‘I always think of my books as music before I write them’


It is clear, from her novels and essays, that Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was musically minded. Her writing is full of references to musicians and audiences and the social conventions that surround the world of music. Her short story A Simple Melody explores the challenges of communication, her novel The Years features a performance of Wagner's Siegfried and her very first novel The Voyage Out shows the protagonist performing a Beethoven piano sonata - one usually thought of as too difficult for women.

Life and influences:

Born in London, Woolf acquired a basic musical education from a young age. She continued to listen to music throughout her life and she kept a record of her experiences at musical events. It was at such events that she cultivated a love of musical performance and begin to consider how music relates to language, communication and expression.

Influenced by Wagner’s treatment of musical motifs in his operas, Woolf dreamt of modelling music’s form of total expression in her writing. Musical references could shed light on aspects that could not be expressed by the power of words alone.

To Woolf, music possessed a kind of hyper-proximity to the truth. Musical allusions in her novels permitted her to comment on society.

Musical allusions:

As early as 1915, Woolf began to challenge the traditional place of women within musical composition and performance in her novel The Voyage. Her close contact with composer Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) further consolidated her growing feminism. Smyth was a suffragette and radical activist for equality who went on to study music despite the disapproval of her father.

In Night and Day (1919) Woolf covertly calls the power of patriarchal society into question, with allusions to Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Cassandra exemplifies the feminine model of 'musical accomplishment' with her flute playing, and conversations on music between Jacob and Bonamy emphasise priveleged educations of male characters.

Referencing the opera Siegfried, Woolf contrasts Wagner’s anti-Semitism with the sympathetic attitude towards Jews in her novel The Years (1937). A further comment on the imperial activities of Edwardian society features in Jacob’s Room (1922) with a performance of Tristan. That Woolf engaged much with Wagner's work throughout her life suggests that diegetic references are serious, despite there only being few.

More recently, Max Richter released Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works (2017) – a three-movement work composed for a Royal Ballet production, and based on Woolf’s best loved novels: Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves. Woolf’s voice seems to be audible throughout the work, with fragments from her letters and diaries featured throughout.