Arts: Clockwork composer
Music, as much as literature, engaged the celebrated creative energy of Anthony Burgess.
Thursday 11 March 1999
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.
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