Monday, 19 May 2014

Anthony Burgess: A Manchester Overture

Most people associate Anthony Burgess (1917-1993) with the novel A Clockwork Orange which was made into a cult film in the 1970s. Yet there are more than thirty other novels, as well as a raft of non-fiction and two volumes of autobiography for readers to engage with. Burgess was something of a polymath: his occupations are listed as ‘novelist, critic, composer, librettist, poet, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, travel writer, broadcaster, translator, linguist and educationalist.  It is with the man as composer that this post deals with. 
The Manchester Overture was written in 1989, but was subsequently temporarily lost. It reflects the composer’s self-declared ‘post tonal’ style of composition. A number of musical influences bring themselves to mind including William Walton (also a Lancastrian) and some of the maligned ‘Cheltenham Symphonies.’ It is an attractive work that is full of rhythmic vitality and lyrical themes that aptly portrays a great city in a variety of moods.  
The premiere of Anthony Burgess’ Manchester Overture was given at the Media City Salford on 8 March by the BBC Philharmonic under the baton of Mark Heron.
A further notable performance was heard, appropriately, at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester with the same orchestra as a part of the 50th anniversary ‘celebrations’ of the publication of A Clockwork Orange. The Guardian (29 September 2013) reported: -
‘The piece offers 10 minutes of uplifting music, filmic in nature with rip-roaring brass, soon followed by sweeping strings. And there are some interesting instrumental combinations, like double harp. Whether or not one can read into it autobiographical elements is anyone’s guess. A robust youth? A maturing period? A final triumph? At any rate, it made for a lively start, even though it is probably destined to remain a rarity.’
Paul Schulyer Phillips (Anthony Burgess: Music in Literature and Literature in Music: 2009) has noted that in the overture there is a musical reference to the Burgess’ ballet score Mr. W.S. ‘suggesting that the composer was comparing himself to Shakespeare through music’.  Phillips points out that in this ballet the young playwright arrives in London as an ‘inexperienced youth’ to a ‘certain’ musical theme. Burgess uses this theme in his overture, suggesting a writer ‘who has not yet discovered his metier.’  During the Second World War Anthony Burgess had a somewhat chequered military career, however he left the army in 1946 with the rank of sergeant- major.  Phillips notes the lyrical theme played on the oboe at the start of the overture which is transformed into a military march. In 1938 Burgess had met his future wife, Llewela Isherwood Jones. Perhaps this musical transformation represents the composer’s transformation from young lover to solider? 

Anthony Burgess’ Manchester Overture can be heard on YouTube: I understand that it is the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mark Heron in March 2012. This overture has not yet been released on CD, however one feels that perhaps the time is right for a retrospective of the composer’s orchestral music including the Glasgow Overture and the three Symphonies. 


Paul Phillips said...

I fully agree that it is time for Burgess’s compositions to become better known. The International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester has been very active presenting Burgess’s chamber music, and the recent performances of “A Manchester Overture” by the BBC Philharmonic have begun introducing Burgess’s music to a wider public in the UK. In Europe and North America, I continue to perform Burgess’s music often, having played or conducted many performances, including numerous world and national premieres, in the US, Canada, and France.

This fall I will lead the Brown University Orchestra in the US premieres of two Burgess works: “Petite Symphonie pour Strasbourg” and “Marche pour une révolution 1789-1989”. Burgess composed the “Petite Symphonie” to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of the founding of Strasbourg in 12 BC, and the “Marche” in honor of the bicentenary of the French Revolution. Scheduled for October 16 and 18, 2014, in Providence, Rhode Island, these will be the first performances of these two works since the premiere of the “Petite Symphonie” in Strasbourg in 1988 and of the “Marche” in Vence in 1989. I am currently working on preparing the computer-engraved performing editions of these works, which will be used for the Providence performances. Additional performances of both these works may also take place in France later in the year at the Burgess conference in Angers in December.

Plans are currently underway to record the first CD of Burgess’s orchestral music. Many additional recordings could follow, since Burgess composed several dozen orchestral works plus works in nearly every major musical genre. I anticipate being able to provide more complete information about this recording project in the near future.

For information about Burgess’s music, allow me to suggest my book “A Clockwork Counterpoint: The Music and Literature of Anthony Burgess” (Manchester University Press, 2010), which will be released in paperback next month (

The premiere of “A Manchester Overture” that you cite was its first performance in the UK; the Brown University Orchestra under my direction performed the world premiere on 28 October 2005 in Providence, RI. The score of “A Manchester Overture” was never lost, but remained in Burgess’s hands until his death in 1993. Afterward, it was in the possession of his widow Liana until she sold most of his musical scores, including “A Manchester Overture”, to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin. While many of Burgess’s early musical works are lost, including his first two symphonies, his Third Symphony (1974-75) and nearly all of the music he composed afterward have been preserved.

John France said...

Dear Paul,

Thanks for that! It is all very exciting news...
...and good that the 3rd Symphony is still extant!
Looking forward to the new CD...