Nicholas Lezard

Music was always Anthony Burgess’s first love

A gifted pianist and composer, Burgess combined his talents in a superb series of music reviews, published for the first time in a complete collection

Anthony Burgess, photographed in France in 1987 [Getty Images]

Anthony Burgess, a professional to his finger- tips, knew how to write an arresting first sentence. The locus classicus is his opening to Earthly Powers. But try this for size, a lapel-grabbing start of a piece about William Walton in The Listener:

Waking crapulous and apothaneintheloish, as I do most mornings these days, I find a little loud British gramophone music over the (a) bloody mary and (b) raspberry yoghurt helps me adjust to the daily damnation of writing.

Apo-what? I have just enough Greek to know that it’s something to do with death; a helpful footnote reminds us that ‘άπο ϴανεΐν ϴέλω’, or ‘I want to die’ are the closing words of The Waste Land’s epigraph. I doubt the readers of the Listener in 1968 were given a footnote, but then maybe they didn’t need one.

Music was always Plan A for Burgess: ‘Neglect of my music by the orchestras of the Old World was what mainly turned me into a novelist,’ he says, perhaps tongue in cheek, for he tells other origin stories about his career elsewhere, about a performance of his Third Symphony at the University of Iowa. I have heard some of Burgess’s music and while I can’t remember what it was, I do remember I wasn’t all that impressed.It owed more to Weber than to Webern and I am no fan of the former. There are some writers on music who are so good – Hans Keller on Haydn’s Quartets, Charles Rosen on Beethoven, this magazine’s Michael Tanner on opera – that they can change the reader’s taste which would otherwise have been non disputandum. I thought Burgess was going to do that to me when I read his thoroughly engaging piece about Handel. (Another great opening sentence: ‘He was a big man, given to corpulence, of immense strength and uncertain temper’.)

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