About this Recording
8.573472 - BURGESS, A.: Orchestral Music - Mr W.S. / Marche pour une Révolution / Mr Burgess's Almanack (Brown University Orchestra, Paul Phillips)

Anthony Burgess (1917–1993)
Mr W.S. • Marche pour une révolution • Mr Burgess’s Almanack


Best known as the extraordinarily inventive and prolific author of over sixty books, Anthony Burgess originally set out to be a composer and regretted that his writings overshadowed his music: “I wish people would think of me as a musician who writes novels, instead of a novelist who writes music on the side”, as The New York Times quoted him in 1970. During World War II, he was the arranger/pianist for a military entertainment troupe called The Jaypees, and later composed sonatas, songs, and marches while stationed in Gibraltar for three years with the British army. After the war, fruitless efforts to promote his music and pursue graduate study in composition thwarted his attempt at a professional musical career. His first wife, Llewela Jones, known as Lynne, adamantly opposed his composing, further impeding his musical aspirations. When the BBC rejected his Passacaglia for Orchestra, she issued an ultimatum offering him one last chance to compose a successful work or else abandon music as a career. According to Little Wilson and Big God, the first volume of Burgess’s autobiography, he set to work on an opera, The Eve of Saint Venus, the story of a statue of Venus that comes to life, but only managed to complete the text. Accepting Lynne’s ultimatum, he gave up music and turned to writing instead, producing his first novels in the early 1950s.

After fourteen post-war years as a teacher, first in various English villages and later in the British colonies of Malaya and Brunei, John Burgess Wilson gradually established himself as a writer, adopting the pen name Anthony Burgess when Time for a Tiger, his first published novel, was issued in 1956, since British civil servants were discouraged from publishing fiction under their actual names. His reputation as a writer rose steadily throughout the following decade with the publication of more than twenty books between 1960 and 1970. When the cinematic version of A Clockwork Orange hit the screens in 1971, Burgess’s fame skyrocketed. Thanks to the notoriety of Stanley Kubrick’s film and Burgess’s entertaining personality, he became a frequent presence on television in Europe and North America and one of the world’s most famous living writers.

Burgess’s lifelong fascination with the interrelationship of music and literature led him to write novels based on musical forms. A Clockwork Orange and Tremor of Intent are structured in sonata form while Nothing Like the Sun, “A Story of Shakespeare’s Love-life” filled with musical references, is like a dual suite composed of two unequal halves, with each chapter in Part II twice as long as its counterpart in Part I, as if played with repeats. The novels A Vision of Battlements, The Malayan Trilogy, Earthly Powers, Any Old Iron, and Byrne all contain characters who are composers or professional musicians, while music lies at the heart of books like The Pianoplayers, a tribute to his father Joseph Wilson, who played the piano professionally in British pubs and silent movie houses, and This Man and Music, a musical autobiography and collection of essays mostly on music.

Napoleon Symphony is one of Burgess’s most audacious attempts to convert music into literature. Upon reading this fictionalized life of Bonaparte modelled upon Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, James Dixon, conductor of the University Symphony Orchestra of the University of Iowa, contacted Burgess and invited him to send a composition for his orchestra to play, either an existing work or a new one. Having composed two previous symphonies, both lost—one in Manchester as a teenager and a second in Malaya—Burgess decided to compose a third symphony for Dixon. Burgess called the première, which Dixon conducted in Iowa City on 22nd October 1975, “the truly great artistic moment” of his life. From that point on, Burgess composed at a furious pace as if making up for the prior decades in which music had taken a back seat to literature.

From 1975 until his death in 1993, Burgess wrote concertos for piano, violin, oboe, cor anglais, solo guitar, and guitar quartet, a piano concertino, a rhapsody for tuba and orchestra, a string quartet, and a set of twenty-four preludes and fugues. He turned Joyce’s Ulysses into the operetta Blooms of Dublin, wrote the words and music for a musical titled Trotsky’s in New York!, and composed the score for a stage version of A Clockwork Orange. He penned overtures for Glasgow and his native Manchester, sinfoniettas celebrating Strasbourg and his second wife Liana Macellari, cantatas on texts by John Dryden and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and chamber settings of verse by T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, A.E. Housman, and his own fictional poet F.X. Enderby. He wrote a film score, music for brass band, two quartets for winds and strings, an elegy for string orchestra on the death of Princess Grace, sonatas for recorder, studies and concert pieces for oboe and English horn, pieces for harmonica, and choral works and songs to verse by Shakespeare, Nashe, Hardy, D’Annunzio, Pound, and Joyce.

Burgess composed in a vigorous, angular, mostly tonal but sometimes dissonant style—a hybrid of Holst and Hindemith. Much of his music is contrapuntal, with fugal passages in many of his works. Harmonically, his music tends towards dense sonorities built on 4ths; melodically, 4ths and 2nds predominate. Some compositions reflect the influence of jazz, blues, and popular music, but not rock and roll, which Burgess abhorred. Rhythmic vitality and metric ambiguity are characteristic of numerous compositions. He wrote quickly, completing works such as Master Coale’s Pieces and the Guitar Quartet No. 1 within a few days, and frequently reused themes and material from his older compositions. His talent as a parodist is evident in his faux-Elizabethan ballet score Mr W.S., the English music hall style in Blooms of Dublin, and the Beethovenian score to the Singspiel version of A Clockwork Orange.

Relatively little of Burgess’s music has been recorded. In 1996, the Aïghetta Quartet, a Monaco-based guitar quartet, released a compact disc of Burgess’s three guitar quartets titled Burgess: Musique d’un écrivain anglais sur la Riviera, having previously included each of the first two on a pair of compilations of compositions by multiple composers. Recordings of recorder and piano music by Burgess were issued in 2013 and 2015, respectively. This is the first recording of his orchestral music.

Mr W.S. – Ballet Suite for Orchestra

Three years after the publication of his 1964 novel Nothing Like the Sun on the life of William Shakespeare, Burgess was summoned to Hollywood by Warner Brothers and commissioned to write the screenplay for a film musical based on his book. Back in London, he swiftly wrote the script and then composed some twenty musical numbers, to his own lyrics, for the film. In March 1968, a week after Llewela’s death, he flew back to California for script discussions and to record his music, “fully orchestrated and with mixed chorus”, in first-class Hollywood style, but when a change of leadership took place at Warner Brothers-Seven Arts in 1969, the new chairman cancelled all unlaunched projects, including this film.

Never one to waste work that could be effectively recycled, Burgess converted his research into a Shakespeare biography, and transformed the music first, in 1974, into the score for an Italian television production about Shakespeare, and later, in 1979, into Mr W.S., a ballet on the life of Shakespeare. With attractive themes and melodies, lively and inventive rhythms, imaginative and well-balanced instrumentation, and a variety of descriptive movements well suited to dance, Mr W.S. is one of Burgess’s finest compositions. It effectively evokes the Elizabethan era through the use of musical gestures that suggest antiquity, such as the passage for piccolo and tabor in the first scene, which imitates music for fife and drum that one would have heard in Shakespeare’s day. Yet Burgess did not limit himself to faux-Elizabethan style. He employed changing meters in the fifth movement, Quodlibet, and modern harmony and dissonance in the Prelude and the seventh movement.

A scenario by Burgess details the stage action of each movement. 1 Busy, vigorous music as young Will arrives in London soon after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. He watches an acting troupe, the Queen’s Men, perform a primitive version of Romeo and Juliet, and takes his place among the actors. Outbreaks of plague interrupt the company. Will catches the eye of the Earl of Southampton. 2 As a sarabande is danced, Southampton tries to lure Will away from the stage to be his personal poet. Will resists, then succumbs. Finely dressed by Southampton’s tailor, Will is now a gentleman. 3 An unknown but seductive dark lady appears during a court dance (galliard). Entranced, Will dances with her. 4 Will ignores his wife Anne when she arrives in London with their adolescent son Hamnet, who is ill and needs his father. Enraptured by the dark lady, Will vies with Southampton for her favour. Southampton is victorious, leaving Will disconsolate and oblivious to his family as Hamnet collapses and is led away by his weeping mother. 5 Will, realizing how much he has neglected his family, runs after them but cannot pass through the crowd of Londoners celebrating a new victory over the Spaniards. 6 Once the crowd disperses, Will is alone, in anguish. Delirious, he envisions Hamnet’s funeral procession and burial. A figure in black, Hamnet transformed into Hamlet, rises from the grave. Hamlet dances, then dies. Will grabs a quill and writes feverishly. 7 Before an eager audience attending the opening of the Globe Playhouse in 1599, the speech from As You Like It describing the seven ages of man is mimed. As the crowd performs a general dance, Will collapses and is led away. 8 Lying on his deathbed, Will imagines characters from his plays, and then his son, dancing around him. He tries to dance with Hamnet as an act of reconciliation, but collapses and dies as the lights darken. 9 To the strains of a noble march, a parade of Will’s characters struts before King James I and his courtiers. Will is brought on dead, but rises and dances, symbolizing how Shakespeare lives on through his plays.

The BBC Symphony recorded and broadcast Mr W.S. in London in 1979. According to Burgess in You’ve Had Your Time, the second volume of his autobiography, the tape of the BBC broadcast was intentionally destroyed after two airings due to “Musicians’ Union regulations”. In 1994, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Cynfryn Jones recorded seven movements of the suite (omitting the 4th and 6th movements, and with a cut in the 9th) for inclusion in the radio programme An Airful of Burgess, which was broadcast that year. I conducted the US première of Mr W.S. (complete) with the Pioneer Valley Symphony Orchestra on 23rd October 1999 and the first staged production of the ballet, presented on 19th and 20th November 2010 at Théâtre Chanzy in Angers, France, performed by the Angers Conservatoire Orchestre with the dance troupe Marie-Laure Agrapart & Cie. This recording of Mr W.S. commemorates the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare (1564–1616).

Marche pour une révolution 1789–1989

Burgess composed Marche pour une révolution 1789–1989 to commemorate the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Completed on 21st April 1989, March for a Revolution is an energetic, high-spirited composition in a lively Allegro vivo tempo (Tempo di Marcia). Scored for a large orchestra that includes contrabassoon, two harps, and a battery of percussion, it is principally in A mixolydian with a D major trio, and similar in style to the final movement of Mr W.S. Burgess dedicated the score to Philippe Bender, who conducted the première in Vence on 30th September 1989 with the Orchestre Régional de Cannes Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur. Under my direction, the Brown University Orchestra performed the US première of the work on 10th October 2014 in Providence, Rhode Island, and the New York première on 13th October 2014 in Carnegie Hall.

Mr Burgess’s Almanack

On 24th February 1987, the eve of his seventieth birthday, Burgess completed a composition titled Mr Burgess’s Almanack for a large chamber ensemble of fourteen musicians. He gave the work “a kind of eighteenth-century title” based upon the “curious fact” that the number of notes in the chromatic scale is equal to the number of months in the year, as he explained in You’ve Had Your Time:

“The [music critic of the Italian newspaper] Corriere della Sera has announced that I am giving up the novel for music. This was in connection with the performance of a work of mine in Geneva … called Mr Burgess’s Almanack, a British enough title, and he seemed to think that I was impressionistically painting the running of the English year. But the title is a trick. The calendar and the chromatic scale have in common a division into twelve. As the year moves from January to December, so in my work the musical intervals I exploit harmonically run from the minor second to the octave.”

Each of the work’s twelve central movements is based on one of these intervals, beginning with the minor second in the first movement and proceeding in ascending order to the perfect octave in the twelfth. Following the calendrical aspect of the title, the twelve movements of Mr Burgess’s Almanack are divided into four groups of three, identified in the score as A (I–III), B (IV–VI), C (VII–IX), and D (X–XII). These twelve movements are framed by an introductory Exordium and concluding Postlude, both of which emphasize the intervals of the tritone and major third. The total number of movements (14) matches the number of musicians: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, horn, trumpet, timpani, 2 percussion, and piano. In addition to timpani (4 drums), the percussion instruments used in the work are small hand drum (petit tambour à main), xylophone, glockenspiel, and vibraphone.

In Giuoco delle Coppie (Game of Pairs), the second movement of Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1945), pairs of instruments play themes harmonized at a single interval: bassoons/m6; oboes/m3; clarinets/m7; flutes/P5; trumpets/M2. In Mr Burgess’s Almanack, this idea is taken a step further by basing the twelve inner movements on all twelve intervals available within an octave span. Diversity is achieved in Mr Burgess’s Almanack through changes of tempo, texture, timbre, and character from movement to movement, resulting in a variegated work of ingenuity and charm.

The principal theme of Mr Burgess’s Almanack is “Nero’s Song” from Burgess’s music for A.D., a 1983 television mini-series about the early years of Christianity for which he also wrote the screenplay.

Transposed down a fifth and transcribed into neumes on an archaic four-line stave, the same tune appears in The Kingdom of the Wicked, the novel by Burgess upon which he based the A.D. screenplay.

The impetus to compose Almanack came from Jonathan Haskell, an American double-bassist in l’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Upon learning that Burgess was a composer, Haskell invited him in 1986 to compose a new work, stipulating that it be scored for fewer than 15 musicians. Burgess promptly accepted the invitation, without fee, and completed the work in early 1987. With musicians from l’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Haskell conducted the première of Mr Burgess’s Almanack, omitting the optional Postlude, on 11th April 1988 in Geneva in conjunction with a lecture by Burgess titled “Under the Bam: Thoughts on Words and Music”, which was sponsored by Sotheby’s and delivered to an invited audience of about one hundred people. Under my direction, the Brown University Orchestra performed the US première and first complete performance of Mr Burgess’s Almanack on 29th April 2005 in Providence, Rhode Island.

Paul Phillips

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