Life & Work
These articles focus on particular aspects of Anthony Burgess’s life and work, including his biography, novels, music, films, and religious beliefs. Click the links to find out more.
- Life & Work
- A brief life
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
Burgess was a talented and prolific composer who wrote over 250 musical works during a compositional career that spanned more than 60 years.
Burgess wrote music across many genres and in many styles. His oeuvre includes symphonies, concertos, opera and musicals, chamber music including a great deal of work for solo piano, as well as a ballet suite, music for film, occasional pieces, songs and much more. As the conductor, composer and writer Paul Phillips has noted in his recent study of Burgess’s music, A Clockwork Counterpoint (2010), ‘his eclectic and ebullient style draws upon classical as well as jazz and popular music. Grounded in the tradition of tonality that spans the Baroque period through late 19th-century Romanticism and early 20th-century French Impressionism, Burgess’s music is strongly influenced by the works of Debussy and the English school of Elgar, Delius, Holst, Walton, and Vaughan Williams’.
Burgess writes at length about his musical development in the first volume of his autobiography, Little Wilson and Big God, recalling attending regular concerts with his pub-pianist father, and remembering especially the premiere of Constant Lambert’s Rio Grande at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Burgess also recounts hearing Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune on the radio in early 1929. Suffering from colourblindness, Burgess claims that “My impaired colour sense was already finding, in the quiet impact of Debussy’s orchestra, an auditory compensation.”
Burgess became a competent if not a concert pianist, favouring large chords, jazz sounds and rhythms, and developed an ear for standards. He wrote music throughout his teens and while studying English literature at Manchester University, producing among other works choral pieces, settings of Eliot and Pound for chamber ensembles, and a draft of Dr Faustus, a projected one-act opera. All of these early compositions are now lost, and it is not clear how many of them were in fact completed: the only source for many of Burgess’s pieces is his list of them in This Man and Music, his musical autobiography.
During the 1939-45 war, Burgess was musical director of the 54th Division Entertainment Section of the British Army, arranging many pieces for dance band. In 1945 he wrote a Sonata for Violincello and Piano in G Minor which has recently been discovered in the archives at the Burgess Foundation. By some years this is the earliest surviving complete work by Burgess.
Burgess’s career as a writer developed after the war while he worked as a teacher in England, Malaya and Brunei, but alongside this he continued to write music including orchestral works, chamber pieces, settings of Eliot, Auden and Shakespeare, and pieces for the piano. Beginning in the 1960s he began to write music for film, television and the theatre, including a musical version of Shakespeare’s life, music for a television series about Moses starring Burt Lancaster (Burgess’s music was turned down by producer Lew Grade), and the incidental music for a successful production of Cyrano de Bergerac, using his translation, in Minneapolis.
Symphony No. 3 in C (1974-75), commissioned and performed by the University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra, was the first public presentation of an orchestral work by Burgess. He said of the performance: ‘I had written over 30 books, but this was the truly great artistic moment […] I wished my father had been present. It would have been a filial fulfilment of his own youthful dreams.’ Burgess began composing with renewed vigour, by 1980 completing (amongst other works) a piano concerto, a violin concerto, chamber pieces based on his character Enderby and Eliot’s The Waste Land, and a ballet suite for orchestra based on the life of Shakespeare. Blooms of Dublin, a musical based on Joyce’s Ulysses was completed in 1982, Joyce’s centenary, and broadcast twice on radio. In 1986 Burgess reworked his novel A Clockwork Orange as ‘a play with music’, with incidental pieces based on Beethoven and ending with ‘a man bearded like Stanley Kubrick playing, in exquisite counterpoint, ‘Singin’ In The Rain’ on a trumpet’ being kicked off the stage by the other actors.
Paul Phillips characterises Burgess’s music as having ‘an angular, vigorous style, often dissonant although mostly tonal […]He often wrote in conventional musical forms, such as sonata and passacaglia, and tended to write traditionally structured works such as four-movement symphonies and three-movement concertos. Burgess had a deep love of polyphony and composed enormous amounts of counterpoint; in his autobiography he wrote that each morning he tried ‘to emulate Bach and compose at least a fugal exposition.’ Curiosity compelled him to experiment with twelve-tone music, but his conservative musical tendencies led him no further in the direction of the avant-garde.’
Commercially available recordings include The Piano Music of Anthony Burgess (2015), played by Richard Casey and released by Prima Facie; The Man and His Music, an anthology including four recorder pieces by Burgess, played by John Turner and Harvey Davies and released by Métier; and Orchestral Music, including the pieces Mr W.S., Marche pour une révolution and Mr Burgess’s Almanack played by the Brown University Orchestra and released by Naxos USA. There have been occasional performances of Burgess’s music all over the world since his death in 1993, and increasing attention is now being paid to this important and little-known aspect of Burgess’s creative life.
Scores of many of Burgess’s works can be found on our music pages.
A Clockwork Counterpoint: The Music and Literature of Anthony Burgess (2010) by Paul Phillips is available from Manchester University Press.