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Music’s role in Decadent art and debates about Decadence was varied, almost ubiquitous and at times contradictory: it cannot be confined to particular composers, to formal matters, to metaphor or even to musically informed usage. This chapter makes this diversity (some would say messiness) a principle of the argument, embracing the breadth of meanings attached both to Decadence and to music’s role in it. Decadence is here understood broadly, acknowledging its currency in and across disciplines and discourses including (most pertinently to this chapter, but not limited to) the mental sciences, art history, literary criticism, aesthetics and sexology. Recognizing music’s importance to Decadent art and its reception involves acknowledging music’s intersection with discourses from evolutionary theory to sexology to mysticism to nationalism and consumerism. This chapter begins by briefly surveying musical allusions in Decadent writing and considering music’s importance to Decadent style and formal innovations. It turns then to music’s role in the cultural and critical discourse about Decadence.
The idea of decadent music may be as old as music itself, dating back at least to classical antiquity. This chapter offers a history of the concept from the classical period through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the eighteenth century, before concentrating on the explosion of the idea across Europe from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. Classical writings often invoke a model of music that can be understood as proto-decadent ? for which read morally ‘bad’, formally flawed, hyper-affective, enervating, or corrupting in some way ? even if the term itself is not used. Then, as later, decadent music was perceived and defined by its effect on its listeners or by its formal properties, as Nietzsche understood Wagnerian opera in the nineteenth century. Music, it seems, has always been understood to contain the potential to disrupt and contaminate itself and its audience, requiring aesthetic, social, even state control ? control articulated via the idea of decadence.
The Voyage Out was, many contemporaries noted, an arrestingly modern work. In a letter to Woolf, Lytton Strachey observed that it was ‘very, very unvictorian’, and reviews variously described it as a novel of ‘modern manners’, the characters as ‘contemporary people’ and the protagonists as ‘modern lovers’. As the previous chapter proposed, The Voyage Out is profoundly shaped by Wagner's music dramas and by ideas about music. Written in a period when art music had, for at least a century, occupied a revered place in European culture and aesthetic theory, Woolf's novel registers music's exceptional cultural prestige and shifting attitudes towards responses to music and their representation in fiction. The Voyage Out can be placed in a long line of novels featuring musicians as protagonists or in which music is prominent in the action and dialogue: in this respect Woolf's first novel has a rather ‘Victorian’ subject. Some of the characters, too, express responses to music that might have come straight from a fin-de-siècle novel: Clarissa Dalloway's arch remarks about the ‘“divine”’ and ‘“thrilling”’ Tristan are the most conspicuous examples. Clarissa's dismissal of ‘“the kind of attitudes people go into over Wagner”’ (VO, 46–7) hardly dilutes the mannered emotionalism of her own recollections, and indeed Woolf's own writing about music occasionally employs similarly Aesthetic, perhaps specifically Paterian, language: referring, in a letter of 1906, to ‘a debauch of music’ she eulogised the ‘pure simple notes – smooth from all passion and frailty, and flawless as gems’ (L, I: 263–4).
She said she loved Bach. So did Hutton. That was the bond between them, and Hutton (a very bad poet) always felt that Mrs Dalloway was far the best of the great ladies who took an interest in art. It was odd how strict she was. About music she was purely impersonal. She was rather a prig. But how charming to look at! She made her house so nice, if it weren't for her Professors. Clarissa had half a mind to snatch him off and set him down at the piano in the back room. For he played divinely.
This unobtrusive conversation from the final section of Mrs Dalloway takes place at the party, the event that concludes the day the novel traces. As the enthusiasm of hostess and guest suggests, Bach's fugues – the objects, as Grove puts it, of ‘almost universal esteem’ since at least the early nineteenth century – were enjoying a renewed vogue in the 1920s, partly due to the rise of musical neo-classicism. Allusions to Bach are scattered throughout Woolf's letters and diaries of this period, and she attended several concerts at the Bach Festival in 1920 before starting work on the texts that became this novel; the Woolfs' record collection eventually included eighty recordings of Bach's music.
I went to Tristan the other night; but the love making bored me. When I was your age I thought it the most beautiful thing in the world – or was it only in deference to Saxon?
(L, III: 56)
In his dazzling and provocative Romantic Opera and Literary Form (1977), Peter Conrad proposed:
music and drama are dubious, even antagonistic, partners […] opera's actual literary analogue is the novel. Drama is limited to the exterior life of action, and romanticism increasingly deprecates both the tedious willfulness of action and the limits of the form which transcribes it. The novel, in contrast, can explore the interior life of motive and desire and is naturally musical because mental. It traces the motions of thought, of which music is an image. Opera is more musical novel than musical drama.
Conrad's argument springs from his analysis of Wagner's portmanteau term ‘music-drama’, and from his contention that this term succeeded as a slogan precisely because it elided consideration of ‘the exact nature of [music and drama's] alliance’: ‘[t]he equivalence between music and words which Wagner's theory of opera as drama assumes is a false compact. Actually the two are more like enemies. Music liquifies words, subduing them into notes; song infects language with an inspired unreason.’
In May 1913, the Woolfs heard Wagner's Ring at Covent Garden. It was at least the fifth cycle Woolf had attended since her first in 1898 and it was to be her last. She wrote to Ka Cox:
We came up here 10 days ago to attend the Ring – and I hereby state that I will never go again, and you must help us both to keep to that. My eyes are bruised, my ears dulled, my brain a mere pudding of pulp – O the noise and the heat, and the bawling sentimentality, which used once to carry me away, and now leaves me sitting perfectly still. Everyone seems to have come to this opinion, though some pretend to believe still.
(L, II: 26)
Woolf's disenchantment appears unequivocal. Characterising the Ring as bellicose, domineering and debilitating, her wearied account is unsurprising in the context of rising nationalist and patriotic rhetoric during the advent of the First World War: in this period, Wagner was central to debates about the relationship between music and what Kramer calls ‘socio-cultural agency’, as he is for many still. Yet Woolf's enduring engagement with Wagner was far more unresolved than this ‘break’ suggests – though it is suggestive that she sets the long Wagner scene in The Years in 1910, the year when ‘human character changed’ (E, III: 421).
In 1918, Roger Fry decorated a small keyboard instrument made the previous year by the great instrument-maker and exponent of early music, Arnold Dolmetsch. The spinet, now in the Courtauld Gallery, London, embodies an eclectic mix of stylistic elements and wider social, political and aesthetic associations. Its closed lid displays abstract shapes suggestive of the Salon Cubism of Gleizes and Metzinger (Fig. 1). Amid the rectilinear shapes a circle, resembling the soundhole of a stringed instrument, contains parallel lines that apparently represent the location of the spinet's strings – a motif familiar from innovative works including Picasso's Guitar and Braque's Woman with a Guitar (both 1913). Where a historical spinet's strings would be placed at c. 30° to the keyboard, however, the painted strings of this instrument are depicted at a larger angle and thus are a further anti-mimetic if not strictly abstract detail. Several of the geometric shapes are painted in the scumbled marbling characteristic of Fry's decorative work (and indeed that of Bloomsbury more widely); the technique evokes the modernity and spontaneity of Post-Impressionist aesthetics but also more traditional decorative styles, the latter connotation augmented by the soft colours of the decorative scheme as a whole.
When a player or viewer lifts the lid, however, the abstract but superficially innocuous design of the upper case is replaced with a startling figurative image of a female nude (Fig. 2).
In this unique study Emma Sutton discusses all of Woolf’s novels as well as selected essays and short fiction, offering detailed commentaries on Woolf’s numerous allusions to classical repertoire and to composers including Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner. Sutton explores Woolf’s interest in the contested relationship between politics and music, placing her work in a matrix of ideas about music and national identity, class, anti-Semitism, pacifism, sexuality and gender. The study also considers the formal influence of music – from fugue to Romantic opera – on Woolf’s prose and narrative techniques. The analysis of music’s role in Woolf’s aesthetics and fiction is contextualized in accounts of her musical education, activities as a listener, and friendships with musicians; and the study outlines the relationship between her ‘musicalized’ work and that of contemporaries including Joyce, Lawrence, Forster, Mansfield and Eliot.
Appropriately for a work that so thoroughly reinvents biography, even the exact starting point of Orlando is ambiguous: a painting of the hero(ine) precedes the title page, and the dedication is followed by a two-page ‘Preface’ in which Woolf declares her debts to ‘dead’ and ‘illustrious’ ‘friends’ from Thomas Browne to De Quincey to Pater. The living are also acknowledged in this playful meta-text and among them are several music scholars and amateurs. The preface records Woolf's thanks to Saxon Sydney-Turner's ‘wide and peculiar erudition’, to Edward Sackville-West and to Lord Berners, ‘whose knowledge of Elizabethan music has proved invaluable’ (O, 5). It would be a naïve reader who read Orlando literally, but this reference to Elizabethan music is less mischievous than some since it alerts readers to a subject that is indeed the focus of some attention in her fictional biography, as it was more extensively for many of her contemporaries. As we shall see, there was something of a Tudor craze in the 1920s and it was one that encompassed music; the ‘discovery’ of a history of English music was one facet of the English Musical Renaissance, a part closely allied to nationalism and to constructions of English identity. This chapter explores Woolf's responses to narratives about music and Englishness as manifested in three interrelated phenomena: the early music revival; the folk music movement; and anti-and philo-Semitic discourses about music.
The Waves (1931) has long been perceived as Woolf's most ‘musical’ – and most Wagnerian – novel. Studies of Wagner's literary influence from the 1960s onwards recognised the novel's thematic and structural affinities to the Ring and explored (albeit briefly) Woolf's use of the leitmotiv. William Blissett termed the novel ‘pervasively leitmotivistic in its structure and symbolism’, John DiGaetani characterised Wagner's influence as ‘pervasive, despite the fact that his name never appears’ and Raymond Furness described the work's ‘symbols and motifs’ as ‘derived incontrovertibly from Wagner’. More recently, Woolf scholars have explored the novel's debts to Parsifal and its intermediality with Beethoven's late string quartets. Numerous contemporary reviewers and more recent critics have compared the novel to a poem or to music, describing it, for instance, as ‘a kind of symphonic poem […] in prose’ and ‘a poetic novel’. Without diminishing these recognitions of the novel's formal experimentalism or forgetting that Woolf herself described the work as a hybrid genre, Linden Peach rightly notes that in these comparisons ‘music’ and ‘poetry’ often denote the ineffable, suggesting that the novel is essentially apolitical. Yet Woolf herself was dissatisfied with this reception, stating that The Waves ‘is solid & means something’ (D, IV: 45). Public school, the established church, imperialism and social class are among the ‘solid’ things critiqued in the novel.
The autumn season was in full swing. Tristan was twitching his rug up under his armpits twice a week; Isolde waved her scarf in miraculous sympathy with the conductor's baton. In all parts of the house were to be found pink faces and glittering breasts. […]
Then two thousand hearts in the semi-darkness remembered, anticipated, travelled dark labyrinths; and Clara Durrant said farewell to Jacob Flanders, and tasted the sweetness of death in effigy[·]
Woolf, Jacob's Room, 1922
I went to Tristan the other night; but the love making bored me. When I was your age I thought it the most beautiful thing in the world – or was it only in deference to Saxon [Sydney-Turner]?
Woolf, Letters, July 1923
Wagner's music dramas are vital inter-texts for much of Virginia Woolf 's fiction, which is suffused with explicit references and implicit debts to the composer's work. Some references – like this example from Jacob's Room – are overt, appearing in and propelling the events of the novels. Others are far more discreet, even covert. Woolf's work – like Katherine Mansfield's – illustrates the intense interplay between Modernist words and nineteenth-century notes. Woolf had heard jazz and Strauss's Salome by 1913, but if Wagner's work no longer retained for her the prescient modernity it had had for Nietzsche and his contemporaries, it remained unavoidably relevant whether as a model or an antitype for modern art.
In the early eighties there was little to keep the disenchanted youth anesthetised indoors, so as unemployment figures rose and YTS Schemes fell, the kids refused to toe the factory line and spilled out onto the streets. The stage was set for a revolution.
Oi! This is England pressbook (2005: 3)
As the above quotation suggests, Shane Meadows' This is England (2006) mediates the 1980s through a nostalgic rendering of subcultural resistance via key iconographic and musical cues. In so doing, the film engenders an idealised image of skinhead subculture – or more accurately subcultures – that recalls the romanticised sociological accounts of Birmingham University's Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies from the 1970s and early 1980s. Reproducing these early subcultural scholars' focus on the ‘magical realms’ of ritual and style (Cohen 1972), Meadows juxtaposes the lush colours, dreamlike slow motion and joyful non-diegetic soundtrack of the skinhead gang – at least before its ideological infiltration by far-right extremism – with the ‘colourless walls of routine’ (Chambers 1985: 15) of Thatcher's Britain. However, this chapter will provide neither a purely textual nor an auteurist approach to the film. Instead it will situate the textual strategies and authorial signature of This is England within their wider historical contexts of production, mediation and consumption, through analysis of its key intertexts – chiefly the music and sociological literature it draws on – and a range of pre- and post-production reception materials such as interviews with the director, publicity material, and reviews from mainstream and niche presses.