Anthony Burgess’s love for the piano was deep rooted.
Burgess believed he had a musical background. His mother Elizabeth was (according to family legend) a singer and dancer on the music hall stage, while his father Joe was a pianist in the theatres, pubs and silent cinemas of Manchester.
In 1981 Burgess wrote an essay for the book The Lives of the Piano, edited by James R. Gaines, in which he described his father’s situation:
‘He would not use the term pianist himself, considering that it ought to be reserved to artists who performed on the concert platform, to which he was never good enough to be elevated. His place was the orchestra pit […] He had, without being a virtuoso, as full a grasp of the capabilities of the piano as any professional performer I have ever known. He could switch from ragtime to Chopin; he was a brilliant improviser.’
Burgess returned to Manchester in 1987 to make a documentary, De Biecht van Burgess (The Confession of Burgess), with a Belgian television crew.
Burgess summoned vivid memories of his early life while visiting his school Xaverian College, the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus on Oxford Road, and the site of his demolished childhood home on Princess Road.
His memories were particularly brought to life by a visit to the City Road pub, in which he was persuaded to play the piano in the manner of his father. Visit the popular music section of our audio exhibition to hear this recording, and much more: click here.
Like his father, Burgess never became a concert pianist, but was confident in popular and jazz traditions and fairly effective in classical ones; he also wrote a great deal of music for the piano for many different ensembles and many different styles.
Two albums of his piano music are now available, and increased attention is being paid to this important aspect of his work. Yet it is perhaps pride rather than regret that leads him to write later in The Lives of the Piano that ‘my father and I have been merely piano players’, rather than pianists.