The Foundation

Burgess and Shakespeare

Throughout his career, Anthony Burgess was fascinated by the writing and life of William Shakespeare. Explore these pages to find out about the influence of Shakespeare on Anthony Burgess, and the insights Burgess brings to our reading of his work.

in this section

Burgess’s Shakespeare music:

Act 1 An introduction Act 2 Will Act 3 Mr WS Act 4 Three Shakespeare SongsUse the links at the top of the page to switch section

Act 1 An introduction

Anthony Burgess’s preoccupation with the life and writing of William Shakespeare extended into his parallel career as a composer.

Reviewing a book about Shakespeare and music in 1964, for Burgess the world of Shakespeare was one ‘in which the distinct by germane functions of literature and music were instinctively but perfectly known’, and Burgess wove music and literature together in his own Shakespearean projects.

The novel Nothing Like the Sun is full of music, with a backdrop provided by lute-playing and consorts of viols and recorders, and quotations from Shakespeare’s musical metaphors; and the biography Shakespeare highlights the central place for music in Elizabethan culture.

Alongside the literary works, many of Burgess’s own musical compositions draw on his knowledge of and fascination with Shakespeare and his time. With music for orchestra, chamber ensemble, voice and recorder, Shakespeare’s words and musical ideas provided Burgess with inspiration throughout his writing career.

Get thee to: An introduction | Will | Mr WS | Three Shakespeare Songs | Another Shakespeare section (see links at top of page)

Act 2 Will

Will was Anthony Burgess’s Shakespeare film.

Burgess’s novel Nothing Like the Sun formed the basis for a film project in 1967. The actor and director William Conrad arranged for Burgess to visit California on behalf of Warner Brothers, who commissioned him to write a script. Also known as The Bawdy Bard, the film was to include music: Burgess wrote the twenty songs himself, featuring Elizabethan instruments such as shawms, sackbuts, recorders and tabors.

Burgess returned to California in 1968 to meet the famous Hollywood director Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Cleopatra) who had been attached to the project, and the film gathered pace. The music composed by Burgess was recorded with a full orchestra and mixed chorus, but he began to gradually lose faith that his vision would be realised, reflecting later ‘only Shakespeare could write the lyrics and John Dowland the music.’

In 1969 Will was cancelled by Warner Brothers following changes in management. Burgess felt in any case that a film about Shakespeare’s love life could never be made, though it may have been that the world was simply not ready: thirty years later Shakespeare in Love, written by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman, won seven Academy Awards. However, Burgess’s compositions for Will did not go to waste as much of the music was eventually converted into his ballet suite Mr WS; the songs were never published.

The musical film did get as far as the demo stage, however, and the songs are in the audio collection at the Burgess Foundation. Listen to three of them below:

‘Bringing the Maypole Home’




‘Shakespeare’s Boys’


Get thee to: An introduction | Will | Mr WS | Three Shakespeare Songs | Another Shakespeare section (see links at top of page)

Act 3 Mr WS

The Shakespeare ballet Mr WS is one of Burgess’s most accomplished and more ambitious compositions.

Comprised of nine movements for full orchestra, the suite is 36 minutes long and combines musical form and instrumentation from the Elizabethan era with the tonality and compositional styles of both early 20th century English composers and Hollywood film-music composers such as Miklós Rózsa and Elmer Bernstein.

The scenario tells the story of Shakespeare’s journey to London to seek his fortune as a playwright, encounters with the Earl of Southampton and the Dark Lady, his success in the theatre and his eventual death in Stratford.

The Prelude is a bustling movement which opens in C major and depicts Shakespeare’s departure from Stratford, his arrival in London to make his fortune and his meeting of the Earl of Southampton. Burgess describes the movement as ‘brisk and purposeful’ and the score features sweeping string melodies, martial themes, bursts of dissonant brass chords (suggesting horror at the sight of plague-ridden corpses) and a grand climax in the style of a post-war Hollywood epic opening credits sequence.

Listen to the Prelude:

The lively Prelude is followed by a slow Sarabande for muted strings with polyphonic texturing. The third movement is a short Galliard (an up-tempo triple-metre dance popular in 16th and 17th century Europe) in which the Dark Lady makes her first appearance. Burgess’s orchestration moves from a small Elizabethan-style court ensemble to full orchestra.

Listen to the Sarabande:

Listen to the Galliard:

In the fourth movement (a Carol or ‘slower dance in triple’) Burgess depicts the rivalry between Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton as they try to win the Dark Lady’s affections. Here, Burgess makes use of dual and triple rhythms alongside romantic melodies which gradually build across the oboe and strings, resulting in luxurious modal harmonies reminiscent of Vaughan Williams.

Listen to the Carol:

The Quodlibet (movement five, latin for ‘what you please’ and traditionally a composition in which well-known melodies and texts appear in various combinations) mirrors the musical style and livelier pace of the first movement and in keeping with the form features a quotation from Browning’s The Leaves be Green, which Burgess playfully develops with syncopated rhythms.

Listen to the Quodlibet:

Tragedy dominates the sixth movement (The Death of Princes) as a repeating two-note funeral-march motif, building in intensity, portrays Shakespeare’s turmoil following the death of his son.

Listen to The Death of Princes:

In the Opening of the Globe (movement seven) Burgess depicts Shakespeare’s elevation under James I with ‘an ensemble dance illustrating the Seven Ages of Man, as presented at the Globe.’ The movement is described by Paul Phillips in A Clockwork Counterpoint as beginning ‘energetically in D Dorian, with death represented by a string quartet and the soul’s ascent to heaven by a long ascending solo violin line.’

Listen to the Opening of the Globe:

Following his collapse at the dance, Shakespeare is on his deathbed in the opening of movement eight Stratford, April 1616. A solo violin towards the end of the movement once more symbolises mortality, with the gradual fading-out of the music mirroring the playwright’s final moments.

Listen to Stratford, April 1616:

The suite’s final movement is a march titled Non Sanz Droict (after the motto on the coat of arms granted to Shakespeare’s father in 1596) and features rousing military-band-style passages and a central theme which quotes Burgess’s self-titled ‘mixolydian melody’ taken from his lost Symphony No.1 in E major.

Listen to Non Sanz Droict:

Mr WS premiered in 1979 during a national BBC broadcast with the BBC Orchestra. An abridged version of the suite was also recorded by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in 1994 and featured in the BBC Radio 3 broadcast of An Airful of Burgess during the same year. A recording by the Brown University Symphony Orchestra was released on the Naxos label in 2016. The complete score is kept in the archives at the Université d’Angers, France.

Get thee to: An introduction | Will | Mr WS | Three Shakespeare Songs | Another Shakespeare section (see links at top of page)

Act 4 Three Shakespeare Songs

The earliest reference to Anthony Burgess’s Three Shakespeare Songs is found in his musical autobiography This Man and Music.

Burgess includes Three Shakespeare Songs for Voice and Piano (Under the Greenwood Tree from As You Like It, Apemantus’s Grace from Timon of Athens and Come Thou Monarch of the Vine from Antony and Cleopatra) within a list of works composed in 1947. These manuscripts are now lost but another collection comprised of settings of the same Sonnets – written by Burgess in the 1980s – still exists.

Under the Greenwood Tree is written for female voice and piano and is a lilting ballad in 6/8. Apemantus’s Grace – written for baritone – is an atonal and angular composition. And Come Thou Monarch of the Vine originally composed for two tenor voices, baritone and bass, is a short and simple piece.

Listen to Under the Greenwood Tree.

Listen to Apemantus’s Grace.

In comparison to Three Shakespeare Songs, Burgess’s setting of Sonnet 116 is a more reflective and sombre piece. Composed for Barbara Beck (a singer) the Sonnet examines love in terms of what it is not:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
That alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

The composition was discovered by Barbara’s husband John Beck [1914 – 2014] along with Burgess’s harmonica. John and Barbara (or ‘Boo’) Beck were neighbours and friends to Lynne and Anthony Burgess in Oxfordshire, when Burgess was teaching English at Banbury Grammar School. The manuscript is now in the collection of the Burgess Foundation.

Listen to Sonnet: Shaksper:


For more on Burgess’s Shakespeare music, visit our Music of Anthony Burgess exhibition.

Get thee to: An introduction | Will | Mr WS | Three Shakespeare Songs | Another Shakespeare section (see links at top of page)

Act 1 An introduction Act 2 Will Act 3 Mr WS Act 4 Three Shakespeare SongsUse the links at the top of the page to switch section