Review: Anthony Burgess’s Mr. W.S. – Ballet Suite for Orchestra
by Christine Lee Gengaro
John Burgess Wilson, better known as Anthony Burgess, the author of A Clockwork Orange and the Enderby series of books, was a composer. Mostly self-taught, Burgess gained musical experience during the Second World War as a pianist and an arranger, and began “draw[ing] notes on paper” at the age of twenty. Life circumstances seemed to lead him away from music time and again, yet he always found his way back to composition. Music would remain a preoccupation no matter what else was going on. Rather than completing daily crossword puzzles, Burgess would sketch out a daily fugue. Any student of counterpoint can tell you that composing a fugue is no easy business, but Burgess in his heart needed to connect with that part of himself on a regular basis.
Paul Phillips, Director of Orchestras and Chamber Music at Brown University, has been one of the greatest champions of Anthony Burgess, the composer. An award-winning conductor and a scholar, Phillips published A Clockwork Counterpoint: The Music and Literature of Anthony Burgess (Manchester University Press, 2010), “a study of Burgess’s music and the role of music in his writings.” Phillips has performed many of Burgess’s works in live concerts in the United States and Europe, and has now given us a recording of three beautifully realized works by Burgess. With this disc, Phillips proves himself to be the definitive interpreter of this repertoire, and the Brown University Orchestra performs admirably under his direction. This recording is made all the more special because of the scarcity of Burgess recordings previously available.
The first piece on the recording is also the oldest. Dating from 1979, Mr W.S. – Ballet Suite for Orchestra, began life years earlier as the score for a film musical based on Burgess’s novel about Shakespeare, Nothing Like the Sun. The film never came to pass, but the music did not go to waste. Reworking parts of the score into music for an Italian televsion production about Shakespeare, Burgess later fleshed out the raw material into a ballet with nine movements. It is this final product presented by Phillips, and the work displays rich orchestration reminiscent of Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughn Williams. Burgess knew his orchestral colors and used them to great effect. There are brilliant tutti passages, but also sensitive solo moments. Because of the subject matter, the music alludes to Elizabethan dance forms such as the Sarabande and Galliard, but also draws upon twentieth-century harmony and occasional dissonance. The overall effect is bold, mostly tonal, and often epic in scope. The orchestra under Phillips’s baton plays immaculately.
Burgess’s Marche pour une révolution was composed in 1989, the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Burgess composed for a large orchestra, replete with two harps, contrabassoon on the low end of the range, and plenty of percussion, as one might expect, given the subject matter. The music feels less march-like and more like a film score. Burgess achieves a grand feeling of open space, likely because of his penchant for wide, open-spaced chords, and rich, sweeping lines in the strings. Again, the use of orchestral color is striking. The many cymbal hits along with the scurrying main melody give a sense of motion, of drive forward. This music could easily accompany a stately procession, but might feel more at home as the overture to a film about the revolution. The orchestra captures all of this quite beautifully, and the recording allows one to hear every small nuance in the orchestration.
The last work on the recording is Mr Burgess’s Almanack, a chamber piece from 1987. Burgess finished writing this around his seventieth birthday, and in many ways, it forms a culmination of many aspects of his style. First, the esoteric inspiration: noting that there are twelve notes in the chromatic scale and twelve months in the year, Burgess drew upon the calendar idea to explore twelve intervals. Second, Burgess notices the play of numbers: the total number of movements and the number of players both equal fourteen. Third, Burgess makes an allusion to his own earlier work: “Nero’s Song”, from his music for a 1983 mini-series about the early years of Christianity, forms the principal theme. Almanack has an opening movement and then twelve subsequent movements followed by a Postlude. The musical style is the least easily accessible of everything on the recording, yet Burgess—a great lover of tunes—does not tax the ear with too much dissonance at once. There are musical references that feel almost like the American composer Charles Ives as they “intrude” on the proceedings, a horn call here, a snippet of a tune there. Phillips is particularly sensitive to the changing dynamics here, and to the rhythmic complexity. From the outside, Almanack seems like a dense work, and in some ways it is, but each movement gives us a small bite of the larger meal. You can feel that Burgess, not writing for a film or the stage, is allowing himself to experiment without having to serve a narrative. It’s a composer letting exploration itself be the goal, with a satisfying outcome.
Overall, the recording is beautifully executed. The choice of pieces provides a larger picture of Burgess the composer. Phillips, with the excellent Brown University Orchestra, illuminates Burgess’s musical choices. Burgess’s command of the orchestra is impressive and confident, and the scope of these works shows two of his strongest talents: tunes and orchestration. This recording is an important work for lovers of Burgess’s work, but also adds an interesting chapter to the history of twentieth-century English music. Burgess, again like Charles Ives, who had a non-musical day job and composed mostly in isolation, was unfettered by expectations of the prevailing trends, free to synthesize a style of his own. While some critics would likely cry that his work isn’t original enough in some respects, I would argue that Burgess the composer found a unique voice that assimilated his many disparate influences. As one will hear on this recording, the results can be very surprising.
Christine Lee Gengaro
Christine Lee Gengaro is the author of Listening to Stanley Kubrick: The Music in His Films (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) and is Associate Professor of Music at Los Angeles City College, California.