of the Stephen family were to some extent an exception to this position, with Virginia’s mother and her half sister, Stella, revealing a lively interest in music. The passion for photography revealed by her great-aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron, no doubt influenced her own practice of that art,2 and both Virginia and Vanessa, like most young women of their class, were given music and ballet lessons from an early age. For most of the Bloomsbury Group, however, the discovery of visual and aural beauty during their Cambridge years, passed on to the women through brothers at the university, became a formative experience that would shape their later aesthetics. The early passion for music that Leonard Woolf reveals may have faded for many of them in comparison with the discovery of the plastic arts, especially under the guidance of Roger Fry, but music nevertheless remained an important part of their lives, both intellectually and emotionally.

 

2 Virginia Woolf and Musical Culture

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Mihály Szegedy-Maszák

ALTHOUGH VIRGINIA WOOLF WAS SKEPTICAL OF THE MERITS of any verbal approach to music, she was fascinated by the ideal of ut musica poesis. As she listened to a concert in 1915, she decided that “all descriptions of music are quite worthless” (D1: 33), yet she constantly drew inspiration from music. There is good reason to believe that as early as 1905 (PA 251) she became familiar with Walter Pater’s celebrated statement “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” (86), echoed by Oscar Wilde’s declaration in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: “From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician” (17). “Its odd, for I’m not regularly musical, but I always think of my books as music before I write them,” she remarked toward the end of her life. “I want to investigate the influence of music on literature,” she added a few months before her death (L6: 426, 450).

 

3 Music, Language, and Moments of Being: From The Voyage Out to Between the Acts

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Adriana Varga

IN HER MEMOIR, “A SKETCH OF THE PAST” (1939), VIRGINIA WOOLF described one of her “first impressions in pale yellow, silver, and green” (66), in which the perception of sound and image was undivided: “Everything would be large and dim; and what was seen would at the same time be heard; sounds would come through this petal or leaf – sounds indistinguishable from sights” (66). These “colour-and-sound memories” (66) she called “these moments of being of mine” (73) reflect not only the interest Woolf took at the height of her artistic maturity in exploring the interconnections between rhythm, sound, sight, and language but also an awareness that her experience of these interconnections had occurred simply and naturally in childhood, at Talland House, St. Ives:

Sound and sight seem to make equal parts of these first impressions. [ . . . ] The quality of the air above Talland House seemed to suspend sound, to let it sink down slowly, as if it were caught in a blue gummy veil. The rooks cawing is part of the waves breaking – one, two, one, two – and the splash as the wave drew back and then it gathered again, and I lay there half awake, half asleep, drawing in such ecstasy as I cannot describe. (66)

 

4 The Birth of Rachel Vinrace from the Spirit of Music

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Jim Stewart

THIS STUDY DISCUSSES THE IMPLIED MUSIC OF SONGS FROM Sophocles’s Antigone and Milton’s Comus, which Virginia Woolf quoted verbatim near the opening and close of her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915).1 Circumstantial evidence framing the novel’s composition suggests Woolf was well aware of what this music meant for Sophocles’s and Milton’s texts and for her own. Her sense of the Greek song is clearer when considered in the light of her Aristotle readings, and her awareness of the Milton song was enhanced by her participation in an amateur performance of Comus. Nietzsche’s ideas about Dionysian music drama were influential during Woolf’s formative period; in his seminal work, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music; and later, in The Case of Wagner; and it is likely that the diffusion of his ideas helped shape her own thinking about, on one hand, Dionysian music such as accompanies Sophocles’s choruses and, on the other, Wagner’s wish for a neoclassical music drama, not to say (by contrast) Milton’s musical anti-Dionysianism. The study keys these implied Sophoclean and Miltonic musical praxes to Woolf’s tragic characterization of Rachel Vinrace and to Rachel’s fate.

 

5 “The Worst of Music”: Listening and Narrative in Night and Day and “The String Quartet”

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Vanessa Manhire

VIRGINIA WOOLFS ACKNOWLEDGED INTEREST IN INTERDISciplinary approaches to literature, her love of music, and her assumed position as “common listener” rather than musical expert offer fruitful angles into her early fiction: her groundbreaking reworking of narrative conventions depends heavily upon her explorations of the ways in which music works, especially for its listeners.1 Woolf engages directly and critically with the social and literary norms of late nineteenth-century society, placing explicit emphasis on musical scenes as subject matter from which to build this critique, and using music to problematize the relationship between the external world and the world of the mind. This essay discusses Woolf’s treatment of music in her second novel, Night and Day (1919), and the short story “The String Quartet” (1921), focusing on scenes of musical performance as well as Woolf’s questioning of music’s representational capacities. Stylistically, these texts are polar opposites: one heavy, conventional, and Victorian, the other light, experimental, and modernist. Yet in very different ways they both explore music as a potential model for the representation of interiority. Following Pater’s idea of music as embodying the perfect relationship between form and content, Woolf draws on music as a vehicle for the exploration of language. Woolf’s development of stream-of-consciousness narrative techniques, I suggest, owes much to her thinking about the effects of listening to music, a shared social experience but one that simultaneously allows for the individual movement of the imagination.

 

6 Flying Dutchmen, Wandering Jews: Romantic Opera, Anti-Semitism, and Jewish Mourning in Mrs. Dalloway

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Emma Sutton

IN APRIL 1921 VIRGINIA WOOLF MADE THE FOLLOWING ENTRY in her diary: “L.[eonard] explained the plan of his new book – a revised version of the Wandering Jew. Very original & solid, it seemed to me; & like a good business man, I pressed him to promise it for the press [ . . . ] a solid big book like L.’s is essential” (D2: 111–12). Woolf’s admiration for the “originality” of Leonard’s “essential” book leaves unspoken the fact that Leonard was not alone in planning a work on the Wandering Jew in the early 1920s; Mrs. Dalloway might equally be described as a “revised version” of this legend. Woolf’s novel is haunted by Richard Wagner’s Romantic opera Der fliegende Holländer (1843), and, as Wagner’s description of his protagonist as “this Ahasuerus of the seas” reminds us, the figure of the Flying Dutchman was frequently equated with the Wandering Jew, his fate read as an allegory of Jewish “redemption” (Prose Works 1: 17).1 It will come as no surprise to scholars of Woolf and music that Woolf’s fiction should be informed by a Wagnerian intertext, although Wagner’s influence on Mrs. Dalloway is far less conspicuous than on The Voyage Out, Jacob’s Room, The Years, or The Waves, for instance. In these texts Woolf’s diegetic allusions to, and the formal influence of, Wagner are extensive and more explicit.2 Mrs. Dalloway has played a relatively small part in analyses of Woolf and music to date;3 its debt to Wagner’s opera is opaque and its references to music relatively few, but Woolf’s commanding knowledge of Wagner’s oeuvre and her lifelong engagement with it in her fiction invite us to consider the discreet parallels between the texts seriously. Wagner’s version of the legend was one Woolf had ample opportunity to hear, and the Woolfs’ record collection later included a recording of excerpts of the opera.4 In the third volume of his autobiography, Leonard made the qualified observation that there was “more, perhaps, to be said for the early Wagner” than Der Ring (BA 50). Mrs. Dalloway’s intertextuality with Wagner’s opera places the novel in a matrix of discourses about music and Jews that includes this specific text representing the archetypal “Jew” “redeemed” by woman’s love, Wagner’s other operatic representations of Jews and Jewishness, and his published essays and private comments on Jews and music. It also inevitably engages other anti- and philo-Semitic discourses about music in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from fiction and poetry to popular caricature, racial theory, and academic musicology. This essay introduces Woolf’s responses to discourses about Jews and music through a twofold focus. First, it traces the relationship between Mrs. Dalloway and Der fliegende Holländer, exploring the significance of Wagner’s opera to Woolf’s novel. In doing so, it proposes that Woolf’s postwar interest in Wagner’s text crystallized around the figure of the displaced wanderer and the sexual politics of female self-sacrifice that are essential to this Wagnerian model of tragedy. Second, it considers the role and representation of Jewish individuals and religious practice in the novel. It suggests that Mrs. Dalloway’s intertextuality with Wagner’s opera is juxtaposed with its representations of displaced Jews in pre- and postwar England and with the novel’s extensive debts to Jewish mourning practice, shivah.5 As Leena Kore Schröder acknowledges, there “can be no straightforward account” of Woolf’s attitudes toward Jews and Jewishness (298); we have, collectively, been rightly attentive to Woolf’s anti-Semitism and that of her contemporaries, but this attention has arguably discouraged consideration of the possibility that such negative views of Jews coexisted with more sympathetic, informed, and creative responses to Judaism. Without wishing to act as an apologist for Woolf, I hope that this analysis of her knowledge and fictional use of Jewish theology might encourage further consideration of this underexplored subject.

 

7 The Efficacy of Performance: Musical Events in The Years

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Elicia Clements

THE YEARS (1937) IS WOOLFS MOST OVERTLY POLITICAL NOVEL; it reveals her growing concern in the 1930s to illuminate the social cost of what she will call “subconscious Hitlerism” in her 1940 essay “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid.” Simultaneously, the novel “turns up the volume,” so to speak, by foregrounding aurality in new and ubiquitous ways. In this essay, I argue that the two foci converge in the subject matter of The Years. In the thirties, Woolf searched for new ways not just to comment on social and political issues but also to produce writings that might break down the art/life dichotomy and actively engage in political critique. As Jessica Berman reminds us concerning Orlando and The Waves, “Woolf creates an alternative discourse of feminist action and power, one which seeks to intervene directly in the political life of Britain [during the period from 1929 to 1931]” (116). I would suggest further, for different but related reasons, that Woolf was equally concerned with generating “real” change through efficacious methods and means in The Years (especially as Hitler’s voice thundered over the wireless). By analyzing representations of musical performance in the novel, I demonstrate that Woolf deftly integrates aspects from the art forms of music, drama, and literature to elaborate practices of aesthetic efficacy.

 

8 Sounding the Past: The Music in Between the Acts

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Trina Thompson

VIRGINIA WOOLFS LAST NOVEL, BETWEEN THE ACTS, WAS FIRST published in 1941, the year of her death. Begun before Britain’s engagement in World War II, the novel retains the imprint of the time of its historical inception. Although fictional, this work seems to follow Roland Barthes’s dictum on the writing of history and the effect of historical time. In his essay “The Discourse of History,” Barthes postulates that “the nearer we are to the historian’s own time, the more strongly the pressure of the uttering makes itself felt, and the slower the history becomes. There is no such thing as isochrony – and to say this, is to attack implicitly the linearity of the discourse” (9). Thus, while Woolf must suffer the war, the residents and guests of fictional Pointz Hall remain poised before the violence. This temporal bifurcation plays an important role in constructing the complex texture of the novel.

In fact, the mere act of prying apart the strands of history – the creation of space – is a sonic act, one that allows for echoes, for the noisy layering of sounds. Judith Greenberg notes that the novel “is full of echoes – repeated words and noises, fragmented music and phrases, and disembodied voices” (52). And, as we shall see, Woolf’s preoccupation with music and aural imagery is an especially arresting aspect of this work. Indeed, as Avrom Fleishman explains, the provisionally “solid world of Pointz Hall” is splintered into multiple, simultaneous narratives, a “juggling of illusion and reality” (247) that is engendered by conflicting, vertiginous mise-en-abîme framing. The most obvious of these frames is the novel’s equivocal division between real(istic) life and an unfolding pageant, a play within a play. Understanding both of these aspects as novelistic fictions, what are we to make of the real-life voices that encroach on the integrity of the pageant? This duality is complicated again by the novel’s final line, which suggests that the entire novel has itself been an “entr’acte” in yet another play (247). These “mutually framed and framing visions of the novel and the play” (McWhirter 799) emphasize the importance of the interval, of that which comes to life in between.

 

9 Broken Music, Broken History: Sounds and Silence in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts

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Sanja Bahun

IN HIS 1909 LETTER TO FERRUCCIO BUSONI, ARNOLD SCHOENBERG describes his objective in music composition as follows:

And the results I wish for: no stylized and sterile protracted emotion. People are not like that: It is impossible for a person to have only one sensation at a time. One has thousands simultaneously. And these thousands can no more readily be added together than an apple and a pear. They go their own ways. And this variegation, this multifariousness, this illogicality presented by their interactions, set forth by some mounting rush of blood, by some reaction of the senses or the nerves, this I should like to have in my music. (Busoni 389; original emphasis)

These words find correspondence in Virginia Woolf’s well-known proclamation in 1925:

Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being “like this.” Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there [ . . . ] Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo. (“Modern Fiction,” CR1: 150)

 

10 “Shivering Fragments”: Music, Art, and Dance in Virginia Woolf’s Writing

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Evelyn Haller

From her vantage of a later century Angela Frattarola rightly cites “the often-overlooked aurality of the twentieth-century novel” and examines Woolf as a major exemplar (133n2). “Music” in relation to Woolf, is of particular importance. To take a congeries of instances: the rhythmic sound of “the sea” she intended to be heard “all through” The Waves (1931) (D3: 34); the sound of the skywriting aeroplane in her war-haunted novel, with its implied cacophony of the battlefield in Septimus’s memory in Mrs. Dalloway (1925); and the harsh, unmelodic singing of the caretaker’s children in The Years (1937). In her posthumously published novel, Between the Acts (1941), the flamboyant and uninhibited Mrs. Manresa “was afloat on the stream of the melody,” that of a “pompous popular tune” that “brayed and blared” (96–97). Machines, not unlike people, can disappoint: “Chuff, chuff, chuff [ . . . ] It was the noise a machine makes when something has gone wrong” (93). Three and a half decades earlier the young Virginia had written, “Music perhaps because it is not human is the only thing made by men that can never be mean or ugly” (E1: 31). She was to hear many kinds of sounds, but not all were to be understood as music without the intervention of a Stravinsky. Still, sounds – stated and implied – of various kinds as well as music would be major tools of her craft. Her multifaceted evocation of Kew Gardens, for example, alludes in its conclusion to the metronomic rhythm of machinery outside its walls: “But there was no silence; all the time the motor omnibuses were turning their wheels and shifting their gears.” Moreover, London itself is recognized as an enormous machine: “like a vast nest of Chinese boxes all of wrought steel turning ceaselessly one within another the city murmured” (CSF 95).

 

11 Chiming the Hours: A Philip Glass Soundtrack

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Roger Hillman and Deborah Crisp

MUSIC ACCOMPANYING THE PROCESS OF ARTISTIC CREATION IS to be found in many films, primarily, of course, in those whose stories concern the composition of music. This can most straightforwardly involve a great composer (Mozart in Milos Forman’s Amadeus);1 a fictitious composer figure whose work nonetheless has cultural resonances (the “Concerto for the Unification of Europe” in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue [Hillman 325]); or a fusion of the two (Luchino Visconti’s character Aschenbach, based closely on Gustav Mahler, composing a contemplative section from the Third Symphony, very different from the lush Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony, which so dominates this film). In this last example, Visconti provides a musical parallel to the page and a half of perfect prose produced by the writer Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s novella. The transposition of a writer into a composer is a wise choice in seeking cinematic equivalents for a literary text, and therein lies the rub. Via the convention of music accompanying the action, a given in all but the most experimental films, it is dramatically more convincing for a viewer to feel privy to the evolving of a musical creation rather than a literary one. The gestation process behind the written word is more akin to prose (unless exposed to the vagaries of voice-over in film) and hence more at home in prose. The soundtrack, by contrast, is unique to film and transcends direct equivalences in adapting a novel into a film. Films about leading composers can naturalistically feature their music and the formative stages of its composition. A comparable biopic subgenre of prominent writers and their creative processes is likely to be sparse, even with a director who uses rich soundtracks, such as Jane Campion (Sweetie, The Piano). When engaging with the biography of a writer (Janet Frame, in An Angel at My Table), she reduces the narrative presence of creative writing in favor of other details that are less related to the inner life and hence more readily realizable in a medium with images as concrete as those of film.

 

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