Virginia Woolf and Music.
In his Preface to Virginia Woolf and Music, Mihaly Szegedy-Maszak writes: "Music played a very important role in the life of Virginia Woolf" (ix). Like the "and" of the title, it is difficult to discern precisely what the "role" of music was, but the contributors to this volume offer thirteen possible answers. Szegedy-Maszak frames this collection with a brief outline of some of the major challenges that will be familiar to any scholar interested in the influence of music on Virginia Woolf's writing: the fact that Leonard and Virginia listened to a tremendous amount of classical music from their personal gramophone collection; the apparent conservatism of the Woolfs' taste in music (preferring the music of the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries instead of the twentieth); and the absence of references to modernist--or even contemporary--composers in her prolific personal and public writings. As with a number of other studies of music and modernism, the two central challenges that emerge are the fact that much work has been done on the connections between the visual arts and Bloomsbury specifically, as well as modernist literature more generally; and the messiness of attempting to draw parallels between Woolf's modernist literary innovations and the parallel musical innovations taking place at the time, which she appears to ignore or reject. The contributors to this volume address these challenges in a number of ways, either constructing complex circumstantial cases to account for a lack of primary evidence, or confronting this lack head-on. Szegedy-Maszak concludes that one of the merits of the collection is that "it offers a comparison between Virginia Woolf's art and the music of some of her contemporaries," but the majority of the essays here do much more than merely compare Woolf's writing to contemporary music (x). The best contributions to Virginia Woolf and Music make a compelling case for the indisputable role music played in Woolf's aesthetic innovations.
In her Introduction, Adriana Varga expands on Szegedy-Maszak's discussion of how this volume fills a gap in Woolf studies by explaining that it focuses on "how Woolf's use of music led to her breaking with traditional forms of representation in her novels at various stages of her aesthetic development and by exploring the inter-arts and interdisciplinary aspects of her modernist fictional experimentation" (13). Varga emphasizes Virginia Woolf's "musical culture," particularly the influence of Bloomsbury, "as well as the rich and deeply musical nature of her works from several different perspectives" (13). "Different" here seems to mean inter- or cross-disciplinary, and the confluence of these perspectives is both challenging and fruitful. The perspectives represented here include: contextual (Bloomsbury, modernism, and early twentieth-century culture); biographical; and comparative (Woolf's use of music as metaphor, motif, and trope, and connections between classical, modernist, and contemporary music and Woolf's fictional and critical writings). Varga uses these perspectives to organize the collection loosely into three sections, though their contents frequently overlap. As a whole, the collection is quite successful in "reconsidering and opening up the question of how Woolf made music bear on her writing" in order to "advance the discussion about music in the Bloomsbury environment and the evolution of Woolf's own musical knowledge and textual praxis, interweaving modernist poetics with classical and contemporary music" (17).
Part One, "Music and Bloomsbury Culture," provides a cultural overview and introduction to what is termed Woolf's "musical culture" (14). The insistence on Bloomsbury in this section is a bit misleading, given the fact that Varga and the other contributors emphasize Woolf's departure from Bloomsbury tastes, especially their preference for the visual arts over music. Why do we need this "setting," if Varga is taking pains to demonstrate that Woolf's tastes were, in fact, unique amongst the Bloomsbury set, and that they can be traced to her musical experiences in her formative (pre-Bloomsbury) years? In "Bloomsbury and Music," Rosemary Lloyd offers a possible answer: setting Woolf's responses "against, or at least in the context of, those of the wider Bloomsbury circle illuminates her own independence of spirit and her originality" (42). Lloyd explains that for most of Woolf's Bloomsbury contemporaries, music was secondary to the visual arts, but Woolf was the exception to this rule: "The sensitivity to the radical changes in the plastic arts that the group embraced, promoted, and delighted in, together with that sharp awareness of the changes in social mores that Virginia Woolf playfully dates to around December 1910, seems to have found an equivalent in music only in the case of a few of the Bloomsberries, most notably Virginia Woolf herself" (40). What emerges from Lloyd's survey of the attitudes of the Bloomsbury Group to music is that there is no "Bloomsbury" attitude toward music; the passionate responses of Leonard Woolf, George Moore, and Saxon Sydney-Turner are counterbalanced by those who have considerably less enthusiasm, notably Roger Fry.
The second half of Part One, Mihaly Szegedy-Maszak's "Virginia Woolf and Musical Culture," focuses on the important role music played in Woolf's life and writing. Both Lloyd and Szegedy-Maszak rely on evidence from Woolf's early musical experiences, and both point out striking absences from Woolf's diary: Woolf makes no mention of most major twentieth-century works such as those by Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg; nor does she mention "the most outstanding operatic performances of the interwar period," or any of the most significant ballets of the early twentieth century, all of which were performed in London (63). Szegedy-Maszak carefully catalogues Woolf's encounters with Wagnerian opera in her "formative years" in order to make the oft-repeated point that Woolf was relatively unfamiliar with contemporary music, while taking issue issue with those critics who would dismiss her early influences, trading Wagner for Bach as a sign of "maturity." Contrary to what critics have argued, Szegedy-Maszak sees continuity between Woolf's early musical experiences, her Bloomsbury-inspired interest in Wagner, and her later interest in the works of Beethoven, particularly his late quartets. Like the other contributors to this volume, Szegedy-Maszak is careful to state that the relationship between Woolf's musical canon and her style and the structure of her novels "must not be confused with a unidirectional causal one," but returns repeatedly to the argument that "a major artist never forgets the inspirations of her early years" (46, 68).
The essays in Part Two, "Ut Musica Poesis: Music and the Novel," explore the music-literature relationship in Woolf's fiction, focusing primarily on the novel. One key element of this substantial second section is that Woolf is never attempting to reproduce or imitate musical form; this seemingly basic stance is what comprises "second-wave" Woolf studies. Varga traces the textmusic relationship in "Music, Language, and Moments of Being: From The Voyage Out to Between the Acts" by discussing "Woolf's interest in exploring the interconnections of rhythm, sound, and language" in three novels (15). Varga presents a clear, stark evolution in Woolf's use of music, and argues that music can be linked to the highly experimental forms of Woolf's later fiction, and that it reconfigures the relationship between reader, text, and context. Jim Stewart, too, discusses Woolf's first novel in "The Birth of Rachel Vinrace from the Spirit of Music," but focuses on circumstantial evidence framing the novel's composition, as opposed to the musically rich passages Varga attends to. Stewart hypothesizes that Woolf's early interest in ancient drama, especially Greek choruses, "informs the larger, agonistic rhythm of The Voyage Out," and argues that the key insight for the young Woolf--derived from Wagner--was "that writing is a form of rhythm and that rhythm enables risks" (119, 120). Stewart also offers a key phrase for thinking about Woolf and modern music, stating that her writing has an "accidental sympathy" with modern music such as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (120). In "'The Worst of Music': Listening and Narrative in Night and Day and 'The String Quartet,'" Vanessa Manhire nicely summarizes a number of the larger arguments in this section, such as that Woolf's "groundbreaking reworking of narrative conventions depends heavily upon her explorations of the ways in which music works, especially for its listeners" (134). Manhire focuses on "scenes of musical performance as well as Woolf's questioning of music's representational capacities," using stylistically disparate texts to show how Woolf explores music "as a potential model for the representation of interiority," and "as a vehicle for the exploration of language" (134). The connection between music and linguistic expression, and the function of interiority, is one made by many of the contributors to this volume, and Manhire clearly lays out the various ways in which Woolf uses music to problematize the relationship between the external world and the world of the mind.
This simultaneous reliance on historical forms and innovative aesthetics carries us into the second half of this section. In "Flying Dutchmen, Wandering Jews: Romantic Opera, Anti-Semitism, and Jewish Mourning," Emma Sutton focuses more narrowly on Mrs. Dalloway's intertextuality with Wagner's opera Der fliegende Hollander, particularly the figure of the Wandering Jew, and the Jewish mourning practice of shivah. Sutton's argument is based on the identifications of "theatrical allusions" and "theatrical vocabulary" throughout the novel that both rely on and reject the Wagnerian model of tragedy. Like Manhire, Elicia Clements focuses on performative elements in Woolf's novels in "The Efficacy of Performance: Musical Events in The Years." Clements argues that music is not always about aesthetics, but also acts as a link between subject matter and method: in The Years, the political and the musical converge through Woolf's foregrounding of aurality. Even more importantly, Clements argues that Woolf values music because it is performative, analyzing representations of musical performance in The Years to "demonstrate that Woolf deftly integrates aspects from the art forms of music, drama, and literature to elaborate practices of aesthetic efficacy" (181). Clements identifies Woolf as "a proto-interdisciplinary thinker" who deployed music in her novels on a crucial level, who uses music as an "interventionist strategy" (185). Like Stewart, Clements highlights Woolf's affinity for Greek history and culture, and argues that The Years makes a direct connection to Greek drama. In a more fragmented collection of vignettes, Thompson ties music to narrative method in "Sounding the Past: The Music in Between the Acts," interpreting Between the Acts as an "experiment with historically infused genres," recapitulating Woolf's engagement with the past and her explorations of alternatives to traditional historiography (216). Oddly, given its placement at the end of this section, Thompson spends multiple pages providing a general overview of word and music studies in order to establish "the tracing of ekphrasis" as most pertinent to Woolf's approach to her final novel. Such a survey of the field would have been most helpful in the introductory contextual section, in order to frame some of the most important debates about the relationship of text and music, but embedded as it is here, it does nothing more than tangentially relate to Thompson's discussion of a single novel.
Part Three, "Music, Art, Film, and Virginia Woolf's Modernist Aesthetics," explores inter-art connections between Woolf's fiction and twentieth-century music, the visual arts, and film. Sanja Bahun, in "Broken Music, Broken History: Sounds and Silence in Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts," opens with a compelling juxtaposition of Schoenberg's description of his objective in music composition alongside Woolf's proclamation about the simultaneity of impressions and the importance of this interiority to the novel in her essay "Modern Fiction." Bahun seeks to address the lack of "traces of her interest in modernist classical music" by making such connections between the aesthetic practices of not only Woolf and Schoenberg, but also Woolf's "mature" art and modernist music more generally (230). She argues that "the semi-ironic, agonistic, 'bared' and 'barred' expression of history in Woolf's last novel is coterminous with the modernist formal experimentation in classical music" (233). Here, she is extending Daniel Albright's "proposition to emancipate a theory of comparative arts so as to disclose mutually illuminating conjunctions of the modernist arts" (233-4). In the penultimate chapter, "'Shivering Fragments': Music, Art, and Dance in Virginia Woolf's Writing," Evelyn Haller cites connections among aspects of art--such as sound in music, language, sculpture, painting, and movement in dance--and focuses on the aurality of Woolf's novels. Haller takes this practice of cataloguing Woolf's mentions of music, also utilized by Szegedy-Maszak, to the extreme: she presents ten fragments, accompanied only by some variation of the remark: "Virginia expresses it best" (265). The final chapter in this collection, Roger Hillman and Deborah Crisp's "Chiming the Hours: A Philip Glass Soundtrack," analyzes the interplay between music, image, and text at work in all three stages of the adaptive process leading to Stephen Daldry's 2002 film The Hours. In a fine example of word and music studies at their best, Hillman and Crisp demonstrate how Glass's music creates the underlying connection between the narrative strands of the film. As with so many of the essays in this volume, Hillman and Crisp are concerned with how the film conveys the dimension of interiority found in Woolf's novel, by combining visuals and music.
Though not crystallized around a central theme or argument, what emerges from this study is a productive and thought-provoking series of gesturingstoward. Amongst all of these intersections and divergent paths, perhaps the most important contribution this volume makes--not only to Woolf studies but to word and music studies--is its rejection of vague musical metaphors to describe the literature in question: "musical emotion" and literary "counterpoint" are rejected in favor of "the musicality of prose," as supported by Woolf's own musical imagery and the "rhythm" of her language. Varga opens the volume with Woolf's well-known statement, written in a letter to violinist Elizabeth Trevelyan: "I always think of my books as music before I write them" (1). For Varga, Woolf's "synesthetic experiences," what Woolf comes to call "moments of being," owe as much to music as to the visual arts she is more commonly associated with. Varga and her fellow contributors do much here to urge our (re)consideration of music alongside the other arts in our understanding of Woolf's synesthetic moments, and make a series of compelling cases for how an understanding of Woolf's musical background, tastes, and numerous metaphors enriches our understanding of her aesthetic.
While this volume may raise many more questions and problems than it answers, the act of opening up space for critical interventions and reconsiderations of modernist music and other arts is a necessary one, and should be welcomed by scholars interested in Woolf, as well as in modernism and music more generally. As Eric Prieto has pointed out, the search for "absolute" or "definitive" criteria of musicality is bound to fail. One of the central tasks for someone attempting an interdisciplinary analysis of a work is "to seek out new and unfamiliar metaphors," and "to try to explain these metaphors in ways that shed light on the underlying concerns that motivate their use," particularly in terms of what new kinds of information are being imparted (Prieto 55, 52). These arguments are essential for an understanding of the connections between music and Woolf's aesthetic development.
Albright, Daniel. Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2004. Print.
Prieto, Eric. Listening In: Music, Mind, and the Modernist Narrative. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002. Print.
Sarah Terry, Oglethorpe University
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|Publication:||Woolf Studies Annual|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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