Virginia Woolf and Musical Performance

This is an extract from the beginning of Professor Claire Davison’s talk, given at Lucy Cavendish College on 29 November 2017 to an audience of 50 from town and gown. Our warmest thanks to her Claire a fascinating lecture and discussion.


The talk was introduced by a short extract from the Overture to Ethel Smyth’s opera The Wreckers, in a recording from 1911 conducted by Smyth herself.

In June 1930, Virginia Woolf wrote to Ethel Smyth:

If only I weren’t a writer, perhaps I could thank you and praise you and admire you perfectly simply and expressively and say in one word what I felt about the Concert yesterday. As it is, an image forms in my mind; a quickset briar hedge, innumerably intricate and spiky and thorned; in the centre burns a rose. Miraculously, the rose is you; flushed pink, wearing pearls. The thorn hedge is the music; and I have to break my way through violins, flutes, cymbals, voices to this burning centre. Now I admit this has nothing to do with musical criticism. It is only what I feel as I sat on my silver winged (was it winged?) chair on the slippery floor yesterday. I am enthralled that you, the dominant and superb, should have this tremor and vibration of fire around you – violins flickering, flutes purring; (the image is of a winter hedge) – that you should be able to create this world from your centre. (Virginia Woolf to Ethel Smyth, June 1930, Collected Letters vol. IV, pp. 171-2)

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Woolf’s oft-quoted letter to Smyth, with its evocative, idiosyncratic cameo portrait of the composer, shows the powerful inspiration of a new friend, whom Woolf would describe in somewhat punchier terms six months later as being ‘of the race of pioneers, of path makers, […] who has gone before and felled trees and blasted rocks and built bridges and thus made a way for all those who come after her.’ (1) The quotation is also one of the very rare instances of a minor editorial oversight in the Letters of Virginia Woolf: there is no footnote contextualising the event, which was most likely a concert of Smyth’s music at Mansion House, London. (2) The repertoire that evening included her overture to The Wreckers, Spring Canticle and the Anacreontic Ode. Such details matter. They suggest that the miraculous pink flushed rose in the spiky, burning hedge may be less a dazzling and rather daring metaphor than a transposition of a very vividly recalled scene: that of the impassioned, conductor energetically directing the ring of musicians performing around her.

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There has been a welcome awakening of critical interest in recent years in what was in many ways an oddly mismatched intimacy between the two women in the 1930s; in literary and modernist studies however, accounts of Smyth still tend to favour caricature or anecdote, and surprisingly little attention has been paid to Smyth’s musicianship or to the mutual interplay of literary and musical influences in otherwise detailed recent accounts of their relationship. Similarly, the importance of music in Woolf’s life and writing has been splendidly documented in recent years, shedding light on Woolf’s sensitive awareness of the awkward relationship between music and language for example, the influence of Wagner, comic opera, and the musical form of modernist narrative strategies, along with the interwoven domains of twentieth-century music, literature and philosophy. (3) 

There is a tendency among professional musicians, however, to suspect that literary appropriations of musical motifs and musical representation tend as Smyth herself put it, ‘to go strangely astray’. (4) The literary critic, for example, is inevitably drawn to the stories music tells as an embedded narrative, to equate musicality and expressive elegance, to seize on apparent structural analogies (sonata form, symphonic form, fugue for example), or to etherealise and dematerialise music. Pater famously claimed that ‘All art constantly aspires to the condition of music’ but this is a personal and in fact rather vague claim, not a truth. What is this condition of music to which the arts supposedly aspire?  Is there such a thing as a condition of music? Does music actually have it, or only aspire to it? While such questions can only tantalise, there is no denying that what music does have is a powerful performative effect whether it is being heard, read about, or remembered. This power of music in performance is still only partly understood by neurologists today, as they seek to chart how the brain receives, stores and retrieves the structural density, complex sonic patterns, rhythmic momentum and profound emotional appeal of music, and the part these play in the tenacity of musical memory. (5)

My talk aims to fill in some of the blanks by focusing on music in performance in Woolf’s work. To return to the opening quotation, I wish to address music not in terms of story, narrative form or a highly metaphoric expression of dawning friendship, but as an expression of her powerfully vivid recollections and evocations of music being performed, a reflection of what happens when music happens. As we shall see, this notably implies taking music out of bounds, from the concert hall to the hedgerow briars, so to speak, and from the domestic salon to the political arena. To do so, I draw on three interwoven facets of music, and three very different works:

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• the short story, ‘The String Quartet’ which I explore as ‘a listening text’;
• Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, and the question of ‘performing out of music’;
• what I refer to as ‘Singing Songs of Sixpence’ in Three Guineas.


(1) Virginia Woolf, ‘Speech before the London/National Society for Women’s Service, 21 January 1931’, in The Pargiters by Virgina Woolf: The Novel Essay Portion of the Years, ed. Mitchell Leaska (Hogarth Press, 1977), pp. xxvii-xxviii.
(2) Library, Royal College of Music, London.
(3) See in particular Emma Sutton’s outstanding monograph, Virginia Woolf and Classical Music (Edinburgh University Press, 2013), and also Adriana Varga’s edited collection, Virginia Woolf and Music (Indiana University Press, 2014).
(4) Ethel Smyth, ‘Where Musical Criticism Goes Astray’, Female Pipings in Eden (London: Peter Davies, 1933), pp. 71-86.
(5) See in particular Oliver Sach’s Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (Knopf, 2007).

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