Although Earthly Powers remains Anthony Burgess’s masterpiece – a wonderful, wonderful novel of immense power and impact – closely followed by Any Old Iron and (a little way behind) The Kingdom of the Wicked, it is through A Clockwork Orange by which the vast majority of people remember him, not least by way of Stanley Kubrick’s unforgettable film version.
A Clockwork Orange appeared sixty-six years ago, set in the not-too-distant future in the (then) recently-built slums of an English city, early-1960s architectural brutalism, written in a teenaged-boy’s first person singular in an evolved English language. Much of what Burgess imagined has come to pass, apart from the (looked at from our position of having arrived at where we are now) relatively curious absence of drugs as a normal part of everyday life or the pervasive appearance in the hands of almost everyone under the age of sixty of real-life Dick Tracy two-way wrist radios – not connected to the local (no longer there) police station, but to those of our colleagues who form an indispensible part of modern life.
A Clockwork Orange therefore appeared before the 1960s proper had even begun, a corollary, perhaps, of Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners of 1958, but Burgess’s literary output is surely crowned by the sweep and impact of Earthly Powers. If any creation by an English-born artist was deserving of a knighthood it is Earthly Powers, but Burgess often regarded himself first and foremost as a composer, who “somehow drifted” into writing literature.
As with his literary work, Burgess composed pretty much throughout his life, and although it appears he was very largely self-taught, he managed to create a wide range of music over more than forty-five years, including three Symphonies, a number of Concertos and other orchestral works, alongside chamber music and music for piano. Which brings us to this release that, despite the rather outré title, half-implying the listener not to take the music too seriously, is the first opportunity I have had of hearing what ought to be taken as a fair example of Burgess’s music, which the late Hans Keller described in the most damning way, and although in these Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues one is confronted by individual pieces no longer than five minutes at most, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Burgess is merely note-spinning in many of them – that he had not grasped the essence of fugal writing.
Not that one would have expected him to obey strict rules of counterpoint, but it is counterpoint which lies at the heart of fugal textures, the challenge stemming from inventing subjects pregnant with expression, and which, because of the individual nature of the fugue’s subject, lend themselves to challenge the composer’s powers of creative thought. In literature, Burgess was a complete master, as I understand he was also in his translation skills. It is a telling revelation that, in his original writing, he would not proceed to the next page in his manuscript until he was satisfied the one on which he was working was fully finished; only then would he proceed to the next (blank) page.
It is a pity he did not apply this creative discipline to his music. We learn, from Andrew Biswell’s booklet note, that Burgess composed many of these Preludes and Fugues at speed. It would appear, therefore, that they were written straight off, three having been written in twelve hours. As any composer will tell you, professional or not, that is creativity on a Schubertian, Mozartean or Bachian scale – almost the approach Carl Czerny employed: he would have several composing desks in the same room, going from one to the other, from one work to the next.
But we have here (as Shaw might have said) not Schubert, nor Mozart, nor J. S. Bach, nor even Czerny – but the self-taught Anthony Burgess. And the result confirms, in many ways, Keller’s opinion – but not in all ways, for whilst the invention often borders on the trite, with many fugue subjects of boringly predictable simplicity, lacking any trace of inner life – and with the likelihood of compositional failure all-too-readily met – occasionally, just occasionally, we hear a glimpse of what must have impelled Burgess to write these pieces.
Whilst it is simply not good enough – nor has it ever been – to write notes on manuscript paper and airily declare that the result is what the writer meant – good, bad, or (as so often here) indifferent – there are passages of genuine musicality in such pieces as the Ninth Fugue in A-flat, the Tenth Prelude in A (the keys, starting from C, rise by a semitone each time), the Eleventh Fugue in B-flat and the relatively (but only relatively) impressive Thirteenth Fugue in C-minor. In those pieces we feel Burgess’s creativity is working at its best. The tragedy is that he never applied the discipline he brought to his literary work to his music – the feeling that any old note is just as good as another, that overly chordal writing is anathema to counterpoint – the two simply do not go together, and no amount of ‘this is what I meant; take it or leave it’ posturing can turn base metals into gold.
One admires Stephane Ginsburgh’s manifest dedication to music which, simply because of its provenance, may well be heard by many more listeners who would otherwise not bother had the composer been John Doe. Burgess had a musical gift, there is no doubt, but these often malenky pieces do not reveal that he took Christ’s teaching of the Parable of the Talents seriously enough.