Writing music for the theatre

Vanessa and Virginia at the Riverside StudiosWith Elizabeth Wright’s stage play of Vanessa and Virginia continuing at the Riverside Studios in London this month, by the award-winning Moving Stories Theatre under the direction of Emma Gersch, I asked the play’s musical director Jeremy Thurlow about writing music for the theatre and Vanessa and Virginia specifically.


– Where did you begin with creating music for Vanessa and Virginia?

I was intrigued by how the novel weaves in echoes of Virginia Woolf’s writing and finds ways to figure Vanessa Bell’s images in words, and at first I wondered about using the music Woolf herself took particular pleasure and inspiration from – composers such as Wagner, who was an important figure for her from early on, but also Bach, and the late sonatas of Beethoven which she used to listen to with her husband Leonard on their gramophone and which she famously said influenced her writing of her novel The Waves ‘to a rhythm not to a plot’. We actually know a great deal about the music Woolf listened to because Leonard kept a listening diary, noting every piece of music they listened to evening by evening.

I also considered choosing some modernist music by composers such as Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartok, whose struggles and innovations can be compared to Woolf and Bell’s own experiments with language and art, and are contemporary with them.

And finally there was the music associated with more recent depictions of Woolf and Bell, most famously Philip Glass’s music for the film of Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours.

Kitty Randle as Vanessa

– I’m interested that you talk about both sisters. Vanessa Bell is not usually associated with music, is she?

It’s true that Vanessa Bell doesn’t mention music much in her letters and writings.  One musical encounter we do know about concerns a painting by Duncan Grant, the great love of her life. Vanessa described it in a letter to her friend Roger Fry in August 1914. She wrote, “Duncan and I do nothing here but paint. He has started on a long painting which is meant to be rolled up after the manner of those Chinese paintings, and seen by degrees. It is purely abstract.” I was lucky to see this painting in an exhibition in Norwich. It’s only about one foot high, but stretches 15 feet from left to right. Bell mentions that it could be displayed gradually by unrolling it. Grant’s idea was that it should be viewed through an aperture, moved by machinery slowly over the picture. The painting is called Abstract Kinetic Collage Painting with Sound, and the idea was to imitate the way in music one cannot survey the whole as in a traditional picture, but can only hear the particular moment that is passing by. There’s no doubt that listening to music inspired this project and that Bell would have discussed it with Grant. It’s also very likely that Bell would have taken part in discussions about modern developments in the arts with Virginia and other friends from the Bloomsbury set, including music, and so would have picked up ideas about modern music, even if she hadn’t always heard it herself.

– The music that accompanies the play is newly created. What made you decide finally against using the music Woolf and Bell would have known?

The repertoire I have described is a wonderful one, but would not have served the needs of the play where music is sometimes foregrounded but also takes on background status with the characters speaking over it. Occasionally it needs to move smoothly between the two. Obviously, the works of Wagner, Bach and Beethoven compel attention and concentration: I can scarcely think of any music less well suited to a background, ambient status.

The type of music written by Philip Glass for the film of The Hours presented exactly the opposite problem for me. It certainly works as background music since it is endlessly repetitive and devoid of event or development. But for that reason it seemed to me inappropriate for a play about two artists, Bell and Woolf, whose art is so ambitious and inventive. Repetitive bland background music makes sense in a supermarket, but it would be a travesty in a play exploring two sisters who devoted their lives to producing art which often sought to stretch its audience.

Alice Frankham as Virginia

– And what about the musical modernists?

That was more tempting. Woolf probably saw Stravinsky’s notorious Rite of Spring in London in 1914, and probably also heard Pierrot Lunaire. There’s a bold re-imagining of rhythm, tonality and musical form in these works, which, like the Post-Impressionist exhibition in London of 1910, can be seen as a stimulus and model for innovations in both Woolf’s and Bell’s work.

However, I soon decided that neither using music by the great modernist composers nor referencing their style would be right. There’s a lot of disruption and abrupt changes in musical modernism, and these would have continually fought against what was happening on stage. And quotations would have been a distraction: for most listeners, music is primarily experienced emotionally and subliminally, especially in a theatre where it is an accompaniment to something else. Weaving in echoes of other works of art would have taken us away from the experience of the characters. It suggests an arch, ironic disengagement, and invites a similar disengagement from the audience.

That didn’t seem right for the novel Vanessa and Virginia.  And as soon as I saw the early rehearsals I became certain that it wouldn’t be right for the play either. To adorn this series of intimate scenes with a palimpsest of knowing references would, I felt, be distracting. Seeing that early rehearsal reminded me that in the theatre every moment must be experienced from within, as though immediately and for the first time – not observed, commented on, situated, cross-referenced.

So I rejected any reference to music known to have connections with Woolf and Bell. Instead, the music was created through improvisation. Rather than writing it alone, in my study, as I normally do, I developed it in the rehearsals, within the space and moment of the performance. I moved a piano to the edge of the stage and watched as a scene played through. Then, having gained a sense of the emotions and the way they developed through time, I improvised at the piano, in real time, responding directly to the actors’ performance. Sometimes, there are places in the play where the experience between the two characters is sharply contrasted, and here I relied on the director to decide which of the two the music would stay with.

– What influenced your choice of style for the music you improvised?

I was inspired by the immediately beautiful quality of the stage-picture. Though it certainly isn’t beholden to obsessive period accuracy, it suggests some of the decorum of the age, as well as a relishing of light and colour and sensory experience. From within the world of these intimate scenes it was immediately clear to me in a way it probably wouldn’t have been composing music on my own, in my study, that the abrupt switches and eruptions of modernist music, however fascinating in their own right, would, in the theatrical moment, have been a distraction. So instead of this, I allowed my fingers to seek a kind of sound-empathy with the scene, and what emerged was surprisingly limpid. Though I didn’t think about this consciously at the time, it is perhaps related to the re-imagined classicism of Debussy and Ravel, and it occurs to me now that Debussy is a composer who has a good deal in common with Virginia Woolf – perhaps more so than Wagner, Bach or Beethoven. Debussy is justly admired for his ideal of a music comprised of fleeting moments of sensation – spontaneous, fluid and evanescent.

In this piece of music, which opens the play, we see Vanessa as an older woman, sitting alone, lost in her memories. I hoped to suggest a complexity of emotion and some sense of the way that images and feelings drift in and out, are liquid, shifting and ungraspable: link.

Photos by Ben Caplan
To find out more about Jeremy Thurlow’s music, visit his website
Vanessa is played by Kitty Randle, Virginia by Alice Frankham. The design is by Kate Unwin, with lighting by George Seal and T.J Chappell. The play is produced by Samuel Julyan, with the assistance of Maria Klockare. To book tickets visit Riverside Studios

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