Virginia Woolf and Music

Virginia Woolf and Music

by Adriana L. Varga


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253012555
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 05/01/2014
Pages: 348
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Adriana Varga teaches English and Global and Historical Studies at Butler University, Indianapolis.

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Virginia Woolf & Music

By Adriana Varga

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2014 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01264-7


Bloomsbury and Music

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. 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, 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.

Turning to the period 1911–1918 in the volume of his autobiography titled Beginning Again, Leonard Woolf captures the excitement the Bloomsbury Group felt in the vital artistic year 1913, the year that saw New York's Armory Show inaugurate a new era in modern art; when Roger Fry established the Omega Workshop in Fitzroy Square, London, to produce textiles and furniture designed by artists; and when the London Group of artists held its first exhibition. It was the year when Sigmund Freud, a central figure for so many of the group, would publish his interpretation of dreams as well as Totem and Taboo and when Marcel Proust would transform the image of the novel form by publishing the first volume of In Search of Lost Time. Leonard Woolf evokes the excitement of the year in the following revealing terms:

On the stage the shattering impact of Ibsen was still belatedly powerful and we felt that Ibsen had a worthy successor in Shaw as a revolutionary. [...] In painting we were in the middle of the revolution of Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso. [...] And to crown all, night after night we flocked to Covent Garden, entranced by a new art, a revelation to us benighted English, the Russian ballet in the greatest days of Diaghilev and Nijinsky.

What appears to be missing from this enthusiastic list is music, yet these were also heady days for music lovers, and several of those who frequented Bloomsbury were indeed passionate about certain aspects at least of that art. Nineteen thirteen, after all, saw the tumultuous first presentation in Paris on May 29 and in London on July 11 of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, while the years between 1905 and 1912 were dominated by the first performances of several Gustav Mahler symphonies (no. 6 in 1906, no. 7 in 1908, no. 8 in 1910, and no. 9 in 1912). The year 1905 witnessed the first Bloomsbury gatherings and also saw the premieres of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder and Debussy's La Mer. In 1905, too, Thomas Beecham came to London. He had already conducted the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, and now, in addition to conducting the New Symphony Orchestra, he played an essential role in introducing Richard Strauss to an English audience and in inviting to the capital many leading performers, composers, and companies, most significantly, perhaps, the Ballets Russes. In 1907 Frederick Delius's opera A Village Romeo and Juliet had its premiere, although significantly, perhaps, in Berlin rather than London, and in 1908 Edward Elgar's first symphony and his violin concerto were both given their opening performance, the second with Fritz Kreisler playing the solo part. In 1911 Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde was performed for the first time, as was Elgar's second symphony, and the following year saw the first performance of Arnold Schoenberg's expressionist Pierrot Lunaire with its groundbreaking use of the twelve-tone chromatic scale.

Despite these momentous musical events, it was ballet that struck most of the Bloomsberries as the most radical artistic form, largely through Thomas Beecham's powerful promotion of that art. This is not entirely surprising, given the highly innovative works that Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes were bringing to London. We need to bear in mind, moreover, not only that the Ballets Russes themselves brought pioneering music with them, but also that it was much more difficult to hear groundbreaking music in those days before radio and recording studios made it so much more widely available. Music was known primarily through concerts, sheet music, the pianola (or player piano), and only later the gramophone, a device that Virginia Woolf so wonderfully described as opening "one little window" in their lives (D3: 151). Besides, as she revealingly wrote in an essay for the London Times of August 21, 1909: "The commonplace remark that music is in its infancy is best borne out by the ambiguous state of musical criticism. It has few traditions behind it, and the art itself is so much alive that it fairly suffocates those who try to deal with it" ("Impressions at Bayreuth," BP 18). The conflation of music with its criticism is both characteristic of her primary focus on language and intrinsically interesting in that it draws attention to the degree to which the general public, even those as intelligent as the Bloomsbury Group, relied on the critics to guide them and shape their appreciation of music, whereas in other artistic domains they would feel more confident of relying on their own judgment.

What Woolf points to as particularly problematic for those writing or even talking about contemporary music was the lack of precedents: "A critic of writing is hardly to be taken by surprise, for he can compare almost every literary form with some earlier form and can measure the achievement by some familiar standard. But who in music has tried to do what Strauss is doing, or Debussy?" (BP 18). As a result, she argues, "We are miserably aware how little words can do to render music. When the moment of suspense is over, and the bows actually move across the strings, our definitions are relinquished, and words disappear in our minds" (21). Even for the highly articulate members of the Bloomsbury Group, finding a way of talking about music, especially of modern music, posed problems they did not seem to encounter, or at least not so severely, when they discussed art, literature, or the ballet.

Yet long before that seminal period and the gramophone's opening of the little window, music had begun to play a shaping role in Bloomsbury's aesthetic world and left its trace in the letters, diaries, and memoirs of many of its members. Of course, music formed an essential part of the education and social lives of the middle classes at this period, a time when, as Virginia Woolf crisply puts it in Three Guineas, women were taught to tinkle on the piano but not allowed to join an orchestra (TG 45), and yet the intensity of Leonard Woolf's passion for music, a passion shared by several leading figures in the English modernist movement, goes well beyond those standard paradigms. The pleasure Leonard Woolf derived from music was, as is often the case, closely related to the enjoyment he gained from mathematics: "This satisfaction which I got from mathematics is, I think, closely related to the aesthetic pleasure which came from poetry, pictures, and, most of all, in later years from music" (S 95). For Leonard Woolf, moreover, music is clearly part of a nexus of memories and responses associated with friendship, intelligence, intensity, and intellectual passion. There can be little doubt, as well, that its close association with those formative and magical years in Cambridge conferred on it an added prestige for him in later life.

Moreover, a major force in creating such enthusiasm for music among these undergraduates was, less cerebrally, the pivotal figure of the philosopher George Moore. Moore's influence over their thinking, especially through his book Principia Ethica, has often been noted, and the charm he exerted clearly played a vital role in conveying his own love of music to his friends and disciples. According to Leonard Woolf, for instance,

[Moore] played the piano and sang, often to Lytton Strachey and me in his rooms and on reading parties in Cornwall. He was not a highly skilful pianist or singer, but I have never been given greater pleasure from playing or singing. This was due partly to the quality of his voice, but principally to the intelligence of his understanding and to the subtlety and intensity of his feeling. He played [Beethoven's] Waldstein sonata or sang [Schumann's] "Ich grolle nicht" with the same passion with which he pursued truth; when the last note died away, he would sit absolutely still, his hands resting on the keys, and the sweat streaming down his face. (S 150)

Lytton Strachey, too, in a letter to Virginia Stephen, stressed the interrelationship of Moore's magnetic personality and his musicality: "Moore is a colossal being and he also sings and plays in a wonderful way" (Levy, Letters Apr. 23, 1908, 141). It is not just that Moore seemed to have acquired for many of the Apostles, the Cambridge University secret society dedicated to intelligent conversation, an aura that attached itself to anything he did, including music, but that he embarked on all of his activities with such passion that his enthusiasm became highly contagious.

While Moore may have exerted the greatest musical influence over those in the Apostles society, Leonard Woolf had another group of Cambridge friends who were also music lovers, friends so different in outlook and even behavior that he kept a sharp divide between them and his Apostles companions. The brief pen-portrait of his friend Harry Gray, for example, brings out both the characteristic enthusiasm and the different way in which it found expression in him as compared to Moore: "He was absorbed in two things, but with an almost impersonal absorption, medicine and music. [...] He was already, as an executant[e], a first-class pianist. His playing was brilliant, but singularly impersonal and emotionless, and, when he was not working, he would usually be found playing the piano. It was characteristic of him that he was usually playing Chopin" (s 190).

Perhaps even more important than Moore in forming the early musical taste of this element of Bloomsbury was the enigmatic Saxon Sydney-Turner, whose genius they long took on trust and whose literary style Virginia Woolf once described as "the envy of my heart" (1,3: 411), but who was never able to produce the great works of which he and they dreamed. Sydney-Turner was an ardent Wagnerite, who no doubt played an essential role in introducing to his Bloomsbury friends the German composer and his image of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the all-embracing art work that combined music, libretto, scenery and costumes into a coherent whole. We catch glimpses of Sydney-Turner in Adrian Stephen's journal, where he is wittily described as "talking about good and evil and playing the pianola" (HL 237) or traveling to Bayreuth with Adrian (see, for instance, V. Bell, Letters 68). Adrian and Sydney-Turner were joined in 1909 by Virginia, who initially confided in her sister, Vanessa, that Parsifal "seems to me weak vague stuff, with the usual enormities" (L1: 404), but later said that it moved her almost to tears and that she judged it "the most remarkable of the operas; it slides from music to words almost imperceptibly" (406). If Sydney-Turner's influence is perceptible here, his irritation when they praised composers other than Wagner is also evident: "We went to Salome (Strauss, as you may know) last night." Virginia reported to her sister: "I was much excited, and believe that it is a new discovery. He gets great emotion into his music, without any beauty. However, Saxon thought we were encroaching upon Wagner, and we had a long and rather acid discussion" (L1: 410). Writing to Clive Bell in 1907, Lytton Strachey reported with his characteristic malice as well as typical stylistic bravura: "Poor Turner's volcanic energy has deserted him. His lava flows no more. It is all dust and ashes now, and decrepitude and sciatica. [...] He showed me the MS of his opera this evening. Will its final resting-place be the British Museum, beside the notebooks of Beethoven? Well! At any rate we shall never know" (Levy, Letters 122). In 1908 Vanessa Bell chose to portray Saxon Sydney-Turner, according to Michael Holroyd, "seated slightly bent before a pianola, and peering through his spectacles at some sheet of music with an expression of rapt, self-obvious concentration" (144–45). The link between music and mathematics that Leonard Woolf charts with such energetic enthusiasm becomes almost caricatural in Sydney-Turner, who combined it with a love of puzzles, especially crossword puzzles, and whose extraordinary memory together with his passion for Wagner made him capable of comparing countless performances and recalling the exact dates on which he had seen them, but did not lead to any creative production.

Other members of the Bloomsbury Group had a less passionate but nevertheless decisive response to music. For Lytton Strachey, for instance, music had been a familiar part of family life since his childhood. Virginia Woolf's unflattering likeness of him in her character St. John Hirst in The Voyage Out rather unkindly says that he had "no taste for music, and a few dancing lessons at Cambridge had only put him in possession of the anatomy of a waltz, without imparting any of its spirit" (VO 157). But Strachey's ungainly walk and elongated body probably had more to do with this little caricature than with any truth about his musical sensibilities. According to Holroyd, Strachey's mother, Jane Maria Strachey, "enjoyed classical music, sitting Lytton on her knee while she played songs on the piano" (6), while his brother Oliver, hoping to become a professional concert player, had studied piano with the famous teacher Theodor Leschetizky in Vienna, thus becoming one of only two Englishmen to attend Brahms's funeral in that city's central cemetery (Levy, Letters 47). Their younger brother James, who has become best known as the general editor of Freud's works in English, was also an authority on Haydn, Mozart, and Wagner, and in the 1950s contributed notes and commentaries for the Glyndebourne opera programs (Holroyd xv).


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Table of Contents

Preface / Mihály Szegedy-Maszák
List of Abbreviations
Introduction / Adriana Varga
Part I: Music and Bloomsbury Culture
1. Bloomsbury and Music / Rosemary Lloyd
2. Virginia Woolf and Musical Culture / Miháy Szegedy-Maszák
Part II Ut Musica Poesis: Music and the Novel
3. Music, Language, and Moments of Being: From The Voyage Out to Between the Acts / Adriana Varga
4. The Birth of Rachel Vinrace from the Spirit of Music / Jim Stewart
5. "The Worst of Music": Listening and Narrative in Night and Day and "The String Quartet" / Vanessa Manhire
6. Flying Dutchmen, Wandering Jews: Romantic Opera, Anti-Semitism and Jewish Mourning in Mrs Dalloway / Emma Sutton
7. The Efficacy of Performance: Musical Events in The Years / Elicia Clements
8. Sounding the Past: The Music in Between the Acts / Trina Thompson
Part III Music, Art, Film and Virginia Woolf’s Modernist Aesthetics
8. Broken Music, Broken History: Sounds and Silence in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts / Sanja Bahun
9. "Shivering Fragments": Music, Art, and Dance In Virginia Woolf’s Writing / Evelyn Haller
10. Chiming the Hours: A Philip Glass Soundtrack / Roger Hillman and Deborah Crisp

What People are Saying About This

author of Rooms of Our Own - Susan Gubar

This book explains why Virginia Woolf believed that 'a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world' and how profoundly she was influenced by many other composers. Reading the essays collected here, we understand Woolf’s conviction that 'we are the music; we are the thing itself.'

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