Classical music has long had its connections with literature. One of the most famous classical pieces of all time, Sergei Prokofiev’s 1935 work Dance of the Knights, is from a ballet based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Prokofiev was by no means the first to base a ballet on a work of literature, as one of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s most famous ballets, The Sleeping Beauty, was based on the classic Charles Perrault fairy tale of the same name. This association of classic music with literature has not ceased in this new era of contemporary classical music, with notable examples including American composer Lorin Maazel’s operatic reinterpretation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which premiered in 2005 at Covent Garden, although it was met with scathing reviews. Therefore, the fact that post-minimalist torchbearer Max Richter has composed his most recent album’s worth of material based on the literary work of modernist writer Virginia Woolf doesn’t feel out of place. Specifically, as the title Three Worlds might suggest, this project is divided into three acts, each based on one of Woolf’s novels; Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando: A Biography and The Waves. This album is in fact a revision of a score composed by Richter for choreographer Wayne McGregor’s narrative dance piece based on these three works, so this album’s 66-minute runtime is a notable reduction from the over two-hour score that was used for the original Woolf Works. Nonetheless, this notable shortening of the score was most likely justified and carefully considered by Richter, as composing a score to accompany a dance piece is a very different affair from composing an album’s worth of material to be released and critiqued on its own merits, as opposed to how well it accompanies the narrative of a performance. Then again, the daunting task of producing three acts’ worth of classical music to reflect three seminal works of English literature would have by no means been a simple undertaking.
The first act is inspired by Woolf’s most famous novel, Mrs. Dalloway, and the book’s influence on the music is evident from the very first piece, Words. The sampling of everyday human activity reflects the narrative of the novel, with the events taking place all within one seemingly ordinary day for the upper-class female protagonist. Moreover, the chimes of Big Ben ringing in the foreground establish this bustling scene as taking place in the centre of London, again reflecting the plot of Mrs. Dalloway. Through these dizzying events, the only known recording of Woolf’s voice is played, a 1937 BBC broadcast called “Words Fail Me” of the then 55-year-old writer openly contemplating the craftsmanship of words and the English language. The strange emphasis Woolf uses on the final two words of the excerpt, “multitudinous seas”, I have always found to stand out as rather haunting, but it certainly is a fitting lead in to the next piece. The inclusion of Woolf herself speaking is played for an eerie but beautiful effect and, given that the recording is not particularly well-known, Richter displays right from the onset that this album was assembled with a profound awareness of Woolf’s life and work.
The three other pieces contained within the first act were perhaps composed as to reflect the consistency and structure of an ordinary working day. They are all composed of very simple structures and melodies, although this is nothing new for Richter’s work within the post-minimalist paradigm. Nonetheless, despite the simplicity of these pieces, they are rather well-textured, highlighting perhaps the many layers that exist within the story of a day in the life of the average person. For instance, in Mrs. Dalloway, certain thematically-significant events take place without the protagonist herself coming into contact with said events, such as the suicide of shell-shocked World War One veteran Septimus Warren Smith. Even if I’m reading too far into these pieces, they are nonetheless beautifully composed and the layered drones of sound intertwine gracefully. The impressive first act features some of Richter’s most impressive contributions to contemporary classical music in recent years and bode well for the succeeding two acts.
The second act, based on Woolf’s novel Orlando: A Biography, is unequivocally the most ambitious, audacious and exploratory of the three acts, with even the pieces’ titles sounding notably avant-garde (Modular Astronomy, The Tyranny of Symmetry and Persistence of Images, for instance). This actually came as quite a surprise to me, as I would have predicted that the final act, which is based on The Waves, would be the more noticeably experimental as to reflect the idiosyncratic and unconventional approach Woolf took to structuring and writing that novel. Richter is by no means a stranger to fusing elements of electronic music — and other genres, for that matter — with classical music, but somehow, the electronic arrangements employed in this second act feel different from those in his other works. There is an almost robotic vibe to the way in which they are used, which seems as if it wouldn’t work well with classical music on paper, let alone as part of a group of compositions based on the works of Virginia Woolf. Nevertheless, Richter operates the elaborate electronic sounds as to weave them well with the arrangements featuring organic instrumentation, and the electronics even sound textured and lustrous when performing on their own. Whilst this second act is the most demanding from the listener’s perspective, the pretty detail is well worth the perseverance, although it must be said that the first act stands out as being a more fitting testimonial for the revolutionary writer.
The third act, as previously stated, is based on Woolf’s most experimental and arguably least accessible novel, The Waves. Composing a musical accompaniment to this book cannot be a simple feat, so credit should be given to Richter for even attempting such a daring task. Woolf’s unique and unorthodox blurring of the distinctions between poetry and prose featured in The Waves has left the novel as one of her least known works, with the book’s narrative constantly flowing between six soliloquies delivered by six separate, but somewhat similar in theme, characters, leaving some readers rather confused or lost. In many regards, The Waves can be seen as one of Woolf’s most personal works too, with the six characters seemingly being based on various people in the writer’s life, and as such, the decision by Richter to include a haunting reading of Woolf’s suicide note was perhaps used as an attempt to capture the inner-mechanisms of the author’s unfathomable genius. I understand the argument that the inclusion of a reading of Woolf’s suicide note was an easy, perhaps even deceptive, means to elicit an emotional response from the listener, but then again, it provides pertinent context and is used rather respectfully to introduce a piece based on the author’s most challenging work. The act itself, unlike its two predecessors, is one single piece and is one of the most impressive compositions on the album. As the reading of Woolf’s final thoughts peters out and the composition properly commences, the ensuing runtime of the 22-minute piece is urgent but in a rather subtle way. The piece seems to be constantly speeding towards its climactic resolution and conclusion whilst not sounding rushed or agitated. It seems that this composition could be used as the score for Woolf’s entire life, not merely for a single work of hers.
Three Worlds: music from Woolf Works is perhaps the most ambitious project that Richter has ever set his sights on, arguably even exceeding the boldness of his eight-hour long cradle song, Sleep. Richter, in fact, stated that composing the pieces that appear on this album was a much more challenging endeavour than Sleep and I can certainly see that being the case. These pieces stand strongly on their own merits, but even with the weight of being intended to parallel three of the most impressive works in English literature by one of the most curious and amazing minds of recent centuries, the material on this album makes a strong case for its intricate and textured detail and awareness of Woolf’s life and work.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8/10