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.”