Burgess

Musical Authors: Anthony Burgess (1)
Anthony Burgess inherited his love for music from his mother (a music hall singer and dancer) and his father (a part-time cinema pianist). His early introduction to music is lightly disguised as fiction in his novel The Pianoplayers (1986). He began composing seriously while in the army during the war, and then while working as a teacher in Malaya, but couldn’t earn a living from it. When he was diagnosed with a terminal illness in 1959 and told he had just 12 months to live, Burgess embarked on a series of novels in an attempt to earn enough money to support his wife after his death. He survived the diagnosis, and wrote 11 novels between 1960 and 1964, including his best known work, A Clockwork Orange (1962).

Nearly all the writings, fiction and non-fiction, reflect his musical experiences. Biographical elements concerning musicians, particularly failed composers, occur everywhere. His early novel A Vision of Battlements (1965) concerns Richard Ennis, a composer of symphonies and concertos who is serving in the British army in Gibralter. His last, Byrne (1995), a novel set in verse form, is about a minor modern composer who enjoys greater success in bed than he does in the concert hall. Fictional works mentioned in the novels often parallel Burgess’ own real compositions, and provide a commentary on them, such as the St Celia’s Day cantata described in the 1976 novel Beard’s Roman Women, which surfaced two years after the novel was published as a real Burgess work. But the influence goes far beyond the biographical. There are experiments combining musical forms and literature such as Tremor of Intent (1966), the James Bond spoof thriller set in sonata form, and the Napoleon Symphony, a literary interpretation of Beethoven’s Eroica. His use of language often highlights sound over meaning.

Burgess wrote three symphonies himself, but the first two are lost. In his third, he contrived to take a theme directly from the pages of Shakespeare, using six notes quoted in sol fa notation by Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost. As Burgess himself explained: …“the pedant Holofernes, who was probably played by Shakespeare himself in the first presentation of the comedy, has a very interesting speech, in which he praises the old poet Mantuan, quotes a line from him, sings a snatch of Italian song – “Venezia, Venezia, chi non ti vede non ti prezia” – and also warbles the notes do re sol la mi fa. This snatch is, I believe, the only tune that Shakespeare wrote [Burgess was wrong here, there’s another sol fa sequence of four notes hummed by Edmund in King Lear] and it has been unaccountably neglected by Shakespeare scholars.”

The sol fa notation translates to the notes C D G A E and F, but of course there’s no indication of rhythm. Burgess points out that such as sequence “is suitable for a ground bass; it can be extended into a fugal subject. If we repeat it a tritone higher or lower, we have a perfect twelve-tone Grundstimmung for a serial composition”. In the third symphony, he says: “My finale pays homage to Love’s Labour’s Lost by basing itself on that brief Shakespeare motif – forward, backward, and upside down – and setting the Venezia words to an appropriate Adriatic- or Neapolitan-type melody, corny, full of schmalz, and with a mandoline tinkling away in the background.”

The symphony was commissioned by the University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra in 1974, resulting in the first public performance of an orchestral work by Burgess – a momentous occasion for the composer which spurred him on to renew his composing activities with other large scale works and chamber music, including a violin concerto. A short extract of the Symphony can be heard here.

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