Virginia Woolf revisited through music and memory in interdisciplinary lecture

Amelia Perron

Sunday night segued into its winter gloom with a gloomy subject: the life and work of Virginia Woolf. Harper Hall was filled with a mix of English, gender studies, and music students attending a lecture/recital organized by voice professor
Karen Leigh-Post and English professor
Karen Hoffman that offered a historical
backdrop to and a performance of Dominick Argento’s “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf.”
Argento’s piece is a song cycle based on significant excerpts from Virginia Woolf’s diaries. The passages fall in chronological order, and address subjects such as “Anxiety,” “Fancy” and “War,” each of which illuminates qualities of Woolf’s writing style and aspects of her life. The lecture portion, comprised of presentations by students in the Gender and Modernist British/American Literature class, served to explain the context for the passages and offer a brief analysis of their content in terms of Woolf’s writing. Leigh-Post concluded the lecture with an analysis of the music, discussing in particular Argento’s use of melodic motives.
A common point to most of the presentations was Woolf’s predilection for stream-of-consciousness writing. Although an appropriate style for the diary genre, the style is made more challenging than usual when found in journals; small excerpts could leave an uninformed reader confused. The passage
“Fancy,” whose brief lines sketched out a vague theory of a “new kind of play” (as Woolf put it), was explained by Hoffman to be indicative of Woolf’s “innovation” and perhaps even her views on women’s roles.
The second half of the program was devoted to the musical performance by Leigh-Post and piano professor Dmitri Novgorodsky. Aside from being an excellent
musical experience, the recital was deeply enhanced by the insight offered prior to the performance.
“Hardy’s Funeral,” for example, was a description of a friend’s funeral that interspersed mocking comments on the pomp of the ceremony and a sense of weariness
toward dealing with Hardy’s death. In her lecture,
junior Beth Breese explained Woolf’s opinions
of ceremony and filled in the gaps concerning
her grief. Knowing the anger and disdain Woolf had felt while writing these words gave greater meaning to the music — a sarcastically pompous
piece with an underlying
sense of anger – and to Leigh-Post’s dramatic and forceful delivery.
The combination of the literary and historical
backdrop, the musical explanation and the artistic
interpretation shown through performance gave a multilayered
understanding of both the music and Woolf’s work.