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Contemporary Music Media Review Print

Anthony Burgess' Double Life

December 20, 2013 - Williamsburg. MA:

Paul Phillips, A Clockwork Counterpoint; The Music and Literature of Anthony Burgess, Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0-7190-7204-8, Pp. xx + 468, $89.95; initially due for release in paperback in January but pushed back to May 2014, $29.95.

Thanks to Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film version of Anthony Burgess' (nom de plume of John Burgess Wilson, 1917-93, derived from his patron saint at confirmation, Anthony of Padua) 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, the somewhat eccentric British author's name is relatively well known. What is not known, however, is that he was also a prolific composer; indeed, he was a composer before he was a novelist and writer, and actually took an exam in music at the post-secondary/pre-college level. He wrote over 250 scores, few of which have been performed, and fewer still published or recorded. This book sets out to examine both aspects of his life and their interrelationships: for example, A Clockwork Orange is written in sonata form with 3 parts of 7 chapters each (pp. 88-94), and the novella The Eve of Saint Venus started out as the libretto for a projected opera with music by Gian Carlo Menotti that never materialized (p. 57). Its "primary aim is thus to examine this heretofore disregarded aspect of his creative life and, by doing so, reveal both halves of this remarkable dual artist, like casting light on the dark side of the moon so as to illuminate the entire sphere." (p. 6) As early as 1953, however, he realized that he would never be able to make a living as a composer and decided to deliberately become a writer (p. 55), but he never gave up composing and did so until the end. He was Writer-in-Residence at UNC-CH in 1970.

Burgess was something of a Renaissance man, perhaps no surprise since he shared his 25 February birthday with dramatist Carlo Goldoni, painter Auguste Renoir, tenor Enrico Caruso, and pianist Myra Hess (p. 10). He studied languages and literatures, theatre and drawing, mathematics and sciences, both on his own and in a Roman Catholic school. He was an autodidact pianist and composer, having accomplished both in his first 10 or 11 years, decided at age 13 that he wanted to become a great composer and in which style he wanted to write (modern), and written his first music works "in the style of 'diluted Debussy'" at age fourteen (p. 15). He was Daltonian (color-blind; John Dalton, the discoverer of the condition was also a native of Manchester) and a synesthete (p. 12). Burgess learned as a child and always continued to hold the view that the world is a "duoverse": good vs. evil; God vs. Satan. He was brilliant but practical, a visionary and an opportunist.

This is a scholarly, not a popular biography, carefully and thoroughly researched and annotated, but that should not put off the more casually interested reader. Phillips' writing style is not academic or pompous; it is clear, precise, fluid, intellectual, objective, and pleasantly tinged with some injected wry humor, both Burgess' quips and Phillips' own. Indeed, both of those prodded me to seek out some of Burgess' writings about music in an area where I have some expertise, in particular, his "The Well-Tempered Revolution," which is the first chapter in The Lives of the Piano (James R. Gaines, ed., New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, The Hilltown Press, 1981, paperback ed., 1983, pp. 1-39; each chapter is by a different writer, with William Bolcom and Ned Rorem among the eight, making it a valuable book very much worth reading, and it is also a treasure-trove of photographs). I found that, whether instinctive, intentional, or unconsciously acquired by osmosis, Phillips' style is, in fact, not unlike Burgess': accurate facts and abundant information delivered in an engaging and entertaining manner.

The book is well organized, chronologically as would be expected, and each chapter is relatively short and self-contained, with its notes, mostly citation references but some with additional information, at its end (much more convenient than if they were all gathered at the end of the volume), but there are many internal cross-references, both within the text itself and in the notes. It is divided into 5 main parts: "Beginnings," "Emergent Author," "Celebrity Novelist," "Resurgent Composer," and "Endings," with varying numbers of chapters and a brief Prologue before and Epilogue after. Each chapter has a characterizing or clever title and an epigraph drawn from Burgess' writings. There are illustrative examples of musical scores within each chapter, again, often with cross references, because Burgess, like many composers, but perhaps to a greater degree since few scores were published, recycled his musical creations in later compositions. These allow a serious reader to explore details in further depth. Following the text, there are three Appendixes, a Bibliography, Discography, and Filmography, followed in turn by the Acknowledgements and three Indexes: Music, Literature, and General, which make the work a fine reference tool as well as an authoritative study.

Phillips, who is a composer and Senior Lecturer in Music and Director of Orchestras and Chamber Music at Brown University in Providence, RI, as well as Music Director and Conductor of the Pioneer Valley Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Greenfield, MA, gives capsule summaries of the plots of all the literary works and thumbnail sketches of all their characters with evaluations of the achievement. Music plays a role in or is part of the story line in nearly all the literary works, many of whose characters are composers, musicians, or music-lovers. He gives detailed descriptions of all the musical compositions, even of those that are lost, insofar as possible based on other sources, and evaluations of their relationship to other music and their worth. Many of the chapters in the section about the music are organized thematically by type of music or instrument, each one internally chronological rather than the set as a whole being arranged in strict chronological order, with the cross references helping the reader to piece this part of the puzzle together. He seems to have uncovered and examined every extant scrap of paper and printed information about his subject and to have managed to get into Burgess' head. A more authoritative, yet eminently readable and enjoyable biography is difficult to imagine.

Phillips was Associate Conductor of the Greensboro Symphony in 1984-86. During that period he was also Music Director of the Greensboro Symphony Youth Orchestra and Assistant Conductor of the Greensboro Opera. He is currently based in New England.