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The Music of Anthony Burgess Online Exhibition

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
Iím a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. keyworthdavid@gmail.com https://uk.linkedin.com/pub/david-keyworth/49/b3a/b83 My debut poetry pamphlet is available at www.wildpressedbooks.com/david-keyworth.html
Published May 22nd 2020
AB and middle C
The musical side of the author of A Clockwork Orange and Earthly Powers is in the spotlight at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. The Manchester centre is currently closed, due to government advice about coronavirus, but will reopen as soon as it is safe to do so.

The Music of Anthony Burgess (1917 - 1993) is an online exhibition which "takes seven of his most important works as a starting point to explore his fascinating musical career."

A Clockwork Orange, Earthly Powers, International Anthony Burgess Foundation, BBC Philharmonic, A Manchester Overture, Blooms of Dublin, The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot Ulysses by James Joyce
Anthony Burgess returns to Manchester to make a television documentary in 1980. Photograph by David Chadwick. Courtesy of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.


In between an industrious output of every literary form under the sun, Burgess also composed music in almost every genre except contemporary pop music (at least, as far as I am aware).

Speaking to Weekend Notes, Will Carr, Deputy Director of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, said: "Anthony Burgess would sometimes claim that his true vocation was to be a composer of classical music, and that writing literature was a secondary activity to his main artistic project. The truth is more complex: music and literature are intertwined throughout his creative work."

The piano was a reverberating presence in the early life of Burgess, who was born in Harpurhey. In his autobiography, Burgess recalls his father pausing before "an evening's heavy boozing" to point his son in the direction of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and middle C on the keyboard.

Burgess adds "At the age of thirteen I decided that I was to be a great composer, and I trained myself pursuing an indulged hobby, to that end. It was an ambition that only really faded in my late thirties .. ." (Little Wilson and Big God: Being the First Part of The Confessions of Anthony Burgess: Penguin, 1987).

A Clockwork Orange, Earthly Powers, International Anthony Burgess Foundation, BBC Philharmonic, A Manchester Overture
By Source, Fair use, en.wikipedia.org


Burgess mined the music of his early years for his 1986 novel The Pianoplayers. Set in Manchester and Blackpool of the 1920s and 30s, Burgess described the novel as a true story which his imagination had worked on. He called it an elegy for his father and the other cinema piano players of the silent film era.

Elizabeth Burgess, his mother, also made a living from music - as a singer and dancer on the stage in Glasgow and Manchester. Sadly, she died of influenza and acute broncho-pneumonia, in 1918, at the height of the Spanish Flu epidemic.

Aside from his Father's fleeting guidance, the seven-year-old Burgess did receive more formal education in the form of violin lessons at Bradshaws School of Music on Moss Lane East, Manchester.

However, he was not a dedicated child prodigy. He later confessed to treating his violin badly and dodging instruction by hiding in a nearby park.

The youthful musical exposure did though at least have some refreshing payback for Burgess, in his student days:

"The Luftwaffe destroyed the Shambles, where the oldest pubs of Manchester stood, and where we swilled our fivepenny pints and I earned free ones by playing the piano."

But his Father advised: "The Pianist was usually despised, especially by the casual pub-singers he had to accompany. He would ask them what key they proposed singing in and they would reply: 'We've only got one bloody key to our 'ouse.'"

Burgess joined the Army Education Corps, as part of his National Service, in the 1940s. He acted as the musical director for 54th Division Entertainment Section of the British Army, arranging popular songs and jazz standards and other genres for his fellow troops to play.

"I learned how to score for that strange stringless combination. I wrote a march. I wrote a retreat number for flutes and drums."

During his time in Gibraltar, he also found a thirty-stave manuscript paper 'gathering dust in a quartermaster's store' and filled it with his Sonata for Violoncello and Piano.

The guitar was also a focus of Burgess's compositional talents although not of the type that Jimi Hendrix or Johnny Marr have worked their magic on. In the Burgess Foundation, this side of his musical output is represented by an 'English Guitar', "an attractive example of this precursor to the modern guitar made between 1775 and 1820." Burgess's Quatuor pour Guitares was completed in 1986.

Shakespeare was both a literary and musical theme for Burgess. He set Shakespeare's sonnets to music and wrote about the love life of The Bard of Avon in Nothing Like the Sun (1964).

Burgess also took on arguably an even greater poetry-music challenge by setting T.S. Eliot's modernist poem in five sections, The Waste Land (1922). He even composed a musical play of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922). Blooms of Dublin was broadcast on BBC radio in 1982.

Concert performances of Burgess's music have been somewhat sporadic although they have put him in distinguished company. In September 2013 at Bridgewater Hall, the BBC Philharmonic performed A Manchester Overture in a programme which included Brahms and Elgar.

 A Clockwork Orange, Earthly Powers, International Anthony Burgess Foundation, BBC Philharmonic, A Manchester Overture, Blooms of Dublin, The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot Ulysses by James Joyce
Burgess Symphony. Courtesy of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.


At 2017's Manchester International Festival (MIF), the same orchestra performed Burgess's own Symphony in C along with The World Was Once All Miracle - composer Raymond Yiu's musical setting of poems by Burgess.

The Burgess Foundation has itself filled in some of the gaps - including, in 2014, a European premiere of his String Quartet.

Even so, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in E minor, written for Yehudi Menuhin in 1979. still awaits its premiere.

The International Anthony Burgess Foundation is situated in a converted mill on Cambridge Street, in between the city centre and the university buildings of Oxford Road When it does re-open it will be worth checking the location before your first visit as it is somewhat hidden amongst converted and abandoned workshops of Manchester's industrial boom.

Like the musical creations of Anthony Burgess himself, the centre deserves more exposure.

A Clockwork Orange, Earthly Powers, International Anthony Burgess Foundation, BBC Philharmonic, A Manchester Overture
Appearing on British television discussion programme After Dark 'What is Sex For?' in 1988. By Open Media Ltd. Open Media Ltd, commons.wikimedia.org

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Why? Learn about another string to the Burgess bow
Where: Online
Cost: Free
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