Archives for posts with tag: Anthony Burgess

blooms
Musical Authors: Anthony Burgess (2)
The use of language in the writings of Anthony Burgess often highlights sound over meaning, an interest that he picked up from his enthusiasm for the work of James Joyce. In A Clockwork Orange Burgess distances the reader from the extreme violence though the made-up, Russian-influenced language “Nadsat” the narrator users. That language also creates its own distinctive sound world. Burgess explored this direction to the extreme in the wordless film script Quest for Fire, where he invents a tribal language that prehistoric man might have spoken, and in his non-fiction work on the sound of language, A Mouthful of Air. In A Clockwork Orange, Burgess also satirizes the traditional highbrow image of classical music and turns it into a soundtrack for violence – far from “soothing the savage beast”, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony incites Alex into ever more extreme acts of “ultraviolence.” In the film version, director Stanley Kubrick used realizations of Beethoven’s music for the synthesizer, produced by Wendy Carlos, to emphasis this, and in the later stage version with music, Burgess composed his own parodies of Beethoven rather than use the real thing.

However, Blooms of Dublin, a musical setting of James Joyce’s Ulysses written for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1982, takes a somewhat different approach. It’s a very free interpretation of Joyce’s text, with changes and interpolations by Burgess himself, all set to original music that blends opera with Gilbert and Sullivan and music hall styles. The aim seems to have been to make Ulysses more accessible (just as he’d also tried to do with his abridgement, A Shorter Finnegans Wake in 1969). And once again, Burgess blurs fiction and reality. In Earthly Powers (1980) the novel he was writing at the same time, the fictional composer Domenico Campanati has also written a musical based on Joyce called Blooms of Dublin, and seven lyrics derived from the real peace are included in the novel. Even more puzzlingly, the primary character, an author called Kenneth Toomey, comments on the fictional Blooms. His verdict? That Ulysses is “a totally un-adaptable masterpiece of literature”.

The BBC recording of the broadcast isn’t generally available, but I’ve heard it a few times and find it an interesting but uneven work (inevitably, perhaps, as it’s around two and a half hours long). As Toomey points out, the complexities and subtleties of Ulysses aren’t easy to translate into a fairly straightforward musicals format, The number “Copulation without population” in Act Two is an example – it’s a funny, bawdy music hall romp which gratuitously adds a chorus of drunks and whores into the mix, like a precursor to Jerry Springer The Opera. But it has little to do with the corresponding passage from Ulysses. In his defense, Burgess said: “The score is, I think, the kind of thing Joyce might have envisaged…he was the great master of the ordinary, and my music is ordinary enough. I had felt for some time that he might have had demotic musicals in mind ….”.

However, critics at the time were horrified at Burgess’ presumption. One called it “an act of vandalism.” Burgess took particular exception to a stinging review by Hans Keller, and for ever after bore the grudge. A few years later he wrote a new piece he called Hommage to Hans Keller, scoring it for the somewhat unlikely combination of four tubas. The Burgess biographer Roger Lewis (himself something of an iconoclast) described it as “a sort of lavatorial blast.”

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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.