- Woolf & Classical Music
THE SUBJECT of Emma Sutton’s Virginia Woolf and Classical Music: Politics, Aesthetics, Form is Woolf’s thinking and writing about “classical” music, what largely amounts to European symphonic and “art music” from the past few centuries. (Sutton uses the quotation marks to introduce the terms.) English madrigals, the works and styles of Bach and Beethoven and, above all, the operas of Richard Wagner provide a fruitful set of sources for the scholar to consider. Woolf certainly, as Sutton makes clear, had these composers and their works in mind when composing her own works. Indeed, by the time one reads through the entirety of Virginia Woolf and Classical Music, it seems Woolf could never quite get Wagner out of her mind: from The Voyage Out to The Waves, Tristan and Isolde (in legend and libretto), the Ring Cycle, Parsifal, Wagner’s essays and Wagnerian performance style generally are used by Woolf to impart subtle meaning to her metaphors and give fine texture to her characters.
I will never again read The Voyage Out without thinking of it as a criticism of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; understanding Rachel’s death as “operatic” in fact changes my view of the novel as a lesser, immature work. I’m glad that Sutton didn’t focus the volume on Wagner, though she could have. The broader frame allows her to bring into the discussion more obscure topics that Woolf took up, such as the fashion for sailor chanteys in early twentieth-century art music, or the interesting recurrence of Beethoven’s Op. 111, and it allows her to make a very compelling case that Woolf’s view of the musical tradition is more ambiguous than uniformly critical, even though she was acutely sensitive to it as an institution of patriarchy and nationalism. [End Page 285]
Sutton makes an impressive case for her subtitled thesis: music, in theory, in tradition, in practice, inspired Woolf’s meditations on the relation between art and politics in pre-Great-War and interwar Anglo-European culture, meditations that focused on the figures of the independent woman (the pianists of The Voyage Out and Night and Day) and the hero (The Waves most notably), and on the methods and meanings suggested by the musical-performance audience (Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway), the relation between musical fugues and the psychological fugue state (Mrs. Dalloway and The Waves), and the English folk revival (Orlando and Between the Acts). Finally, Sutton explores not only how Woolf portrayed music in characters, symbols, and references, but also how Woolf considered, questioned, and exploited music’s own kind of signification, its potential as an alternative system of meaning making. Literary musicality and aurality could have been pursued further by Sutton (say, thinking about literary sound more particularly in Woolf’s writing, the famous “hum” of Victorian poetry and its absence in modern literature), but she does more than just consider this avenue of approach: she theorizes Woolf’s literary method as music-inspired with a “‘lack of definite articulation’” and lays out the many musical terms through which Woolf explicitly thought about her writing, offering many local interpretations in this vein (my favorite being the tackling of Mrs. Dalloway’s “leaden bells”).
The volume begins with an overview of Woolf’s direct experiences with music. Woolf’s education was typical for a young woman of the day, her attendance at opera was enthusiastic if restricted to her younger days, and the recording collection she shared with Leonard Woolf was extensive. Sutton’s research on Woolf’s musical reading, writing, and listening is detailed and fascinating, and not limited to the introductory chapter. The volume is peppered with convincing speculations, such as how Woolf’s reading of The Leading Note (a 1917 novel by Rosalind Murray) must have informed her writing of Mrs. Dalloway’s finale (96). It weaves historical information into its arguments in ways that optimize their argumentative effect (such as a cultural history of women’s piano playing). Such research makes for quite a bit of fun for...