‘Weaving Threads: Virginia Woolf & String Quartets’ concert, 3 November 2016

‘Weaving Threads: Virginia Woolf & String Quartets’ was performed by the Kreutzer Quartet on 3 November 2016 at Robinson College Chapel, Cambridge.

This concert takes its cue from Woolf’s extraordinary experimental short fiction, ‘The String Quartet’ (1921). The work explores the pleasures and frustrations of ‘capturing’ music in language, celebrating music’s capacity to stimulate memories and associations. It celebrates too music’s own ‘weaving’ into a formal ‘pattern’ and ‘consummation’.

Several musical works have been proposed as ‘sources’ for this story. In selecting the repertoire for this concert we have concentrated not on works that may have directly ‘influenced’ her story but on those that illuminate Woolf’s interest in the string quartet. Thus the programme includes works by composers she loved (Bach and Beethoven), new music that responds to her writing (Thurlow) and quartets that evoke her interest in contemporary music (Rainier) and in textual allusion (Schwartz). As ‘The String Quartet’ shows, Woolf seems to have been fascinated by the intimacy of the ensemble format, the formal constraints governing composition for four parts and, above all, the discursive character of string quartets.

J. S. Bach – Fugue in E Major, BWV 878 (arranged by Mozart, K 405)

Das wohltemperierte Klavier was central in establishing the tonalities of Western classical music and Bach’s fugal writing has long been studied by composers to develop their knowledge of polyphony and counterpoint. Mozart had already composed fugues (e.g. the fourth movement of String Quartet No. 13, K 173) when he set out in 1782-3 to transcribe Bach’s four-voice fugues for string quartet. The result allows the listener to hear Bach’s fugal writing in a new way. The individuality of each voice is celebrated and coloured uniquely by each instrument’s timbre, giving the fugue a clarity that keyboardists can only aspire to. Meanwhile, the interplay of the voices is celebrated, and the harmonic tensions heightened as the players respond to each other in counterpoint.

References to Bach’s music pepper Woolf’s fiction. In The Voyage Out, the pianist Rachel Vinrace has an ‘intense enthusiasm’ for the composer, drawing ‘figures in the thin white dust to explain how Bach wrote his fugues’. It’s possible that the double plot of Mrs Dalloway, whose protagonist ‘loves Bach’, is formally indebted to fugue’s dualistic structure that juxtaposes subject and countersubject (it also evokes a contemporary term for shell shock, ‘hysterical fugue’). Woolf attended performances at the Bach Festival of 1920 and the Woolfs eventually owned c.80 recordings of Bach’s music (including, later, Wanda Landowska’s famous recording of Das wohltemperierte Klavier on the harpsichord). Mozart’s transcriptions of five four-voice fugues from Book II of Das wohltemperierte Klavier were educational exercises, not unlike Woolf’s 1924 observation on her diary that ‘in this book I practise writing; do my scales; yes & work at certain effects.’ Typically, Woolf thinks of her own creative practice in musical terms.

Priaulx Rainier – String Quartet

Born in South Africa in 1903, Priaulx Rainier grew up surrounded by the sounds and rhythms of Africa. In 1920, she moved to London to study the violin and it was not until the 1930s that she began to compose. Without any substantial formal compositional training she set out on the formidable task of finding her own voice and bringing her recollections of the sounds of Africa to Western classical music. Written in 1939 at the age of 36, the String Quartet was only her second published work and is striking in both its self-assurance and its individuality of style. Her use of contrasting textures is particularly striking, and it is perhaps the final movement where African influence can be most clearly heard.

The Allegro molto serioso opens the work with an angular melody in quavers, which is then joined in unison at the octave before the upper instruments enter in strong triadic harmony. Throughout the movement, the triads provide a robust foundation, underpinning the harmonic development and contrasting vividly with further repetitions of the quaver melody. The Vivace leggiero grazioso opens with playful rhythmic fragments and an abundance of pizzicato before the eventual appearance of a melody that is elongated to a more lyrical crotchet rhythm. The rhythmic fragments and pizzicato textures continue throughout the movement, expertly woven round the melodic statements. The Andante tranquillo (excerpted in the above video) presents a theme at rest in a gentle homophonic texture, which grows in passionate intensity before it is offset by the brief appearance of a pizzicato rhythm in the lower register. The final movement, marked Presto spirituoso, presents jagged bursts of melody set against ostinato accompaniment, bringing the piece to a frenzied close.

Rainer’s oblique connections to Woolf – her love of St Ives, where she had a studio; her brief study with Nadia Boulanger, who Woolf met in 1936; and her friendship with Michael Tippett (whose admiration for Woolf was such that he considered quoting Between the Acts in The Knot Garden) – are less significant than the formal parallels. Both spent their adult lives in the company of artists and sculptors (notably, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson in Rainier’s case), acknowledging the formative influence of visual art on their own work; in ‘The String Quartet’, music is often evoked through colour and kinetic energy. Woolf and Rainier’s shared commitment to constant formal innovation and assured handling of densely woven textures are also striking. Woolf was familiar with a number of contemporary musical idioms fusing African and European elements – notably jazz, a topic of several books on music published by the Hogarth Press – and the Woolfs’ record collection included a few examples of non-Western music, including ‘Congo’ music.

Elliott Schwartz – String Quartet No. 3: Portrait (for Deedee)

Elliott Schwartz wrote:

My String Quartet No. 3: Portrait is, literally, a “portrait” of my late wife Dorothy, known to all as Deedee. It was composed for our good friend Peter Sheppard Skaerved and the Kreutzer Quartet.

I regard the work as a tribute to Deedee’s remarkably multi-faceted life, a look back at her rich artistic career, a response to her sudden death (after only a brief illness) in 2014, and a celebration of her wide-ranging musical tastes. Regarding the latter: I have embedded a number of quotes within the quartet’s texture. These include passages from the Western musical canon (works that she was particularly fond of), and compositions of my own that held special meaning for her. I’ve also based much of my thematic material on musical spellings of her name and mine.

Finally, three composer colleagues, on learning of Deedee’s death, were kind enough to write pieces in her memory. I’ve incorporated fragments of their memorial works into my quartet’s fabric.

Jeremy Thurlow – Memory is the Seamstress

Jeremy Thurlow wrote:

Written specially for the Kreutzer Quartet and commissioned by Virginia Woolf & Music, my quartet comprises six short movements in contrasting moods. I took as my jumping-off point a marvellous passage from Orlando (1928):

Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case, nature, who delights in muddle and mystery, so that even now we know not why we go upstairs, or why we come down again, our most daily movements are like the passage of a ship on an unknown sea, and the sailors at the mast-head ask, pointing their glasses to the horizon: Is there land or is there none? to which, if we are prophets, we make answer “Yes”; if we are truthful we say “No”; nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldy length of this sentence, has further complicated her task and added to our confusion by providing not only a perfect ragbag of odds and ends within us—but has contrived that the whole assortment shall be lightly stitched together by a single thread. Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind. Instead of being a single, downright, bluff piece of work of which no man need feel ashamed, our commonest deeds are set about with a fluttering and flickering of wings, a rising and falling of lights.

Ludwig van Beethoven – String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135

This string quartet is Beethoven’s last complete opus, written in October 1826, just five months before his death. His previous four ‘late’ quartets were distinctly modernist and consequently poorly received by his contemporaries. This final quartet is less exploratory than its predecessors and acts like an epilogue for Beethoven’s catalogue of works.

Beethoven knew Op. 135 was to be his last quartet. He sent the manuscript to his publisher with the following note enclosed:

Here, my dear friend, is my last quartet. It will be the last; and indeed it has given me much trouble. For I could not bring myself to compose the last movement. But as your letters were reminding me of it, in the end I decided to compose it. And that is the reason why I have written the motto: ‘The difficult decision – Must it be? – It must be, it must be!’ (Melvin Berger)

The quartet opens with a whimsical Allegretto that alternates homophonic passages with contrapuntal writing, all the while adhering to Classical sonata form. The following Vivace is a robust scherzo in which the violins are paired against the lower strings. Its jovial theme is frequently interrupted by a single pitch Eb which is passed round the strings before they resume their game. The Lento assai (excerpted in the above video) is a hymn-like cantata with a tragic middle section. The opening Grave section of the final movement (Der schwer gefasste Entschluss/The difficult decision) presents a three-note motif which poses the question ‘Muss es sein?/Must it be?’ The Allegro answers with a joyfully determined inversion of the three-note motif and the text ‘Es muss sein!/It must be!’

Woolf’s writing is profoundly indebted to Beethoven’s work, apparent in her numerous allusions to the composer in her fiction, in her recollection that the decision to end The Waves with Bernard’s long monologue came whilst listening to the late quartets and in her statement that ‘Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world’. Woolf heard the London String Quartet play the complete quartets in 1921 and the Woolfs owned several recordings of Op. 135, including those by the Hollywood Quartet and the first recording of the complete quartets (by the Léner Quartet for Columbia in the 1930s). Op. 135 juxtaposes despair and affirmation (‘sorrow and joy’, as ‘The String Quartet’ puts it), and itself explores the parallels between writing and music via the ingenious repetition and inversion of words and notes.