That Was Me

Anthony Burgess

That Was Me

The author of A Clockwork Orange may have been better known as a novelist, but Anthony Burgess was also a prolific composer whose music is only now being explored. Paul Phillips discusses the work of an artist who wrote novels in sonata form.

‘I wish people would think of me as a musician who writes novels, instead of a novelist who writes music on the side.’ – Anthony Burgess, The New York Times, 1970

The hundred and four young musicians on stage watched attentively as James Dixon prepared to give the downbeat. His right hand came down in a crisp gesture, triggering a shimmering chord, played softly by violins and piano, followed seconds later by a melody in the flutes and harp that arched upward and then, in a quirky, slightly angular fashion, began to move up and down like a leisurely wave. From his seat in the Iowa City auditorium, the composer listened to the music intently, revelling in the sounds he had heard only in his inner ear until Dixon’s orchestra began rehearsing his composition a few weeks earlier. Hearing the symphony in performance, he was overwhelmed. ‘That was me,’ he thought, as enthusiastic applause greeted the end of the thirty-five minute work. ‘That was me, that great web of sonorities being discoursed by those hundred handsome kids under that big man on the rostrum.’

Ever since the release of the notorious film A Clockwork Orange four years earlier, John Burgess Wilson – known professionally as Anthony Burgess – had been acclaimed as one of the English-speaking world’s most successful writers. By 1975 the fifty-eight-year-old author had published over thirty books, written the lyrics for the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Cyrano, been profiled in Life, Playboy, Penthouse and a dozen other major magazines and newspapers, and amassed a considerable fortune from his books, journalism, screenplays and public appearances. But on 22 October 1975, listening to the University of Iowa’s student orchestra play his third symphony in the heartland of the American Midwest, those achievements seemed secondary. As he wrote two months later in The New York Times, this was ‘the truly great artistic moment’ of his life.

Throughout his remaining eighteen years, Burgess composed at a furious pace, as if making up for the decades in which music had taken a back seat to literature. Picking up from where he left off in 1953, when, in response to a challenge from his first wife, Llewela Jones, he essentially gave up music composition to become a novelist, Burgess rapidly produced concertos for piano, violin, oboe, English horn, solo guitar and guitar quartet. He wrote a piano concertino, a ballet suite on the life of Shakespeare, a string quartet and a set of twenty-four preludes and fugues. He turned Joyce’s Ulysses into an operetta, wrote the words and music for a musical about Trotsky, and composed the score for a stage version of A Clockwork Orange. He penned overtures for Glasgow and his native Manchester, a march honouring the bicentenary of the French Revolution, a sinfonietta celebrating the sixtieth birthday of his second wife, Liana, a seventieth birthday present to himself titled Mr Burgess’s Almanack, as well as numerous cantatas, settings of verse, a film score, works for brass band, winds and strings, choral works and songs, sonatas and studies.

Burgess was essentially self-taught as a musician. As a boy in Manchester he briefly took violin lessons, but soon gravitated to the piano, which he played throughout the rest of his life. He received a few musical tips from his father, Joseph Wilson, a bookkeeper and tobacconist who played the piano in music halls and movie theatres and pubs such as the Golden Eagle, which he ran in Manchester’s Miles Platting district with his second wife Maggie (Margaret Dwyer), whom he married in 1922 when his son was five. (Burgess’s 1986 novel The Pianoplayers is a tribute to his father.) As a student at the University of Manchester, Burgess played jazz and popular songs and wrote incidental music for theatrical productions. Generally he avoided contact with the Department of Music, and, in several of his books, expressed disdain for professors of harmony and composition, whom he tended to denigrate as either too conservative or too avant-garde. After college, Burgess joined the British army and spent nearly a year as musical arranger and orchestrator of the Jaypees, a company of ten stage performers and six musicians within the Entertainments Section of the 54th Division. During the 1950s, following in his father’s footsteps, he occasionally earned extra cash playing piano in dance bands and pubs.

Burgess composed in an angular, vigorous style that could be described as a hybrid of Hindemith and Holst. Debussy, Stravinsky and Schoenberg were important early influences, yet the sound of Burgess’ ‘serious’ style is generally closer to the quartal sonorities favored by Paul Hindemith. The music of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Walton and Holst, especially the lavish instrumentation of The Planets, constitutes another fundamental influence on Burgess’ style as reflected in the rich scoring of orchestral works like Symphony No. 3 (1974–75), Mr W.S. (1979), and A Manchester Overture (1989). Other hallmarks of Burgess’ style are strong, assertive rhythms and the use of complex meters organised in different rhythmic groupings. For example, the Concerto for Pianoforte and Orchestra in E-flat major (1976) employs the time signature 15/16 subdivided nine different ways, including 2+2+2+3+3+3, 4+4+4+3 and 6+1.5+6+1.5.

Popular music is another key component of Burgess’ compositional style. In the same Piano Concerto, passages of jazz and swing are juxtaposed with sections written in Burgess’ more dissonant, ‘serious’ style in an eclectic mix anticipating the postmodern style that emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The early twentieth-century style of British music hall entertainment is another influence, turning up in the operetta Blooms of Dublin (1971–82) and A Clockwork Orange: A Play with Music (1986), Burgess’ stage version of the novel.

Failure to take Burgess’ musical activity fully into account has led some commentators to regard the latter half of Burgess’ creative life as relatively fallow, yet they are mostly not to blame for this lack of awareness. Until recently, knowledge of Burgess’ music has been extremely limited. His compositions have never been frequently performed, most are unpublished and few are available on commercial discs. It was not until the late 1990s, when Liana Burgess decided to sell a large collection of Burgess’ musical and literary manuscripts to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin, that most of his scores could be seen for the first time.

The more than two hundred and fifty pieces that Burgess composed between 1932 and his death in 1993, indicate that his creative life as a composer-novelist was unique. Anyone who has ever watched as Beethoven’s ninth symphony inspires Alex to commit appalling acts of violence in Stanley Kubrick’s film of A Clockwork Orange is familiar with Burgess’ use of music in at least one of his books. What is much less well known is the extent to which music and musical thinking constitute a major element of his writing. Unlike Paul Bowles and Bruce Montgomery, who compartmentalised writing and composing as independent activities, Burgess constantly sought ways to unite both halves of his creative personality, either by setting words of his favorite authors to music, incorporating musical characters and themes into his books, or, more radically, assigning musical structure to fiction, whether this meant writing novels in sonata form, or, as in the case of Napoleon Symphony, modeling the form and character of a novel on Beethoven’s Eroica.

Burgess loved to provoke, frequently issuing disingenuous statements to amuse or shock his readers and listeners. Asked by Oscar Peterson in 1977 about his most famous novel in a BBC television interview, he replied, with a showman’s earnest expression of mock sincerity, ‘Today is my sixtieth birthday. I’ve been living a long time and writing a lot of books. And I seem to have published thirty-eight books and of all the thirty-eight, A Clockwork Orange is the one I like least,’ deliberately accenting the last syllable to prompt laughter from the studio audience. Certainly Burgess was being at least partly ironic whenever he said that he wished people would think of him as a musician who writes novels rather than as a novelist who writes music. While this remark, which he repeated to the media for at least twenty-five years right up until his final deathbed interview, should not be taken literally, neither should it be dismissed as a joke. The same is true of his description of himself as a ‘failed musician’, for no failed musician, as he well knew, could have composed his third symphony, Mr W.S., the three guitar quartets or the dozens of other sophisticated works that he produced.

One way to reconcile these comments is to recognise that Burgess desperately wanted to be acknowledged as a composer but was careful to thwart unreasonably high expectations. ‘Please listen to my music,’ he seemed to be saying, ‘but don’t expect me to be another Beethoven.’ Continually wanting to be ‘discovered’ as a composer, he accepted virtually every invitation to write a new work, enthusiastically embracing these opportunities since each one represented a fresh chance at the public acknowledgment of his compositional ability that, with a few exceptions like the Iowa City performance, he rarely received. Pride demanded that he not turn composition into a vanity project. Thus, while it would have posed little financial difficulty for him to produce concerts or recordings of his music, he refused to do so, preferring instead to let others champion his music. Manuscripts accumulated at his Monte Carlo home and Lugano villa. Most of these scores were played just once or twice, or never at all. Reacting with equanimity to the lack of musical recognition, Burgess simply went on composing.

Beginning with his first novel, A Vision of Battlements, musical characters and themes are fundamental elements in most of Burgess’ more than sixty published books. Richard Ennis, the quasi-autobiographical protagonist of A Vision of Battlements, is a composer stationed in Gibraltar as a sergeant in the British army during World War II who writes many of the same compositions that Burgess did during his military service in that same colony. The Worm and the Ring, Burgess’ second novel, is a parody of Der Ring des Nibelungen set in a British grammar school similar to the one in Banbury where Burgess taught in the early 1950s. In another early Burgess novel, Beds in the East, the precocious eighteen-year-old composer Robert Loo writes a Malayan symphony, as did Burgess in 1956 while living in Kota Bharu; Loo’s symphony mirrors in microcosm the overall ‘symphonic’ structure of the trilogy of novels – Time for a Tiger, The Enemy in the Blanket and Beds in the East – that comprises The Malayan Trilogy (published in the US as The Long Day Wanes). In a scene from Nothing Like the Sun, Burgess’ novel about Shakespeare’s love-life, a barber remarks, while trimming the playwright’s hair, that former soldiers and the poor are about to be dispatched to France: ‘old sojers and beggars and such are to be sent out to fight in Piccadilly – ’. As Shakespeare corrects him – ‘“Picardy?” frowned WS’ – a nearby lutenist plucks ‘a final tierce’, concluding his song with the interval of a third. It pained Burgess that no reviewer mentioned this sly allusion to the tierce de Picardie – a major third inserted at the close of a minor key composition. Similarly, it disappointed him that no critic noticed that A Clockwork Orange was written in sonata form, though he would not give up that secret easily; readers would have to discover it for themselves. He gave broad hints, however, as when he declared, responding to Oscar Peterson’s query about A Clockwork Orange, ‘People never seemed to realise what the book was about… It is about music.’

Burgess deserves attention strictly as a composer, but what makes him such a singular creative figure is the unique way he intertwined literature and music. While there are composers, like Wagner and Menotti, who fashioned their own libretti, and novelists, like Bowles and Montgomery, who were also highly regarded composers, none of them engaged in music and literature in a manner comparable to Burgess. Unlike Wagner and Menotti, whose literary work served their compositional needs by providing texts for their operas, Burgess rarely set his own words to music, and unlike Bowles and Montgomery, who regarded composing and writing as essentially separate activities, he viewed them as complementary and genuinely interrelated. As long as Burgess’ musical side has remained largely unknown, understanding of his twin accomplishments has been incomplete, concealing much of what makes Burgess so distinctive. During the past dozen years, musicians and scholars on both sides of the Atlantic have begun examining this heretofore disregarded aspect of Burgess’s creative life. To use an astronomical analogy, it is as if they have cast light on the dark side of the moon so as to illuminate the entire orb – finally revealing both halves of the creative world of this remarkable dual artist.

Published on 1 June 2010

Paul Phillips, Senior Lecturer in Music at Brown University, Rhode Island, is author of A Clockwork Counterpoint: The Music and Literature of Anthony Burgess. An award-winning conductor, composer and pianist, he has spearheaded efforts to make Burgess’ music more widely known, conducting the world premieres of Concerto for Pianoforte and Orchestra, Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day and A Manchester Overture.

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