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A Great and Sustaining Mystery

Anthony Burgess probably knew more about music than any literary man since George Bernard Shaw. His life was marinated in sound, in listening, composing, analyzing, reviewing. Yet music confounded him. “We do not know what it is,” he writes in This Man and Music, ten years before his death in 1993. Where, for instance, do we place it in the continuum of art? Music, like prose, is linear, but unlike words, notes have no referents, no inherent value outside of the sounds they represent. Then why does music mean so much to us? And can there be moral value in that profundity, when Beethoven is esteemed by genocidal nationalists, or adored by a marauding droog in dystopian England?

It was partly an accident of history that Burgess was asking those questions. He was born a modern, in 1917 Manchester in the wake of a century of political and social tumult. The arts had responded, as they usually do. Painting had drifted away from faithful representation and literature was struggling with the relativity of perception. In music the old diatonic harmony of the Classical period, where the main notes were comfortably separated, their relationships clear, gave way to chromaticism, notes that were closely spaced or did not belong to the key of the composition. New modes of expression grew out of this dissolving consensus, but the language of music was growing blurry. By the early twentieth century tonality had broken down altogether, and new composers were born adrift, forced to search out new structures and musical languages to speak to the age. Form changed, too. A familiar entity like the symphony, once a loosely connected work of four movements in sonata form, evolved toward the tone poem, a unified statement of artistic intent appropriate to the nineteenth century’s Romantics and the lonely individuals who followed.

Burgess’ mother had been a singer and a dancer, but he never knew her: when he was two she died of Spanish influenza, along with his sister Muriel. His father Joseph was a competent pianist who played sometimes in pubs and movie houses, but he was distant and often drunk, and he never taught his son the instrument. But music was all around. Burgess would pace the rooms above the cavernous pub owned by his father’s second wife, as he writes in Little Wilson and Big God, his first volume of memoirs, while “down below three pianos thumped and tinkled simultaneously, like something by Charles Ives.” Crummy house bands improvised soundtracks to silent films at the local cinema, and the family gathered around the piano to sing during the holidays. Most of all there was his crystal radio. Youth had been full of what Burgess calls “demotic” music, but in early 1929, some days after enduring a Wagner night put on by the Hallé orchestra, he found himself humming the theme from the Rienzi overture.

“One Saturday afternoon” not long after, he recalls in This Man and Music,

I scratched my crystal with the cat’s whisker, searching for Jack Payne and his BBC Dance Orchestra, when I got instead a kind of listening silence with coughs in it, and then a quite incredible flute solo, sinuous, exotic, erotic. I was spellbound. The velvet strings, the skirling clarinets, the harps, the muted horns, the antique cymbals, the flute, above all the flute. Eight minutes after that opening flute theme the announcer told me I had been listening to Claude Debussy’s L’Aprés-midi d’un Faune.

There is, for everybody, a first time. A psychedelic moment… an instant of recognition of verbally inexpressible spiritual realities, a meaning for the term beauty.

He made his parents purchase a gramophone and a shellac of the piece, along with a subscription to Radio Times. “The fact,” he writes in the autobiography, “that I knew enough French by now to understand the title was a kind of confirmation that music too could be intelligible. And, of course, a truth that still astonishes when we care to remind ourselves of it, music transcended language.” Burgess taught himself to play a serviceable piano and read music, his aim not to hurtle through Chopin etudes but to compose. He felt that music’s “eternal reality, as opposed to the evanescent reality of performance, lay in printed symbols.”

Burgess is a natural storyteller, and that makes him a personal mythologizer, so it’s difficult to know exactly how little encouragement he received. In This Man and Music he claims his father would not even show him middle C on the piano. In his memoirs, Joseph, offhandedly “pointing with a nicotined index,” marks the notes on the page and the piano, “a music lesson of exemplary brevity, the only one he ever gave, the only one I needed.” Still, Burgess was alone, for the most part. He composed ditties for the school paper, improvised at the piano, and read music literature. Soon he was ready to try large-scale composition.

Burgess faced a problem unique to his age: what language does one compose in? The Classical style was dead, and like any young enthusiast, prejudice and feeling had to do while judgment matured. “Music before Wagner had little appeal: it was orchestrally naïve, the trumpets and horns were mere bugles, the strings did not divide into a velvet shimmer, there was no bass clarinet or con anglais or percussion section,” the building blocks of a modern landmark like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. There was impressionism, twelve-tone music, serialism, neo-classicism, and all their local inflections. Burgess was very much taken by modern English composers like Elgar, but he also gravitated toward the safety of traditional forms of musical organization, like the old four-movement symphony.

He wrote his own first symphony in 1935, and here, from This Man and Music, is his hilarious description of the result:

What was the language of this symphony? A language altogether proper for a young man composing music in England in 1935. Diatonic, swift to modulate, inclined to the modal, Vaughan Williams harmonies, occasional tearing dissonances like someone farting at a teaparty, bland, meditative, with patches of vulgar triumph. Totally English music, hardly able to jump twenty-two miles into Europe.

(Later in life he asked an American conductor to explain what makes English music English. The American answered, “Too much organ voluntary in Lincoln Cathedral, too much coronation in Westminster Abbey, too much lark ascending, too much clodhopping on the fucking village green.”)

Burgess wanted to go to school for music, but was denied admittance on the grounds that he hadn’t passed a physics requirement. Chapfallen, he went for English instead, and music became a smaller part of his creative life. He was writing plays, poems and short stories, co-editing the University of Manchester’s magazine, and pursuing the social triumphs appropriate to a young undergraduate. Songs, not symphonies, filled out his blank staves now, soundscapes more suited to the conviviality of university life and the medical unit where he would soon be posted during World War Two. Burgess tried to get them published but there were no takers – another early musical disappointment, and there would be many more.

When he was discharged in 1946, Burgess needed a job, and found the only one that he was officially qualified for was teaching. He lectured for four years at teacher’s colleges, taught secondary school for a while, then enrolled in the Colonial Service and became an education officer in Malaya. He still composed, and even had some of his creations performed by local musicians, but as he puts it, “I, once destined to be a new Debussy, was pursuing a nice hobby.” Before he left Malaya, “the failed musician dug out some quires of thirty-stave music paper that had been mouldering with the shoes and clothes in that humid heat, and he composed a farewell gift for the Federation of Malaya – Sinfoni Melayu.” Burgess writes earlier in This Man and Music that he takes an empirical approach to music, and he brought into the symphony the lingual interests he had been pursuing there. He “tried to combine the musical elements of the country into a synthetic language which called on native drums and xylophones as well as the instruments of the full Western orchestra.” But “the work was never to be played. It was never acknowledged by the Cultural Department to which I sent it.” (This didn’t stop him from writing, in the program notes to a performance of his third symphony in 1975, that his Malayan opus was in fact performed, but was stopped by a fight in the crowd, “still, in a kind of Platonic sense, waiting for its final chord.”)

In a way, the Sinfoni Melayu was a farewell to his dream of composing, too, for by then he had already started work on his third novel. “Destiny,” he writes, “seemed to have an unwished-for vocation ready for slow delivery.” Burgess claims a diagnosis of a terminal brain tumor turned that vocation into an imperative for his wife soon-to-be-widow: “jobless and pensionless, I had to turn the writing of fiction into a profession. I survived the terminal year, and so did the profession.”

He eventually became, of course, a famous novelist. Yet music still pulsed in the background, like a beacon that never dips under the horizon. He found “it was a temperamental necessity to me to cleanse my mind of verbal preoccupation by composing music. It no longer mattered whether the music would ever be heard: music was a kind of therapy… The struggle with words, their syntax and rhythms and referents, yielded to a concern with pure form.”

Burgess wrote about music, too. He reviewed concerts, ballets, operas, and books about music. Legend has it that he sent a cabman to the operas he was supposed to review. As Andrew Biswell, his best biographer, relates the story, “he would send [his driver] Sutton to new productions to make notes about the costumes and scenery, and then write his articles using Sutton’s notes and published opera scores, without ever having set foot in the theatre.” Whether or not this is true, Burgess is sharp and engaging on music, a field where most of the explicators are academics who learn everything there is to know about music except how to write about it.

Here is an excerpt from his review of Maynard Solomon’s biography of Beethoven, where he’s talking about Ludwig Van’s capacity for growth:

He also had his ear, even when it was a deaf one, to the exterior world of sonic innovations. When Schonberg was told that six fingers were required to play his Violin Concerto, he replied: ‘I can wait.’ Beethoven did not want six fingers, but he did want a piano forte – once called by him, in a gust of patriotism, a Hammerklavier – that could, there and then, crash out his post-rococo imaginings. The fourth horn part of the Ninth Symphony was specially written for one of the new valve instruments: Beethoven knew a man near Vienna who possessed one. He was a great pianist and a very practical musician. His orchestral parts were hard to play but not impossible. Impossibility hovers, like a fermata, above the soprano parts in the Ninth, but sopranos were women, mothers, sisters-in-law.

Reading a volume of Monteverdi’s letters, he fumes at the indignities the composer endured:

On even the shortest list of supreme composers his name has to appear. And yet this superb artist was a slave to giddy patrons, a man trying to present images of order in an age notably disordered, subject to indigence and fear (at least on his son’s behalf) of the Holy Inquisition, always forced to fulfill the postures of humility before men unworthy to rule his bar lines.

Burgess is occasionally a cold or needlessly obscure writer (in his memoir, he opens a request for colorblind-friendly signage by saying, “I make a plea for the daltonians to all organisations that use a colour taxonomy on the oppository lines of a phonemic system”), but music-makers engage his sympathy, to say nothing of his erudition. He approaches music writing as one of them, poking holes in the cult of the conductor, celebrating the chroniclers of his art, and defending composers who’ve been dead since the seventeenth century.

I think this is because underneath his encyclopedic knowledge, sharp eye, and barbed wit, there is a nagging tingle of disappointment. Musicians and composers who write usually don’t mention their own work (novelist-critics don’t do it often either). Most who do are boasting. Burgess mentions his compositions all the time, but he is fishing for a different kind of attention. He closes a review of a famous percussionist’s memoir this way: “I would like to hear him play the percussion score I wrote for the Minneapolis production of Cyrano de Bergerac – sizzle cymbal slowly raised out of water, kitchen-utensil glockenspiel, cymbal placed on chromatic kettledrum and soft-rolled while the drum emits a slow glissando. He has probably done these things and more. He has also banged out a melodious book.” At the end of a review of two books about opera and literature, he writes, “I myself, who have suffered both sonic disciplines, have produced an operatic version of Ulysses called Blooms of Dublin. Ulysses is unique in having a professional soprano and a near-professional tenor, as well as a host of good amateurs, in its dramatis personae. But nobody wants my Singspiel.” Every other piece contains references to his compositions, sad, hopeless little suggestions for this player or that singer to take up his music, but they never answered.

The relationship between music and literature, his wanted and less-wanted vocations, obsessed Burgess: he wrote two novels that attempted to incorporate some of music’s formal properties, M/F and Napoleon Symphony. The latter was a compressed life of the Corsican dictator patterned after Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony, development sections and all. It got the attention of a music professor in Iowa, who commissioned a symphony (“God bless America,” Burgess writes, “where chances are taken”). Burgess was immensely proud of symphony and its performance by the university orchestra, which spurred him to write more music, scores for plays, and opera librettos. From then on he composed regularly and ambitiously until he died.

But what of the music? The first thing that must be said is that it is incredibly hard to find. One commercial recording exists, of three guitar quartets, and it’s out of print. I have the luck to know a great Burgessian, who sent me a copy, but used discs can be scored from the Internet for a small premium over the original price. Some of the slow movements are very pleasant, but most of the pieces have a scattered feel, mixing styles and tempi uncomfortably, though not offensively. They suggest a Mediterranean-themed restaurant. From what I’ve heard of the rest of his music – and save a dull ballet called Mr. W.S., you can only find short excerpts online – this is where Burgess is at home, juggling ideas and trying to surprise the listener. I feel a little guilty rendering judgment on a lifetime’s work – over a hundred pieces, not including songs – when so little of it is available, but it’s clear that Burgess was not a great composer, and the few reviews he got said as much.

He could be defensive about that. “Whatever the music critics say,” he writes in Little Wilson and Big God, “I orchestrate well; I am in control of the tonal palette, or palate. When the tonal colours do not flash out, or when the mixture sounds wrong, it is always the fault of the conductor.” At other times Burgess seems to recognize that the greatest thing he could achieve was competence. Like a lot of writers, Burgess claimed he was rarely happy with his prose. He told an interviewer in the 1980s that he’d never written a great novel, and there was no bitterness in his voice. But on the occasions when he’s humble about his music you get the sense that he felt he could have been great, had he gotten proper encouragement and attention (the anger at family and educators in his memoir is unmistakable).

I think that failure nourished his innate curiosity about the nature of music, as though he needed to understand the thing that defeated him. He wrote two books about it. One, Mozart and the Wolf Gang (also published as On Mozart), appeared in 1991 on the bicentennial of the Austrian’s death, takes a lateral approach, illustrating music’s problems and celebrating the composer through dialogues, a libretto, straight writing, and a bizarre attempt to turn Mozart’s G minor symphony into prose. The “first movement” starts like this:

THE squarecut pattern of the carpet. Squarecut the carpet’s pattern. Pattern the cut square carpet. Stretching from open door to windows. Soon, if not burned, ripped, merely purloined, as was all too likely, other feet would, other feet would tread. He himself, he himself, he himself trod in the glum morning. From shut casement to open door and back, to and to and back. Wig fresh powdered, brocade unspotted, patch on cheek new pimple in decorum and decency hiding, stocking silk most lustrous, hands behind folded unfolded refolded as he trod on the squarecut pattern’s softness. Russet the hue, the hue russet…

That’s quite enough. It’s only ten pages, but they’re some of the longest in literature. Maybe someone had to try it.

If you’re familiar with classical music, the rest of the book has some ticklishly funny dialogue for you, as the great composers of the past mill about Heaven arguing like querulous children. “You have only one chord,” Prokofiev says to Wagner. “You hammered to death the secondary seventh on the leading note. The leading note of the dominant.” “Another pedant,” scoffs Wagner.

Mozart and the Wolf Gang, though, is really about Anthony Burgess, and the dialogues are a medium in which he debates himself. (One of the dialogues, in fact, is an argument between two characters named Anthony and Burgess.) They are debating the same questions Burgess raised almost a decade before in This Man and Music, a dual study of music and literature, where the arts intersect and where they don’t, and what practitioners of each can learn from each other. The same search underwrites his incidental prose.

“What is music?” is the question underlying it all, a query that prompts other mysteries. How do we talk about it? He distrusts the metaphor, but can’t bring himself to break with it. Objectively, pure music “is ultimately undescribable except in terms of its physical content,” he writes in a review of a book about Beethoven. It “cannot propose anything except self-referring structures,” which means that when we talk about it non-technically, we are really talking about “exalted motions of the mind induced by music.”

“This is, I need hardly say, all metaphorical talk,” he writes elsewhere.

Music is not about anything. Music has associations, but no referents. This sounds like a Ländler we once heard in Graz, and that effervesces with the very upper partials of the Changing of the Guard, and here is a fragment of a cowman’s ditty we remember lugubriously floating over a June-soaked hedgerow. All this is on the fringe of music, but it is more easily grasped than the main fabric.

That, I think, is why music is so mysterious. Burgess quickly grew out of his boyhood idea that the truth of a piece of music was contained in the score. He realized that unless you’re John Cage, a composition cannot fully exist until it is played, in much the same way that poetry is written to be spoken. (The reverse, of course, is also true.) But there is another component. In literature, the meanings of words are fairly clear, and we can usually speak with some degree of confidence about intentions of the writer and the meaning of the work. We can’t do that with pure music, though we try all the same. The problem, in other words, is us.

Not only listeners but composers, too. Their exact intentions are difficult to draw out, even in programmatic music like Liszt’s Years of Pilgrimage or Debussy’s Estampes. (With opera the situation is less grave because music reinforces and interprets the libretto.) In This Man and Music Burgess provides an ideal example:

In the recapitulation of the first movement of [Beethoven’s] Fifth Symphony he stills the relentless allegro pace and interposes a solo oboe theme, adagio. Then he resumes the hurry. What does this mean? It means he is temporarily breaking the consistent rhythm of a public utterance: that oboe solo is not in conformity with the rhythm, therefore it must have a private significance. What is this significance? We do not know.

There is also the broader question of how we characterize composers, especially the great ones. However alike the forms they use, the best have a distinctive sonic identity, and that affects the music’s meaning, too. Burgess thought their genius lay in the subtle (and not so subtle) ways that they broke with convention, as Beethoven did in the example above. This alone is not a satisfying answer. In that review of Solomon’s Beethoven biography, he makes a telling remark: “Although Beethoven’s music is about sounds and structures, it is also, in ways not easily demonstrable, about Kant and the tyrant at Schönbrunn and Beethoven himself, body soul and blood and ouns.”

Beethoven was drawn to Kant and Napoleon, and his life was a parade of physical suffering and social indignity. The music he made seems to transmute that pain and grandeur; it’s cosmic and personal, above all intensely emotional. There’s an “ethical ring” to his compositions, as the writer David Dubal once put it. I believe all that, but I can’t really tell you why. I could say something about his frequent and violent changes in dynamics and tempo, or I could bring up his penchant for heavy, thumping bass figurations, but those words just hint at intention, they don’t translate it.

And then there is that final piece of meaning which no amount of textual analysis can explicate. We bring ourselves to music, and no two people hear the same piece in the same way. The slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, for instance, is one of his most beloved and often-heard compositions. I have a friend who, whenever he hears it, thinks of a mournful young woman wreathed in steam, standing alone at a train station while the cars pull away. When I listen to it there are sometimes no images at all. I think of mortality and the passage of time. Sometimes I envision leaves carried across the horizon by a strong wind, which I suppose is a picturesque version of the same thing. It doesn’t matter that there were no locomotives in Vienna in Beethoven’s day, or whether he was thinking of time and mortality as he composed (though the march-like rhythm suggests that possibility). The meanings are no less true for being absolutely relative.

It follows that composers, consciously or unconsciously, pull from their own personal worlds, too. Once, in Paris, while Chopin was listening to a performance of his E-flat Major etude, a tender little masterpiece, he suddenly slumped and cried out: “Oh, ma patrie!” He was mourning over Poland, his homeland, which he would never see again, but who’s to say that exile was on his mind when he wrote it? Not Chopin. Like Beethoven he detested the names publishers attached to his work. Had you the impertinence to share any thoughts about his intentions he would have beaned you with a cufflink. But for that one moment, at least, a melody encapsulated years of grief and isolation.

If music is even harder to truly understand than literature (and I make no claim to an answer), it is because it is the art that lives closest to human consciousness; our minds swim with and are carried along by abstract sound, not words and all their baggage. Burgess was a brilliant and intensely curious person. Had he been a mere listener, the meaning and nature of music would still have engaged him. But he was also a failed composer and a fine writer, so he studied music alongside literature. “Because we think in words,” he writes in This Man and Music, “the semantics of literature does not offer insuperable problems [as music does], though none of us understand the nature of a poem, play or novel as well as he thinks.” That nebulousness has frustrated and delighted readers all the same, and it is twinned by futile attempts to capture the totality of a moment, a life, or existence in words. We keep trying, though.

Humans “think in words,” Burgess says, which means to understand one mysterious art we have to solve it with another. We can try to do so empirically. Here is one of Burgess’ most perceptive but least artful explanations for music’s dynamism: he is explaining that Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, one of the century’s finest vocalists, was great because he subordinated himself to the composer, and treated music as what it was, “a generalized emotional complex which each of his hearers shall recognize as part of his own actual or potential human experience.” He catches something of it there, but like Burgess, I can’t let go of metaphors.

One my favorite passages from his writings is at the beginning of Little Wilson and Big God, where he sits in New York’s Plaza Hotel in 1985, watching people go about their lives and thinking back on his own. “One goes on writing,” he says,

party because it is the only available way of earning a living. It is a hard way and highly competitive… But one pushes on because one has to pay bills. There is also a privier reason for pushing on, and that is the hopeless hope that some day that intractable enemy language will yield to the struggle to control it… When I hear a journalist like Malcolm Muggeridge praising God because he has mastered the craft of writing, I feel a powerful nausea. It is not a thing to be said. Mastery never comes, and one serves a lifelong apprenticeship. The writer cannot retire from the battle; he dies fighting.

Music and knowledge are like that, too. Burgess’ love of music spurred him to question and compose it all his life, and he died on the field, still fighting.

“We do not know what it is,” he once wrote, “except a great and sustaining mystery.”

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Greg Waldmann, a Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly, is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.