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.