The Music of Anthony Burgess: Quatuor pour Guitares
Explore Burgess’s lively works for guitar quartet.
Listen to the Mēla Quartet perform Quatuor pour Guitares by Anthony Burgess, recorded at a live concert at the Burgess Foundation in 2016.
Listen to the Mēla Quartet perform ‘The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly’, ‘The Lark in the Clear Air’ and ‘The Irish Washerwoman’, arranged by Anthony Burgess, recorded live at the Burgess Foundation in 2016.
The first two pages of Burgess’s manuscript score of his Quatuor pour Guitares.
Anthony Burgess’s ‘English Guitar’, an attractive example of this precursor to the modern guitar made between 1775 and 1820. This guitar is part of the musical instrument collection at the Burgess Foundation.
Burgess: Musique d’un écrivain anglais sur la Riviera by the Aighetta Guitar Quartet, released in 1996.
Quatuor pour Guitares in context
Anthony Burgess wrote a surprising number of works for the guitar, and the instrument appears many times in his novels. Surprising as the guitar was not an instrument that he ever played himself to any standard: as he described it, the guitar is ‘perhaps the simplest in the world to play badly and the most difficult to play well. To turn the instrument into a kind of one-handed clavichord requires rare skill, strength, and long application’.
Guitarists appear in his fiction. The protagonist of Burgess’s first completed novel A Vision of Battlements, Sergeant Ennis, is a guitarist and composed a piece for his mistress; and guitarists are minor characters in other novels including Beard’s Roman Women, The Right To An Answer and Any Old Iron.
Burgess attempted to teach his wife Liana to play and composed for her a ‘Birthday Greeting’ for guitar and piano accompaniment. He himself was just about capable of playing, as he put it, ‘a Bach minuet at the speed of a sarabande.’ Yet his many compositions for the guitar are lively and absorbing, and are an important part of his musical oeuvre.
After a number of early shorter works for guitar, Burgess’s first really ambitious piece was Quatuor pour Guitares, completed in 1986. This was written for a leading ensemble called the Aighetta Quartet, and received its premiere at the Academié Rainer III in Monaco; subtitled ‘Quatuor en hommage a Maurice Ravel’ it shows strong French influences as well as those from Burgess’s touchstones in the English tradition. Sharing some thematic and harmonic material with his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra and his Symphony in C, the piece is energetic and complex, with fugal elements and variations, while remaining accessible and entertaining.
Burgess went on to compose two more guitar quartets, and the three together are a significant contribution to the repertoire. During the same period he also wrote two large-scale works for guitar and orchestra, Concerto per Chitarra ed Orchestra en Mi minore, and even more ambitiously Concerto Grosso pour Quatuor de Guitares et Orchestra en La mineur. The latter piece was premiered in Cannes in 1989, and Burgess later described this event as one of the most joyful of his compositional career.
Trois Morceaux Irlandais are three transcriptions of Irish airs for guitar quartet. ‘The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly’ appears in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a book with which Burgess was fascinated: Burgess attempted to sing this air himself for a television documentary about the novel in 1973. These cheerful and charming arrangements showcase Burgess’s facility with this complicated and challenging instrument in his musical writing.