Anthony Burgess’s musical setting of The Waste Land
On Friday 28 February 2014, the Manchester-based Psappha ensemble, joined by Jonathan Best as narrator and soprano Rebecca Lea, presented two sell-out performances Anthony Burgess’ musical setting of T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land, in a production directed by Elaine Tyler-Hall.
Burgess’s setting of The Waste Land is a wonderful demonstration of how literature is able to influence musical composition. It provides a counterpoint to the Burgess Foundation’s new exhibition, entitled ‘This Man and Music’, which discusses the effect of music upon Burgess’s career as a writer of fiction and journalism.
‘The Waste Land’ is scored for an ensemble of six, comprising flute, oboe, cello, piano, soprano and narrator. Composed in 1978, it follows Burgess’ composition of the song cycle, The Brides of Enderby (1977), which uses the poetry of Burgess’s dyspeptic protagonist, Francis Xavier Enderby, as its poetic source. Both works were commissioned by the cellist, Michael Rudiakov, of Sarah Lawrence College, New York. Where The Brides of Enderby uses Enderby’s poetry as a springboard for experimentation, Burgess’s setting of The Waste Land places Eliot’s text firmly at its centre.
Listeners will be entertained by Burgess’ insertion of a myriad of musical allusions. The opening bassoon solo of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913) begins his setting of ‘The Burial of the Dead’, for example, and inserts it once more later on. It is also possible to hear Richard Wagner’s ‘Tristan chord’, from Tristan und Isolde(1865), as well as a quotation from the sublime overture to this seminal opera. There are many more musical allusions to be found, such as Burgess’s use of the ‘Dresden amen’ (a sequence of six notes used in the German state of Saxony and utilised by composers such as Felix Mendelssohn, Gustav Mahler and Wagner, among others). It is this intertextual quality, found in much of Burgess’ music, that makes it so enjoyable to revisit and to relisten to.
Best’s convincing delivery of Eliot’s text worked well with the soprano interludes, performed by Lea, making innovative use of the space during her time on stage. Burgess uses the soprano voice at central points to startling effect. A particularly arresting example is the soprano’s use of Sprechstimme in the recital of the Sanskrit commands to be found in the setting of ‘What the Thunder Said’, which Lea demonstrated with great drama. Altogether, the ensemble was extremely tight, responding to Burgess’s musical cues with flair and providing a striking performance.
It is marvellous to see that leading ensembles, such as the musicians of Psappha, are exploring more of Burgess’ musical compositions. Perhaps a future project should be a performance where The Waste Land and The Brides of Enderby are performed as a pair. Such a performance would help to demonstrate the importance of the relationship between words and music within Burgess’s output at this particular point in the late 1970s. With over 150 musical works to be explored, and more continually being re-discovered, Burgess’ musical compositions deserve further performance and further scholarship. I can’t wait to see what is going to be performed next.
— Carly Rowley is a PhD student at Liverpool Hope University, whose thesis examines four of Burgess’s musical compositions that combine words and music.