We will be carrying out essential maintenance on our website this week. Some pages and services may be temporarily unavailable on Tuesday 2 June between 8am and 12noon. Thank you for your understanding.

Accessibility links


Sign In
  • Home
  • News
  • Max Richter on how he composed the score for Woolf Works

Max Richter on how he composed the score for Woolf Works

The composer reveals how Virginia Woolf's life and work influenced his score for Wayne McGregor's ballet.

By Max Richter (Composer)

9 January 2017 at 11.41am | 4 Comments

The work of Virginia Woolf, in common with that of many great artists, is not easy to summarize. It is profound, visionary, daring and experimental, but equally at times playful, personal and intimate – and it is always deeply humane.

Her subject matter is a kind of pure research into the nature of language, personality, voice, and the question of being itself. She seems constantly to ask us: ‘how can we live?’ It’s this that drew me obsessively to her writing in my early twenties. And so, having worked together previously on Infra and Future Self, I was excited when Wayne McGregor invited me to collaborate again on Woolf Works, his new ballet based on three of the novels: Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves.

The process of finding the musical languages for the three sections of Woolf Works was two years of theorizing, planning, research and experiment. Clearly the three novels are distinct universes, each needing their own coherent musical grammar, and yet the ballet needed to hold together, to have an overall musical fingerprint, embodying the voice of the author in her manifold guises. Finding a way to reconcile these demands was the fundamental question, and led me to a hybrid language: the score for Woolf Works uses the traditional orchestra, soloists, real-time and prerecorded electronic music, live digital signal processing and spatialization.

The music for the Mrs Dalloway section of the ballet, entitled ‘I now, I then’, opens with an extraordinary recording of Virginia Woolf herself, reading the essay ‘On Craftsmanship’ in a BBC recording of 1937. How incredible to hear her voice. It’s actually Virginia Woolf!

Next comes a multi-layered and elusive web of musics that prefigures all that is to come: disparate rhythmic and melodic strands, pulsations, electronic atmospheres, found sounds and field recordings populate the aural space as our focus is shifted by the continuously unstable metrical scheme. The music shimmers as Clarissa Dalloway hurries through it.

After the opening material, the act focusses on three central characters in this remarkable novel: namely, those of Peter, Sally and Septimus. The 'Peter' music and the 'Sally' music are related, since both characters are, for Clarissa Dalloway, people with whom she had a strong connection in the past – roads not taken on her journey through life. For this reason, the music, while deliberately simple, hides a number of asymmetries and trapdoors in the harmonic and rhythmical language; I wanted it to feel subliminally as though the material is misremembered after a long absence. The music for Septimus, the shell-shocked war veteran, is a mini de profundis, built around the typically English device of a ground bass, over which the cello solo unfolds, starting at the bottom of the instrument, and ascending to a space beyond our sight.

Throughout the act we hear the city of London, represented by a field recording of Big Ben, a sound Virginia Woolf would have heard every day. I always felt that the city itself is an important voice in the novel – much as Dublin is the canvas for the the wanderings of Joyce’s Mr Bloom in the near-contemporaneous Ulysses, so the streets of London accommodate the trajectories of Clarissa Dalloway and her friends.

‘Becomings’, which forms the second part of the ballet, is based on Woolf’s Orlando, a novel of transformations, stretching across many locations and historical episodes. I immediately started to think about the similarities with variation form – the musical process where a recognizable theme is transformed and re-ordered to reveal new aspects of its character – so I chose this process of variation as the basis of the Orlando music.

The theme I chose for these variations is the well-known fragment La Folia, which has been used by numerous composers since the middle of the 17th century, among them Corelli, Marais, Lully, Vivaldi, Bach, Scarlatti, Handel and Geminiani. However, I wanted the palette to be one which could only exist today; so in addition to variations for the whole orchestra, for solo instruments and for chamber groupings, there are also variations which are wholly electronic, incorporating analogue modular synthesis, sequencing, digital signal processing and computer-generated synthesis. Of the 17 variations in the ballet, about half use this extended palette – for me these reflect the shifts in personal and chronological perspective in the narrative.

‘Tuesday’, the third act of the ballet, is a journey through Woolf’s dream-like novel The Waves, and is prefaced by a reading by Gillian Anderson of her last piece of writing, her profoundly moving suicide note. This ‘theme’ of suicide connects to the Septimus episode in Act I, and so I wrote music that relates to that material, in that it is once again structured around a ground bass. The wave-like melodic contours in the music build over 20 minutes and incorporate a solo soprano, as if she were a solitary submerged figure in the oceanic orchestral texture.

What a brilliant, creative human being Virginia Woolf was. It’s been extraordinary once again to have the chance to be engaged in the matters that troubled her, the questions she wrestled with and the visionary quality of the answers she discovered.

Woolf Works runs 21 January–14 February 2017. Tickets are still available. 

Max Richter's new album, Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works, is out now 27 January 2017 on Deutsche Grammophon.

By Max Richter (Composer)

9 January 2017 at 11.41am

This article has been categorised Ballet and tagged by Wayne McGregor, Max Richter, Production, Woolf Works

This article has 4 comments

  1. Sarita responded on 10 January 2017 at 4:45am Reply

    Fantastic sharing by composer, great to tap into the composer's brains who creates as much as the choreographer!

  2. A great insight into how Richter works and the lasting influence of Virginia Woolf.

  3. James Hadley responded on 26 January 2017 at 11:31pm Reply

    So glad Max Richter's score is going to be available for purchase - it's exquisite. This article's insights reflect the deep respect and admiration for Virginia Woolf's literary achievements which the score conveys - so beautifully capturing many of her key explorations.

  4. Diane Orton responded on 30 January 2017 at 11:23pm Reply

    So grateful to Max Richter for making this information available through Facebook. I consider him to be our greatest living composer.

Leave a reply to Alex Bruce · Cancel

Your email will not be published

Website URL is optional