I love variation forms because they allow you to play with identity, memory and repetition. Max Richter

Woolf Works is a ballet triptych inspired by the writings of Virginia Woolf and staged by British choreographer Wayne McGregor. The ballet premiered on 1 May 2015 at the Royal Opera House in London. Each of the three acts is based on themes developed in three landmark novels by the British author:  Mrs Dalloway (1925), Orlando (1928) and The Waves (1931). Elements from her diaries and letters also helped flesh out the narrative of the project. British modern classical composer Max Richter, who already collaborated with Wayne McGregor in the past on Infra and Future Self, was commissioned to write the score for the dance production.

“It’s an investigation into these texts, into her biography, into her life via the medium of these disparate art forms – music, dance, movement, videos, scenography, costume and lighting” says Max Richter, introducing the concept behind the project. The recorded version of the music for the ballet – Three Worlds: Music From Woolf Works – was released on Deutsche Grammophon on 10 March 2017 last.

Max Richter - Three Worlds: Music From Wolf Works (2017)
Max Richter – Three Worlds: Music From Wolf Works (2017)

Mrs Dalloway

…Words. English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations, naturally.

Setting the scene and introducing the album is the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice reading an essay untitled “craftsmanship” as part of a series entitled “Words Fail Me” for the BBC back in 1937.

Written and performed for piano and string quintet, the three movements accompanying Act I “In the Garden”, “War Anthem” and “Meeting Again” follow a classical template. Superimposed over a minimal theme is a very short motif which is then expanded further throughout the three pieces.


Echoing the transformations experienced by the main character of the novel over the course of three centuries, the second Act of the ballet is based on electronic loops – the contemporary equivalent of the Baroque ground bass – except on “The Explorers” featuring a cello solo. Developed over ten tracks, the loops are themselves based on variations on La Folia, a well-known musical theme dating back to the 17th century and which has been used and adapted by many composers since.

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.

The Waves

The pièce de resistance on The Three Worlds is the 21 minute long “Tuesday” concluding the third Act. “Tuesday” refers to the heading of the suicide note which Virginia Woolf left to her husband on the morning of 28 March 1941. The letter is reproduced in the liner notes and is read by actress Gillian Anderson to introduce the third Act.

There are exquisite echoes of Stephen Daldry’s The Hours at play here. The film also opens with Virginia Woolf’s suicide note and drowning, setting the scene for a fluid story line focusing on the interconnected lives of three women over three decades in the course of a single day. The entire film is also underpinned by Philip Glass’ trademark cyclical waves of strings.

Equally structured around several patterned lines moving at different speeds in wave fashion, the piece evolves slowly from an empty space to an impressive sonic whirlpool for orchestra, electronics and soprano Grace Davidson, whose wordless singing also recalls Max Richter’s previous opus From Sleep.

Two years in the making, Three Worlds: Music From Woolf Works is a remarkable and at times poignant musical companion to Virginia Woolf’s literary stream of consciousness. Like most of Max Richter’s work, the immersive compositions never fail to linger magically in the memory “…like disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting.”