Arts: Clockwork composer

Music, as much as literature, engaged the celebrated creative energy of Anthony Burgess.

Anthony Burgess hardly went short of recognition in his own lifetime. He was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic as the author of more than 50 books, including biographies and autobiographies, criticism, journalism, poetry, plays, translations, anthologies and, above all, some exuberantly inventive and linguistically playful novels, including Earthly Powers, the Enderby Quartet, the Malayan Trilogy, the Shakespeare-in-Love fantasia Nothing Like the Sun and - he grew to wince at the inevitable inclusion of the little book made so notorious by the late Mr Kubrick - A Clockwork Orange. More than enough accomplishment for any writer; certainly enough, Burgess might have snarled (he had little patience with the fastidiously infertile), for any 10 writers as minimally productive as, say, an EM Forster.

And yet Burgess remained frustrated. His first artistic love was music, his first ambition was to be a great composer, and he only turned to writing fiction in his late thirties, after receiving one too many rejection letters from the BBC Third Programme. By the time of his death in 1993, he had only ever heard a handful of his works performed, and he was unhappily aware that a good part of the musical world - of the world at large, come to that - was quite ignorant of the fact that Burgess the novelist was also Burgess the composer.

A little more than five years later, his ghost (like the great Samuel Johnson, one of his literary heroes, Burgess seems to have been an uneasy believer in ghosts) has cause to feel a lot more cheerful. Thanks largely to the assiduous efforts of an American conductor and composer, Paul Phillips, who directs the orchestras and teaches music at Brown University, Burgess's substantial musical output has been brought into order for the first time; in addition, Phillips has written a lengthy entry on Burgess for the next edition of Grove's, and is hard at work publishing and performing various Burgess compositions for the first time.

Last month alone, he conducted two Burgess concerts in the United States, including a world premiere of the Piano Concerto in E Flat, and an all- Burgess evening including The Brides of Enderby, "which I believe is unique in the history of music - a setting of poems written by one of his own fictional characters".

Over the next few years, Phillips hopes to premiere many more compositions, and to have some issued on CD; as far as I'm aware, the only one available is a French recording of some slight, if agreeable works for guitar by the Aighetta Quartet under the title Burgess: Musique d'un ecrivain anglais sur la Riviera (1995). Phillips has also started work on the first full- length critical study which should be completed by the end of next year. Working title: A Clockwork Counterpoint.

This one-man crusade began more or less by chance, when Phillips was browsing through The New York Times for 26 November 1993 and chanced upon a headline in the obituaries section,"Man of Letters and Music". "That caught my eye, because I already liked Burgess very much as an author - I associated him with other verbally brilliant novelists like Nabokov and Joyce - but I had no idea that he was also a composer, and I was fascinated. So I wrote to his publishers, and found out that almost none of his musical work had been published."

Phillips's researches then stalled for a couple of years, until he received a message at Brown University from a writer who was working on a Burgess biography. This writer then put Phillips in touch with Burgess's widow, Liana, and eventually, "in August 1997, she invited me out to stay at their flat in Monaco, where all the manuscripts were in storage. So I went to Monaco... and I was just astonished by what was there."

Astonishing as it was, this pile of manuscripts represented only a fragment of a lifetime's musical output. Phillips estimates that Burgess must have composed around 150-160 complete pieces and any number of minor works, but almost everything that he wrote before 1970 had been lost, discarded or destroyed, including the First Symphony in E Minor (c 1935, when "John Burgess Wilson", as he was then known, was just 18) and the Sinfoni Malaya of 1957, composed when he was a schoolteacher in Malaya. Something like 60 works have been preserved, "many of which are quite long, like Blooms of Dublin, which was an adaptation of Joyce's Ulysses into a music-hall show, or the Third Symphony, also known as the Iowa Symphony, which has a manuscript that's well over 100 pages long".

It was the latter work with which Phillips chose to launch his public campaign of rediscovery. In December 1997, he conducted performances of the Iowa Symphony both in Cambridge, Mass, and in Providence - "We got standing ovations, and the local newspaper in Providence said that it was one of the highlights of the year." America, it should be said, has always been more hospitable to Burgess's music than has his homeland. When BBC Radio broadcast Blooms of Dublin for Joyce's centenary in 1982, the musicologist Hans Keller gave it an unmerciful roasting. The reason for the Third Symphony's mid-western name is that it was commissioned by Professor James Dixon of the University of Iowa, who had read Burgess's experimental novel Napoleon Symphony, guessed that it could only have been written by a composer, and wanted to hear what that composer could do.

The symphony was premiered at Iowa in 1974. Hearing it, he sometimes said, gave Burgess the greatest artistic satisfaction of his life. In Phillips's view, it transformed his attitude to composition. "Until then he'd been writing almost entirely for himself. He was self-taught - the University of Manchester wouldn't let him study music, because he hadn't passed his exams in Physics - and just about the only compositions he'd had performed were incidental music for amateur drama, arrangements for wartime dancebands and things like that. Having his Third Symphony performed, and applauded, changed all that. Music simply poured out of him. At one point he was writing a prelude and fugue every day. There was just a psychological need to spin out those notes."

It's evident that the sheer quantity of Burgess's work puts him well beyond the ranks of the mere Sunday composer, but what of its quality? "It's still too early to say how good or how important his music is. It's also hard to say what his music is like - as in his literature, it's enormously eclectic, especially as there are two distinct sides to his work. On the one side there's the popular entertainer - Burgess's father was a pub pianist, and his mother was a music-hall singer, there's all that in his genes. He loved things like Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hart.

"And on the other side - well, he starts out very much under the influence of Debussy and Stravinsky, and he tried all kinds of modern idioms, including 12-tone music in Mr Burgess's Almanack. Then, beneath all that, there's his Englishness - a strong presence of Walton, Holst, Vaughn Williams and, above all, Elgar. Elgar was the North Pole that he was pulled towards throughout his career. What I can say is that audiences react tremendously well to his work. There's a genuine musical personality there, and some very attractive music."

That latter claim is one I can endorse. On the last Sunday of February, I was lucky enough to be present at a much smaller-scale premiere of some pieces for solo piano by Burgess, held in the small town of Rochefort- sur-Loire. In the audience was another American academic, Professor Ben Forkner, who will be director of the Anthony Burgess Study Centre of Angers University, due to open in October; a BBC film crew, shooting a documentary on Burgess for broadcast this summer; and the guest of honour, Liana Burgess. Burgess's widow was close to tears at hearing, for the very first time, compositions which her husband had, as was his habit, transferred straight from his brain to paper, without trying them out on a keyboard. To paraphrase the final words of his autobiography: Burgess the composer may yet have his time.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?