Column: A personal view. Virginia Woolf on Mozart Beethoven and Bach

Posted on May 28th, 2018 by

Column: A personal view

1. Virginia Woolf on Mozart Beethoven and Bach


Peter Sheppard Skærved writes:


‘Woolf’s love for music, and its importance in her day to day life, rings through her letters, essays and diaries. She wrote most often about Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and we have reflected this in the concert. Beethoven’s last quartet (which she loved) is paired it up with Mozart’s last work in the medium. To balance this, there a dialogue between Bach and Mozart, through realisations of three fugues from the ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ as string quartets.

Virginia Woolf in 1902, by George Charles Beresford

Woolf was one of the first writers to document the impact of broadcast and recorded music as much as hearing it ‘live’. She often seemed to treasure the free counterpoint possible listening to recordings, more than the type of concentration required in the concert hall:

‘We listened to a Bach concert with the clouds thickening purple over Caburn, the lights springing, & the pale cadaverous  glow in the chalk pit. At one moment the brown horses stampeded – flinging out their great legs wildly. The worst of it is that my brain fills too fast-overflows.’

Woolf observed her wandering thoughts as she listened. Here she is, at the funeral of the painter and critic Roger Fry in 1934:

‘They played Bach. Then the coffin moved slowly through the doors. They shut. They played again-Anon, I think: old music. Yes, I liked the wordlessness.’

She seemed to find her failure to get to a concert almost as inspirational as getting into her seat. Here, a thwarted visit to the Wigmore Hall in 1921:

‘I ought to be about to set off to the Wigmore Hall, to hear Bach: & nature has intervened: & I am, with my usual economy, asking myself how I can get the utmost possible pleasure out of such evening, which I spend alone…’

Reading Woolf’s diaries and letters, I am struck again and again, by the inspiration which she finds in less-than-successful listening. Here’s a note from the same year:

‘I went up to the concert, and heard the ghosts of lovely things, since the substance somehow escaped me: […] even so, the ghosts of two Bach pieces (one for a duet of violins) were lovely.’

The ‘ghosts of two Bach pieces’, are not far from her 1918 account of how she believed earlier writers had listened, lost themselves, in the contemplation of beauty, natural or man-made :

‘If Coleridge heard music he wanted hours and hours of Mozart and Purcell; if he liked a picture he fell into a trance in front of it; if he saw a sunset he almost lost consciousness in the rapture of gazing at it. Our society makes no provision for these apparitions.’

Woolf was moved and challenged by music, and its apparent distance from the other arts. Perhaps her effort to understand it, to rationalise it, offered a standard of creative incongruity to which she aspired in writing. In a 1908 essay she remarked:

‘Music (it may be), raises associations in the mind which are incongruous with the associations raised by another art; the effort to resolve them into one clear conception is painful, and the mind is constantly woken and disillusioned.’

There is something moving about her initially prosaic description of settling down to listen (and think), to a cycle of Beethoven quartets, plopping her handbag on the floor by her chosen seat at the back of a hall, in 1927:

‘But every afternoon for a week, I’ve been up to the Aeolian Hall; taken my seat right at the back; put my bag on the floor & listened to Beethoven Quartets. Do I dare say listened – Well if one gets a lot of pleasure, really divine pleasure, & knows the tunes, & only occasionally thinks of other things- surely I may say listened. We are just back from the 5th [concert, where Op 135 was played]’

Woolf was convinced that musicians wielded extraordinary power, perhaps more than other artists. In an early essay, written in 1905, she noted:

‘…a musician is not merely a useful creature, to many, I believe, he is the most dangerous of the whole tribe of artists. Here is the minister of the wildest of gods, who has not yet learnt to speak with human voice, or to convey to the mind the likeness of human things.’

I have the sense that she sought to tap this wildness; often it seems that her writing and listening are in powerful dialectic. Here she is, working on The Waves in 1927:

‘But it [‘The Waves’] needs ripening. I do a little work on it in the evening when the gramophone is playing late Beethoven. The windows fidget at the fastenings as if we were at sea.’

A 1930 diary reveals that the analytical processes of listening and  writing were inseparable:

‘It occurred to me last night while listening to a late Beethoven quartet that I would merge all the interjected passages into Bernard’s final speech, & end with the words O Solitude: thus making him absorb all those scenes , & having no further break. This is also to show that the effort, effort, dominates: not the waves: & personality: & defiance: but I am not sure of the effect artistically; because the proportions may need the intervention of the waves finally so as to make a conclusion.’

Is she writing about the Beethoven’s process, her own, or somehow, both?

Woolf noted the other writers, such George Bernard Shaw, at the concert halls which she haunted. Unlike Shaw, who had begun his public career as a music critic, she admitted that writing about music coherently was next-to-impossible. In 1915, she wrote:

‘…the hall was nearly full – & it was a divine concert. But one of the things I decided as I listened (it’s difficult not to think of other things) was that all descriptions of music are quite worthless, & rather unpleasant; they are apt to be hysterical, & to say things that people will be ashamed of having said afterwards.’

But it seems to me that, in an ideal world, listening to music was something that Woolf preferred to do in the comfort of her home. The radio and gramophone were ideal media for Woolf. How she would have loved Spotify, or YouTube. Here she is in 1927:

‘And now the wind is making the tin screen over the gas fire rattle. How we protect ourselves from the elements! Coming back last night I thought, owing to civilisation, I, who am now cold, wet & hungry, can be warm & satisfied & listening to a Mozart 4tet in 15 minutes. And so I was.’