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Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry [Source: Wikipedia]
22 Jul 2013

A Music Of One’s Own: From The Diary of Virginia Woolf

The final concert in pianist Julius Drake’s Perspectives series united song, literature and biography through the prism of Dominick Argento’s Pulitzer Prize-winning song-cycle, From the Diary of Virginia Woolf.

A Music Of One’s Own: From The Diary of Virginia Woolf

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry [Source: Wikipedia]


Written in 1974 for Dame Janet Baker, the sequence of eight songs sets text drawn from Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary (a condensed version of the diaries edited by her husband, Leonard Woolf), and adopts the model of Schumann’s Frauenliebe and Leben, presenting reflections and episodes spanning a whole lifetime. The intimate setting of the Wigmore Hall was perfectly suited to establishing the necessary air of privacy, as the audience ‘eaves-drops’ on the inner musings of the writer. In this instance, the introspection of the vocal ruminations was complemented and developed in readings and presentations between the songs of extracts from Woolf’s letters, diaries and her novel, The Voyage Out.

These are hugely testing songs for both singer and pianist, and mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and Julius Drake rose impressively to these challenges. Argento’s sensitive settings of the complicated prose texts are written in a densely motivic medium which combines tonality, atonality and a lyrical serialism, and the score contains a multitude of precise performance instructions. The passions and sensations conveyed are extreme, varied and abruptly juxtaposed, reflecting the composer’s desire to convey a ‘wide range of emotions yet whole and singular, something feminine but not hackneyed sentiments’.

The first song, ‘The Diary’, presents a passage from an early diary of 1919. Already married to Leonard Woolf, the young writer had suffered a mental breakdown in 1917 but subsequently resumed writing in the journal which she had begun at 15 years-of-age, and Argento’s setting is tentative yet hopeful. Above a sparse yet gentle accompaniment, Sarah Connolly’s opening tone row, lyrically undulating and repeated throughout the song in the piano texture, instituted a speculative mood, ‘What sort of diary should I like mine to be?’, while Drake’s delicate piano interplay suggested the writer’s internal thoughts. Connolly used colour to convey different ideas and feelings, the slight pauses between the words ‘solemn’, ‘bright’ and ‘beautiful’ emphasising her fluctuating deliberations. At times, the static vocal line and parlando style of delivery enabled the soprano to evoke Woolf’s serene isolation, but she was ever alert for the more lyrical nuances and arioso gestures, shaping the rising 7th of ‘mysteriously’ - as Woolf contemplates the way that thoughts revisited, though initially unsettling, can strangely cohere - with beautiful delicacy.

Connolly.gifSarah Connolly [Photo by Peter Warren courtesy of Askonas Holt]

The tranquillity was immediately shattered in ‘Anxiety’, where the dissonance, wide-ranging dynamics, shifting meters and unrelenting rhythmic vigour conveyed the writer’s inner turmoil. The piano’s agitated repetitive pulsing propelled the fleeting song to its distraught conclusion, while the right hand doubled Connolly’s unsettled vocal line with absolute rhythmic precision. The frantic question, ‘Why?’, was repeated again and again, building in emotional intensity as we were granted a transitory glimpse of a mind in psychological distress.

‘Fancy’ presents Woolf’s initial conception of the novel, The Waves (1931), the fragmented form reflecting Woolf’s ambition to write ‘prose which many of the characteristics of poetry. It will have something of the exaltation of poetry, but much more of the ordinariness of prose’. Argento responds to the text’s prosaic and mystical qualities; frequent changes of meter and tempo create an improvisatory ambience as the piano articulates a detailed motivic development of the principal ideas. After the dream-like sweetness of the tonally stable introduction, Connolly boldly declared with vocal pomp, ‘Why not invent a new kind of play?’. Her deliberations once again musically underscored opposing feelings, the lyrical triplet of ‘Woman thinks’ contrasting with the heavy ‘masculine’ tread of the piano chords which accompany, ‘He does’. Similarly, a focused forte for ‘They say’ diminished to a subtle pianissimo with the line ‘They miss’. Connolly used a luxuriantly expressive lower register in the song’s closing lines, painting the falling semitone in ‘Night speaks’ with an evocative tint, Drake’s subsequent postlude - the juxtaposed tonal colours a micro-version of the ‘interview chords’ in Billy Budd - supplying rich but equivocal suggestions.

The performers ranged through similarly diverse, extreme musical and mental moods in ‘Hardy’s Funeral’. The liturgical mood was launched by Drake’s plainchant-like chords bare fifths, and sustained through the song as the funeral service proceeded. Connolly suggested Woolf’s detachment from the ritual, and her sarcasm - ‘One catches a bishop’s frown and twitch’, before the appearance of the ‘over-grown coffin’ unleashed thick rolling chords signifying both the grandeur of the public ceremony and the insincerity of the melodrama. The unmeasured utterances of the final lines were poignantly introspective, as the soprano conveyed the writer’s melancholy resignation: ‘and then a sense of my own fame … and a sense of the futility of it all.’

fiona-shaw-profile.gifFiona Shaw

The sights and scenes which had made an impression during Woolf’s travels to Italy in 1935 were depicted in ‘Rome’, the spontaneous gestures of the piano evoking the randomness of the recollections. Drake exploited the word- and mood-painting to the full, the single word ‘Music’ triggering a dance-like lilting motif, while Connolly’s sliding tritones suggested the ear-grating squawk of ‘Fierce large jowled old ladies … talking about Monaco’. Light irritation turned to a darker annoyance at the close, as the writer, who scorned public garlands as false and meaningless, remembered ‘The Prime Minister’s letter offering to recommend me for the Companion of Honour’. A subtle pianissimo prepared for her reply: ‘No’ was stated three times, the final brusque low semi-quaver muted yet resolute.

Having known personally the bitter grief of wartime bereavement, Woolf recorded the anxiety and destabilisation which accompanied the approach and commencement of World War II. ‘War’, which Argento describes as a ‘long cadenza for voice’, was uncompromisingly concentrated. Connolly’s unaccompanied soprano, focused and perceptively expressive, powerfully conveyed the writer’s isolation and disorientation, the syllabic melody occasionally flowering into melisma at key points. Drake provided the impressionistic backdrop: a high, rapid repeating pattern evoked the shriek of falling bombs, screeching plans and screaming sirens, while a pounding bass articulated a menacing march, the latter forming in the final bars a tolling knell which faded into the silence.

In ‘Parents’ (the text drawn from A Sketch of the Past (1939)), Woolf recounts memories and wonders whether the events and experiences of childhood have shaped the emotions of her adult self, fluctuating between idealised illusion and disenchanting reality. The simple, lyrical ‘How beautiful they were’, with its tender Finzi-esque harmonies, is repeated throughout the song, indicating the writer’s thought processes; the reminiscences of a world so ‘serene and gay’ initiate a waltz-like accompaniment gesture. Connolly moved from reverie to more ecstatic recollections, as she mused upon ‘the children and the little hum and song of the nursery’ but a painful truth intruded. In low, static quasi-speech, she rejected ‘introspection’. Drake’s final repetition of the ‘How beautiful’ motif was similarly truncated, the incomplete and fragile dream slipping once more into reality, and air of incomprehension poignantly anticipating the final song and its tragic conclusion.

‘The Last Entry’ in fact sets text from the penultimate diary entry before Woolf’s suicide in 1941. Drake’s rippling, syncopated chords suggested the instability and inner conflicts of the writer’s mind, while Connolly effectively emphasised the repetitions of ‘No’ (‘No. I intend no introspection.’), in a manner evoking the mental distress of ‘Anxiety’ with its insistent questioning, ‘Why?’. A determined attempt to quell fretfulness culminated in a surprising and unsettling silence, followed by mundane reflections on the dinner that must be cooked. Connolly’s ever-quieter repetitions of the impenetrable assertion that ‘one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down’ conveyed the troubling complexity of the words - she seemed to drift into a spell-bound remoteness.

Woolf remarked Henry James’s instruction to ‘observe perpetually’ and, thus fittingly, the song restates material from the preceding songs, most powerfully in the final bars where the closing, yet inconclusive, lines of the opening song are reprised, form perfectly complementing meaning: ‘I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life …’

Kate_Kennedy.jpgDr Kate Kennedy, Girton College, Cambridge

Presenting the biographical and literary extracts (selected by Dr Kate Kennedy), actress Fiona Shaw illuminated the full range of Woolf’s moods, attitudes and reveries. Sharp humour and flippant sarcasm were juxtaposed with moments of melancholy and despair. And, emphasising the fact that Woolf’s diaries were both a personal, private record and, often, a technical writing exercise, Shaw moved from side- to centre-stage, now seated at her writing desk, poised pen in hand, now addressing us directly, ‘performing’ her text.

Shaw used her experience to modulate and modify her voice and, after the first few spoken passages, overcame the resonance of the Hall and communicated with clarity. Occasionally, however, as she slipped back into reverie and the music resumed its narrative, Shaw threw away the closing words of the extracts, where most meaning lay. More problematic was the fact that the spoken text added a ‘dramatic’ dimension which is not present in the song cycle itself; the latter emphasises the meditative solitude of the diarist and the singer’s daydreams should come across as a sort of indirect free speech which we are privileged to overhear. Indeed, Argento has himself suggested that ‘songs, I feel, are meant to be “delivered in”, addressed only to the singer and not “consciously” shared with the audience’. Shaw was at times too extrovert and direct, her presentations ‘filling in’ and developing hints and suggestions which are already ambiguously but satisfyingly intimated in the music.

Woolf’s prose is inherently, and deliberately, ‘musical’ in its rhythms, cadences and sounds, as she sought to replicate in language the perceived effects of music: ‘After all we are in a world of imitations; all the Arts that is to say imitate as far as they can the one great truth that all can see. Such is the eternal instinct of the human beast; to try and reproduce something of that majesty in paint, marble or ink. Somehow ink tonight seems to me the least effectual method of all - music the nearest to truth.’

In this impressively composed and moving performance, Drake and Connolly certainly allowed and enabled the music speak for itself, consciously crafting the constant interplay between voice and piano. It was a typically thought-provoking and accomplished conclusion to the Perspectives series.

Claire Seymour


Dominick Argento (b.1927): From the Diary of Virginia Woolf (1974) .

Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Fiona Shaw, reader; Julius Drake, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Saturday, 20th July 2013 .


Argento, Dominick. ‘The Composer and the Singer’. NATS Bulletin (33), May 1977.

Woolf, Virginia. Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters of Virginia Woolf, ed. Joanne Trautmann Banks. London: The Hogarth Press, 1989.

——A Moment’s Liberty: The Shorter Diary . Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys, 1990.

——A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals of Virginia Woolf , ed. Mitchell A. Leaska. London: The Hogarth Press, 1990.

——A Writer’s Diary , ed. Leonard Woolf. London: The Hogarth Press, 1953.

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