Loading ...

Woolf and Wagner

a radio feature produced by Lyn Gallacher

In 1940, Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘I think of all my books as music before I write them’.


But which music is which book? And why did she come to both love and hate Wagner with such passion?


Virginia Woolf’s musical expertise has been dismissed over the years. Both her nephew Quentin Bell, and her husband, Leonard Woolf claimed she had no technical knowledge. But, Virginia Woolf was sight reading Beethoven sonatas at the age of eleven, and playing fugues with her sister, Vanessa, at the age of seventeen. This, in addition to listening to music every day, either on the wireless, the gramophone or at a concert. Music was such a huge part of her life that she wrote in a letter to a friend, ‘The only thing in this world is music—music and books and one or two pictures’.


Using Leonard Woolf’s Diary of Music Listened To, author Emma Sutton is able to attach specific pieces of music to specific novels. She finds a strong connection between Woolf and Wagner. For instance, Virginia Woolf’s most experimental novel, The Waves, can be read as a response to Richard Wagner’s epic opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung. Added to this The Voyage Out, one of Virginia Woolf’s early works, features characters and themes from Tristan and Isolde. But what could Virginia do when Wagner became the composer of choice for the Nazi party?


For both Leonard and Virginia Woolf it was a time of great catastrophe—but it was also an era which produced this encounter between some of the twentieth century’s greatest writing and the most well known music in the Western canon.

Listen to the program here …

Woolf and Wagner - Into The Music



Dr Emma Sutton—Senior Lecturer English – University of St Andrews


Professor Sarah Wilson—Deputy Head, Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences – Melbourne University


Karen Watson—Senior Archive Assistant – The Keep: University of Sussex





Title—Virginia Woolf and Classical Music: Politics, Aesthetics, Form

Author—Emma Sutton

Publisher—Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2013




Title—Leonard Woolf: A Life

Author—Victoria Glendinning

Publisher—Pocket Books, London, 2007





Further Information


University of Sussex Archives


Mind, Music and Wellbeing Centre





Sound Engineer—John Jacobs


Producer—Lyn Gallacher


Actors—Richard Piper / Fiona Macleod




© 2014—Lyn Gallacher & ABC RN

Filed under: radio features, works