The Music of Anthony Burgess: The Waste Land
Explore Anthony Burgess’s setting of The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot below.
This is Anthony Burgess’s copy of The Faber Book of Modern Verse (1935), which contains his text of The Waste Land. He read the first part of the poem on audio recording for his 1980 anthology They Wrote in English.
The Waste Land in context
Reading The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot in 1932, aged fifteen, was for Anthony Burgess a revelatory experience.
‘I understood very little of the poem, but I recognised that it was important. I seemed to hear a door, a long way down one of my mind’s corridors, trying to creak open but not quite making it. I copied the whole poem out. Then I got to learning it by heart.’
Burgess’s own text of The Waste Land, part of the book collection at the Burgess Foundation, is marked up for performance, perhaps for a student production. He regarded TS Eliot’s poetry, and The Waste Land in particular, as one of the foundational works of modern literature: he described Eliot’s writing as ‘[a] magical achievement, making out of the sane, the reasonable, the scholarly, even the flat and prosaic, a poetry which induces the authentic tingling down the spine and even moves to tears.’
Burgess returned to the poem throughout his life and it remained a profound influence on his writing – and music.
Burgess composed a complete setting of the work, which is one of his finest chamber pieces. Originally commissioned by the cellist Michael Rudiakov at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, the piece remained unperformed after its 1978 premiere until the ensemble Psappha gave its first European performance at the Burgess Foundation in 2014.
In the manner of Eliot’s writing Burgess uses musical styles and techniques from different times and cultures to create a rich, allusive tapestry. Quotations from Stravinsky and Wagner in particular, as well as from popular songs of the 1910s and the First World War, are woven into an original and ambitious 35-minute work for six players: flute, oboe, cello, piano, soprano and narrator.
Eliot’s text is declaimed over a gentle, sonorous background, interspersed with moments of action and drama – rather like a film soundtrack. Burgess in fact sometimes thought of the poem as ‘a film scenario, which in many ways it resembles – with its jump cuts and flashes backward and forward and montages and intense economy – [more so] than anything by Truffaut or Godard or Fellini or Antonioni.’
Burgess’s setting of the final section of the poem, ‘What the Thunder Said’, is almost entirely original, with distinct musical ideas for each strophe, including crashing piano and suspenseful trembling strings. The climax is presented mainly in silence except for big chords from all the players on the first syllable of the Sanskrit commands that appear towards the end of the poem; the final words ‘Shantih shantih shantih’ are juxtaposed with the ‘Dresden Amen’, a six-note liturgical motif used by many European composers including Mahler, Bruckner, Mendelssohn and Wagner.
‘It was Ezra Pound who said that music decays when it moves too far from the dance, and poetry decays when it neglects to sing. The Waste Land sticks in one’s mind like a diverse recital performed by a voice of immense variety but essentially a single organ: it sings and goes on singing.’ Burgess is commenting on the poem itself here, but he might also be describing his own singular composition.