Mr W.S. – A Ballet on the Career of William Shakespeare
- 5th May 2016
- Blog Posts
In May 2016 the first recording of Anthony Burgess’s orchestral music will be released on the Naxos label. The Brown University Orchestra, under the baton of Paul Phillips, Music Advisor to the International Anthony Burgess Foundation and author of the study A Clockwork Counterpoint: The Music And Literature Of Anthony Burgess (MUP, 2010), perform a programme including the pieces ‘Mr W.S.’, ‘Marche pour une révolution’ and ‘Mr Burgess’s Almanack’.
Here Paul Phillips writes about each of the pieces on the forthcoming CD. More information about the recording is at the Naxos website.
Three years after the publication of his 1964 novel Nothing Like the Sun on the life of William Shakespeare, Anthony Burgess was summoned to Hollywood by Warner Brothers and commissioned to write the screenplay for a film musical to be based upon his book. Back in London, Burgess swiftly wrote the script, which included lyrics for some twenty songs, and then set them all to music. In late March 1968, a week after the death of his first wife Llewela, he flew back to California for script discussions and to record his music, “fully orchestrated and with mixed chorus”, in first-class Hollywood style. It was to be called The Bawdy Bard, with William Conrad producing and Joseph Mankiewicz directing, with the working title later changed to Will!, and finally Will (without the exclamation point), but when a change of leadership took place at Warner Brothers–Seven Arts in 1969, the new chairman cancelled all unlaunched projects, including Will, so the film was never made.
Never one to waste work that could be effectively recycled, Burgess converted his research for the film into a Shakespeare biography, and transformed the music twice – first, in 1974, into the score for an Italian television production about Shakespeare, and later, in 1979, into Mr W.S., a ballet on the life of Shakespeare. With attractive themes and melodies, lively and inventive rhythms, imaginative and well-balanced instrumentation, and a variety of descriptive movements well suited to dance, Mr W.S. is one of Burgess’s finest compositions. It effectively evokes the Elizabethan era through the use of musical gestures that suggest antiquity, such as the passage for piccolo and tabor in the first scene, which imitates music for fife and drum that one would have heard in Shakespeare’s day. Yet Burgess did not limit himself to faux-Elizabethan style. He employed the modern technique of changing meters in the fifth movement, Quodlibet, and used modern harmony and dissonance in several movements, especially the Prelude and the éseventh movement, the Opening of the Globe Playhouse, 1599, with its programmatic depiction of The Seven Ages of Man.
The BBC Symphony recorded and broadcast Mr W.S. in London in 1979. According to Burgess in You’ve Had Your Time, the second volume of his autobiography, the tape of the BBC broadcast was intentionally destroyed after two airings due to “Musicians’ Union regulations”. In 1994, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Cynfryn Jones recorded seven movements of the suite (omitting the 4th and 6th movements, and with a cut in the 9th) for inclusion in the radio programme An Airful of Burgess, which was broadcast that year. Paul Phillips conducted the US premiere of Mr W.S. (complete) with the Pioneer Valley Symphony Orchestra on 23 October 1999 and the first staged production of the ballet, which took place on 19 and 20 November 2010 at Théâtre Chanzy in Angers, France, performed by the Angers Conservatoire Orchestre with the dance troupe Marie-Laure Agrapart & Cie. This recording of Mr W.S. commemorates the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare (1564-1616).
Marche pour une révolution 1789-1989
Burgess composed Marche pour une révolution 1789-1989 to commemorate the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Completed on 21 April 1989, “March for a Revolution” is an energetic, high-spirited composition in a lively Allegro vivo (Tempo di Marcia) tempo. Scored for a large orchestra that includes contrabassoon, two harps, and a battery of percussion instruments, it is principally in A mixolydian with a D major trio, and is similar in style to the final movement of Mr W.S. Burgess dedicated the score to Philippe Bender, who conducted the premiere in Vence on 30 September 1989 with the Orchestre Régional de Cannes Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur. Under the direction of Paul Phillips, the Brown University Orchestra performed the US premiere of the work on 10 October 2014 in Sayles Hall at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, and the NY premiere on 13 October 2014 in Carnegie Hall, the first performance of music by Burgess in that celebrated venue.
Mr Burgess’s Almanack
On 24 February 1987, the eve of his seventieth birthday, Burgess completed a composition titled Mr Burgess’s Almanack for a large chamber ensemble of fourteen musicians. He gave the work “a kind of eighteenth-century title” based upon the “curious fact” that the number of notes in the chromatic scale is equal to the number of months in the year, as he explained in You’ve Had Your Time:
The [music critic of the Italian newspaper] Corriere della Sera has announced that I am giving up the novel for music. This was in connection with the performance of a work of mine in Geneva…called Mr Burgess’s Almanack, a British enough title, and he seemed to think that I was impressionistically painting the running of the English year. But the title is a trick. The calendar and the chromatic scale have in common a division into twelve. As the year moves from January to December, so in my work the musical intervals I exploit harmonically run from the minor second to the octave.
Each of the work’s twelve central movements is based on one of these intervals, beginning with the minor second in Movement 1 and proceeding in ascending order to the perfect octave in Movement 12. In keeping with the calendrical aspect of the title, and analogously to the months and seasons of the year, the twelve movements of Mr Burgess’s Almanack are divided into four groups of three, identified in the score as A (I-III), B (IV-VI), C (VII-IX), and D (X-XII). These twelve movements are framed by an introductory “Exordium” and concluding “Postlude”, both of which emphasize the intervals of the tritone and major third. The total number of movements (14) matches the number of musicians: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, horn, trumpet, timpani, 2 percussion, and piano. In addition to timpani (4 drums), the percussion instruments used in the work are small hand drum (petit tambour à main), xylophone, glockenspiel, and vibraphone.
In Giuoco delle Coppie (Game of Pairs), the second movement of Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1945), pairs of instruments play themes harmonized at a single interval: bassoons/m6; oboes/m3; clarinets/m7; flutes/P5; trumpets/M2. In Mr Burgess’s Almanack, this idea is taken idea a step further by basing the twelve inner movements on all twelve intervals available within an octave span. Diversity is achieved in Mr Burgess’s Almanack by changing tempo, texture, timbre, and character from movement to movement, resulting in a variegated work of considerable ingenuity and charm.
The principal theme of Mr Burgess’s Almanack comes from music that Burgess composed in 1983 for A.D., a television miniseries about the early years of Christianity for which he wrote the screenplay. The theme served as the melody of “Nero’s Song”:
Transposed down a fifth and transcribed into neumes on an archaic four-line stave, the same tune appears in Kingdom of the Wicked, the novel by Burgess upon which he based the screenplay for A.D.
The year before composing Mr Burgess’s Almanack, he employed the same melody in the finale of his Concerto for Pianoforte and Orchestra.
The impetus to compose Almanack came from Jonathan Haskell, an American double-bassist in l’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Upon learning that Burgess was a composer, Haskell invited him in 1986 to compose a work for fewer than 15 musicians, reasoning that limiting the number of musicians would make it easier and less expensive to perform the work than if it were scored for full orchestra. Burgess promptly accepted the invitation, without fee, and completed the work in early 1987. With an ensemble of players from l’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Haskell conducted the premiere of Mr Burgess’s Almanack, omitting the optional “Postlude”, on 11 April 1988 in Geneva in conjunction with a lecture by Burgess titled “Under the Bam: Thoughts on Words and Music”, which was sponsored by Sotheby’s and delivered to an invited audience of about one hundred people.
Find out more about the album by visiting the Naxos website.