Anthony Burgess

Anthony Burgess

These articles focus on particular aspects of Anthony Burgess’s life and work, including his biography, novels, music, films, and religious beliefs.

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‘I wish people would think of me as a musician who writes novels, instead of as 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 musical career that spanned more than 50 years.

He 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 writer Paul Phillips writes in his study of Burgess’s music, A Clockwork Counterpoint, ‘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 about his development as a musician in the first volume of his autobiography, Little Wilson and Big God. He recalls that he attended regular concerts with his father, and he remembers the world premiere of Constant Lambert’s Rio Grande at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1929. He also recounts hearing Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune on the radio in the 1920s. Suffering from colour-blindness, 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 pianist, favouring large chords, jazzy sounds and rhythms, and he developed a fondness for jazz standards. He began to write music while he was at school, and he continued while he was a student at Manchester University (1937-40), producing short choral works, settings of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and a draft of Doctor Faustus, a projected one-act opera. All of these early compositions are now presumed to be lost, and it is not clear how many of them were in fact completed. The only source for many of Burgess’s pieces is a list he compiled in 1982 for This Man and Music, his musical autobiography.

During the 1939-45 war, Burgess was a pianist in 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 is his earliest surviving completed work.

His career as a writer developed after the war while he was working as a teacher in England, Malaya and Brunei. Alongside this he continued to write music including orchestral works, chamber pieces, settings of Eliot, Auden and Shakespeare’s songs, and small pieces for the piano. From the late 1960s he began to write music for film, television and 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 incidental music for a successful production of Cyrano de Bergerac, using his own translation, at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

Symphony in C (1975), 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, completing (among other works) a piano concerto, a violin concerto, chamber pieces based on the poems of F.X. Enderby and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, a song cycle based on four poems by D.H. Lawrence, and a ballet suite for orchestra themed around the life of William Shakespeare.

Blooms of Dublin, Burgess’s operetta or musical play based on Joyce’s Ulysses, was broadcast on BBC radio and by RTE in Ireland to mark the centenary of Joyce’s birth in 1982. The text was published by Hutchinson. This was followed by an invitation from Scottish Opera to write a new libretto for Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Oberon, and a commission from English National Opera to make a new translation of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, performed at the Coliseum in London with Sally Burgess (no relation) as Carmen.

In 1986 Burgess reworked his novel A Clockwork Orange as ‘play with music’, with songs based on melodies by Beethoven, and ending with a reworking of the ‘Ode to Joy’ from the Ninth Symphony. The first performance took place in West Germany in 1988, but Burgess’s music was discarded in favour of new music composed by the punk band Die Toten Hosen, who later had a hit with the single ‘Hier kommt Alex’. The musical version of A Clockwork Orange was broadcast by BBC Radio 3 in 2017, and there was another production featuring Burgess’s songs and incidental music at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool in 2018.

The critic 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.’

Commercial recordings include The Piano Music of Anthony Burgess (2015), performed 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, released by Métier; and Orchestral Music, including the pieces Mr W.S.Marche pour une révolution and Mr Burgess’s Almanack, played by Brown University Orchestra and released by Naxos.

Burgess’s sequence of 24 Preludes and Fugues was recorded by Stephane Ginsburgh and released by Naxos on the Grand Piano label in 2018. You can hear an informative podcast about this recording here.

There have been performances of Burgess’s music all over the world since his death in 1993. With a growing number of high-profile recordings, radio broadcasts and performances by professional orchestras in recent years, it is clear that more attention is now being paid to this important aspect of Burgess’s creative life.

Burgess writes at length about his life as a musician in This Man and Music, an autobiographical volume in which he gives a detailed account of composing his Symphony in C. This book, edited and annotated by the musicologist Christine Lee Gengaro, was published in the Irwell Edition of the Works of Anthony Burgess in 2020.

In 2024 Carcanet published a 550-page selection of Burgess’s essays on music. The book is titled The Devil Prefers Mozart (see link below).

A selection of scores of musical works by Anthony Burgess can be found on our music pages.

Further reading: Anthony Burgess: The Devil Prefers Mozart: Writings on Music and Musicians (Carcanet, 2024).