Making Existentialist Waves

Perhaps I’m misjudging her but I find it hard to imagine Virginia Woolf in a black, turtle-neck sweater, smoking a Gitane. I also think Jean Paul Sartre might have raised an eyebrow or two at  her preoccupation with the servant problem. However, rereading The Waves (published in 1931) as I am, and having read  Sartre’s first novel Nausea (1938) relatively recently, I was struck by the similarities of theme. Simone de Beauvoir said that Sartre was influenced by the use of stream of consciousness by Woolf and other Modernist writers but does it run deeper than that? And could one usefully describe Woolf as an Existentialist novelist? I’ve had these thoughts at the back of my mind all the way through The Waves. The passage below is one of several where, for me, the issues came to the fore. The characters in The Waves are said to resemble specific members of Woolf’s circle. The character Rhoda is said to be based on Woolf herself and the state she describes herself as being in bears more than a passing resemblance to the “nausea” described by Sartre’s character, Roquentin. The emphases are mine:

There were lamp-posts,’ said Rhoda, ‘and trees that had not yet shed their leaves on the way from the station. The leaves might have hidden me still. But I did not hide behind them. I walked straight up to you instead of circling round to avoid the shock of sensation as I used. But it is only that I have taught my body to do a certain trick. Inwardly I am not taught; I fear, I hate, I love, I envy and despise you, but I never join you happily. Coming up from the station, refusing to accept the shadow of the trees and the pillar-boxes, I perceived, from your coats and umbrellas, even at a distance, how you stand embedded in a substance made of repeated moments run together; are committed, have an attitude, with children, authority, fame, love, society; where I have nothing. I have no face.

‘Here in this dining-room you see the antlers and the tumblers; the salt-cellars; the yellow stains on the tablecloth. “Waiter!” says Bernard. “Bread!” says Susan. And the waiter comes; he brings bread. But I see the side of a cup like a mountain and only parts of antlers, and the brightness on the side of that jug like a crack in darkness with wonder and terror. Your voices sound like trees creaking in a forest. So with your faces and their prominences and hollows. How beautiful, standing at a distance immobile at midnight against the railings of some square! Behind you is a white crescent of foam, and fishermen on the verge of the world are drawing in nets and casting them. A wind ruffles the topmost leaves of primeval trees. (Yet here we sit at Hampton Court.) Parrots shrieking break the intense stillness of the jungle. (Here the trams start.) The swallow dips her wings in midnight pools. (Here we talk.) That is the circumference that I try to grasp as we sit together. Thus I must undergo the penance of Hampton Court at seven thirty precisely.

Virginia Woolf: The Waves


Listening to Haydn (4)



Sooner or later, any discussion of Haydn’s music gets round to his “sense of humour”. The Farewell and the Surprise symphonies are the famous examples of this which are often discussed. I’m sure, when I was at school, we were told that Haydn was simply a jolly chap who liked amusing and alarming his audiences and, though this is probably true, I think there was a lot more to it than that.

I won’t repeat the famous story behind the Farewell  Symphony. However, one only has to listen to it to realize there is a lot more going on than mere leg-pull. It is an intense, serious piece of music and the phased departure of the musicians towards the end only serves to intensify it further. It puts one in mind of the kind of theatrical approach to musical form Modernist composers such as Ligeti or Kagel might have employed.

I was pleased to discover that I was not the first person to find myself thinking of a resonance with the work of the 18th century writer, Laurence Sterne. In fact, a parallel was frequently drawn in Haydn’s lifetime and, I discovered,  Haydn himself had Sterne on his bookshelf. And just as echoes of Haydn can be found in the work of Modernist composers, so the work of Sterne -in particular, the novel Tristram Shandy- influenced Modernist writers. The similarities are part influence and part a matter of a common sensibility: the relationship between the work of both men has been written about at length by David Wyn Jones in his book, Haydn.

“Shandean” is a term often used to describe work that reflects the spirit of Tristram Shandy. Sterne himself said of his writing: “”I write a careless kind of a civil, nonsensical, good humoured Shandean book…” Tristram Shandy is famous for its twists, turns and digressions, which Sterne light-heartedly writes about in the book itself and even illustrates:

I am now beginning to get fairly into my work; and by the help of a vegetable diet, with a few of the cold seeds, I make no doubt but I shall be able to go on with my uncle Toby’s story, and my own, in a tolerable straight line. Now,


Tristram_Shandy_Plot_lines *

These were the four lines I moved in through my first, second, third, and fourth volumes (Alluding to the first edition.)—In the fifth volume I have been very good,—the precise line I have described in it being this:



By which it appears, that except at the curve, marked A. where I took a trip to Navarre,—and the indented curve B. which is the short airing when I was there with the Lady Baussiere and her page,—I have not taken the least frisk of a digression, till John de la Casse’s devils led me the round you see marked D.—for as for C C C C C they are nothing but parentheses, and the common ins and outs incident to the lives of the greatest ministers of state; and when compared with what men have done,—or with my own transgressions at the letters ABD—they vanish into nothing.

Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy

The most Shandean of Haydn’s symphonies, in my opinion, has to be No. 46, especially in its final movement with its ts eccentric formal changes of direction (during which it seems to come to an end more than once!). To quote Wikipedia:

The opening  [of the fourth movement] is a typical energetic theme in the violins which is rapidly taken up and developed, with the horns prominent in their high register. The music rushes on only to break off suddenly, interrupted by the closing passage of the minuet [the third movement], followed by the repeat of the whole of the second half of the minuet. The horns then burst in again with the main finale theme, but fade away and the music stutters almost to a halt. Then, on an underlying pedal on the horns, the strings take the movement and symphony to a rapid and abrupt close.



What is the point of all these digressions and dislocations? In Sartre’s novel, Nausea, the main character, Roquentin, is researching the details of the life of an 18th century historical figure with a view to writing a biography. However, he decides that since he can’t understand the day-to-day chaos of his own life he certainly won’t be able to understand the life of an historical character which has been reduced to a series of recorded accounts. The stuff of life is the chaos, not the stories we create to try and make sense of it.

Similarly, Sterne’s Tristram could have stuck to his plan and given a straightforward account of the events of his life. However, had he done so, what would we know of him? Instead, every hour spent reading his ramblings is an hour spent with the man. We enjoy his chaotic company, which is surely preferable. As I said, in Nausea, Sartre’s Roquentin, faced with chaos, finds writing biography impossible. In Tristram Shandy, Tristram finds writing autobiography impossible. He puts this down to the effect on his personality of the circumstances of his conception. However, the ironic reference to “a rational Being” in the opening suggests a more more serious, philosophical aspect to this. Sterne (unlike the atheist Sartre) was a vicar and, I suggest, Tristram is his idea of a typical, irrational human forced to surf the Age of Enlightenment:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.

Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy

If the impossibility of writing autobiography draws our attention to Tristram’s personality then perhaps Haydn’s digressions draws our attention to the music itself. It is all too easy to follow the course of a classical symphony unaware that you are really not listening to the music. Once you are familiar with the form you can usual tell where you are in it at most given moments: these bars sound like a minuet, these, the trio. Tracking its course can, unconsciously, be uppermost in the mind of the listener when what the composer wants us to do is simply listen. Like one lost in the hills forced to pay close attention to the landscape, a listener unsure of his or her bearings has to pay more attention to the soundscape. Also, like Tristram, perhaps Haydn, if he simply wants to digress from the matter at hand, does so! If art imitates life, it has at times to be spontaneous and unpredictable.




*Illustrations: Laurence Sterne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons



I’ve never seen it
but the tree is so big
that for two whole weeks
each autumn everyone
within a one-mile radius
munches pink ladies.
Someone always brings me
a bag-full and every year
I say thank you and think
they taste so good
I must go and find it
for myself but I never do.


Copyright (c) Sackerson, 2017

Listening to Haydn (3)

Like Symphony No 6, Haydn’s Symphony No 31 (“The Hornsignal”) often uses instruments in a soloistic way. It is a very warm piece, written soon after the recruitment of two new horn players to the Esterharzy orchestra. It may be fanciful, but it has an almost conversational feel, I think, as if the new players are being welcomed by the orchestra. Of the works of Haydn I know, this symphony is really one of my favourites.

In the last Haydn post, I wrote about the different movements in a symphony. In The Hornsignal the fourth movement is very like a conventional second movement. Towards the end Haydn, as if aware of the problem he is creating for himself, stops composing more lyrical music, turns up the volume and speeds things up a bit (Beethoven, later,  did something similar if on a bigger scale at the end of his 9th Symphony). He also brings back the “horn signals” that began the work, which begs the question, why does repeating music from the start of a work make us think we’re approaching the end?

Traveling North

I do not buy into
the drumbeat soundtrack
that seeks to make sense
of the night as I sit
drinking black coffee
trying to stay awake
(I’ve a long way to go).
There are no dancers here
just tired bodies
strapped into the machine:
you’ll see for yourself
if you step outside
into the dark and if you
look in through the window
you’ll see a man
sat at the table there
watching the lights move
on the motorway
and trying to write it all down
before it’s too late


Copyright (c) Sackerson, 2017



My Favourite Hole in the Ground

My favourite hole in the ground
is on top of Harkerside Fell.
It’s not very big but
you can lie down in it, just,
so you’re out of the wind.
If you look over the edge
you can see for miles
only don’t get too comfortable
or one of the straggly nettles
that live there
(vicious bastards that they are)
will bite you on the arse,
even through your trousers –

so take care.

Copyright (c) Sackerson, 2017

Listening to Haydn (2)

It would be easy, writing about Haydn symphonies, to dwell on aspects of their musical structure or even the anecdotes relating to them (the famous story behind the “Farewell” symphony springs to mind). That is not what I want to do. I am simply setting out to present those symphonies which, having heard them once, made me want to listen to them again and again! In my last post, I focused on Symphony No 6. Numbers 7 and 8 are on my listening list, too. I can’t stress enough that there may be others in between that will bowl me over on a different day but after number 8, the next symphony I found really engaging on first hearing and want to draw attention to is number 19.

It would be wrong for me to make assumptions about what readers might already know about classical music. Hopefully, a few people might read this who know very little.  With that in mind I want to deal with the basics in this post and take a moment to write about what a symphony actually is.

Most symphonies consist of four movements. It’s an interesting concept, the movement. Pieces of music in other genres tend to consist of a single span of sound. The only genres I can think of offhand where several separate pieces routinely make up a whole are classical music and the stage musical.

The movements of a classical piece are not unlike the acts of a play. For example, a slow movement may be written to be heard in the context of the fast movement that precedes it and so on. The different moods of the movements in a work set up a musical narrative. In Symphony 19, the first movement, in a bright major key, is followed by a darker second movement, written in a minor key.

As the symphony evolved, composers settled on the convention of writing four movements: an opening fast movement, a slow movement, a dance movement (a minuet) and a “finale”. It’s a useful convention, as it prompts the composer to include everything that the piece needs to have to be considered a “symphony”. Symphony 19 was an early symphony and comprised of only three movements.

A symphony is, literally, a “sounding together”. However, by the time the four movement pattern was established it had become far more than that. A classical symphony, like a Shakespeare play, aims to embrace the whole breadth of human experience.

To generalize in what I hope is a useful way, the first movement, the most involved, combines depth of feeling with complexity of thought. The second, a slow movement, tends to focus on the emotional. The third, a dance, focuses on the physical. The fourth, usually fast, brings the work to an affirmative conclusion. This is obviously too simple: I’m trying to reduce the symphony to a formula, such as a detective writer might resort to and like a good book, a good symphony will obviously exceed the boundaries of any  formula. Incidentally, of the four, my description of the fourth movement is the least helpful. The fourth is often considered the hardest to write, too: composers talk of the “fourth movement problem”. A composer of symphonies has to find his or her own way of solving it, sometimes contriving to deny the listener the affirmation they expect.