Another string to his bow: Anthony Burgess, the classical composer

The Clockwork Orange author was a thwarted musician. Now a lost work gets its world premiere

Dalya Alberge





He is best-known as the author of A Clockwork Orange, his 1962 savage social satire, but Anthony Burgess saw himself primarily as a thwarted musician. Although self-taught, he was a prolific composer, and now a previously unknown piece for a string quartet is to receive its world premiere following its discovery. The score was unearthed in the archive of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, an educational charity in Manchester, his home city, where it had been overlooked among uncatalogued papers donated by his widow, the late Liana Burgess. Professor Andrew Biswell, Burgess’s biographer and director of the Foundation, told the Observer: “Nobody’s heard it before. We’ve got some very good musicians from the Hallé Orchestra who are going to perform it. Thirty years after his death, Burgess is finally coming into focus as a musician.” The world premiere takes place at the Burgess Foundation on 1 December. Burgess was a book reviewer for the Observer for about 30 years. He wrote 33 novels and 25 nonfiction books, of which A Clockwork Orange is admired for its linguistic originality but often condemned for its dystopian portrayal of drugs and juvenile violence, as depicted in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 cult screen adaptation. But music was his great passion, inspired by his mother, a singer and dancer, and his father, a pianist in music halls and silent cinemas. In 1991, he wrote: “I wish people would think of me as a musician who writes novels, instead of as a novelist who writes music on the side.” Biswell, professor of modern literature at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “He always said that he was a failed musician or a thwarted musician. All of his novels are obviously the work of somebody for whom music is deeply important. Often, there’s a character who’s a composer, or there are very elaborate musical metaphors. So, you get more out of the books if you know a little about music.” The hero of his novel A Vision of Battlements, for example, is a reluctant soldier and thwarted musician. His compositions included a violin concerto for Yehudi Menuhin, who wanted to perform it but did not live long enough to do so. Biswell said that the newly discovered music is undated but stylistically reminiscent of a 1980 string quartet which was influenced by Dmitri Shostakovich. While Burgess did not have many opportunities to hear his music performed in his lifetime, it is now being played and recorded amid a wider revival of interest in his dual career as a writer and musician. In September, Naxos released a recording of his Complete Guitar Quartets, performed by the awardwinning Mēla Quartet. In January, a new collection of Burgess’s writings on music, edited by the composer and conductor Paul Phillips, will be pub lished by Carcanet. Titled The Devil Prefers Mozart, it includes reviews and essays from the Observer and Guardian, among other publications. Many are on his favourite composers, including Beethoven and Stravinsky, and explore topics such as the relation between words and music. Musicologist Andrew King said of the “lost” string quartet: “His rhythmically catchy, melodically engaging scores, not unlike the idiosyncratic musical landscape of William Walton, reveal the work of a craftsman whose compositions deserve to be better known.”