Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Preludes & fugues, from a musician who writes novels

Anthony Burgess: The Bad-Tempered Electronic Keyboard: 24 Preludes and Fugues; Finale, Natale

Anthony Burgess was always just on the brink of breaking through as a musician, but his day job as a writer always pulled him back into a more prosaic life. He began life in a musical family; his father played the piano for the silent cinemas, while his mother was "the Beautiful Belle Burgess", a music-hall star singer/dancer of the day. As a musician he always had a foot in both the popular and the classical worlds. He played piano and wrote dance-band arrangements during his time in the British Army in World War II, and wrote quite a few classical pieces after the war, without any special success or recognition until later in his life when he was famous as a man of letters. Looked at from that period one might think of his music in the tradition of the great British "amateur", but he was actually more of a working musician, and considering his problems in getting his music heard, a very typical one at that.  As Burgess wrote in his 1986 book But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen?, "If you want to be considered a poet, you will have to show mastery of the petrarchan sonnet form or the sestina. Your musical efforts must begin with well-formed fugues. There is no substitute for craft... Art begins with craft, and there is no art until craft has been mastered." This is grounded music, it's well-crafted and real, if not always especially inspired.

In 1985 Burgess purchased a Casio Synthesizer, an early home keyboard called the Casiotone 701. At the same time he was writing his prose on a new Apple computer, he took advantage of the instrument to write The Bad-Tempered Electronic Keyboard: 24 Preludes and Fugues. Of course he didn't have the same capabilities available to him that Wendy Carlos had when she put together the synthesized score for Stanley Kubrick's movie of his own A Clockwork Orange fifteen years earlier, but this was still at the beginning of a revolution for electronic music in the home.

There are certainly some banal passages amongst these 48 short pieces, but there are also some charming ones as well. They're perhaps the most charming when they're the most Bachian:

Actually, the music isn't "electronic" in anything more than name; it actually sounds as if designed for no instrument at all, but rather for the mind to play, though at times the music becomes quite pianistic. After Bach its primary model is Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues, op. 87, written in 1950/51. Burgess's simplified version is stripped down, with not so many fugal devices, and with the odd music-hall turn or jazz flavour in place of the awe-inspiring emotional content of the Russian master. But there are similarities in tone and the same heart-felt nods to the genius of Bach. "I wish people would think of me as a musician who writes novels," Burgess once said,  "instead of a novelist who writes music on the side." Thanks to Naxos's Grand Piano label for their excellent package, including well-recorded, non-Casiotone sound and well-written, informative liner notes; and to the fine pianist Stephane Ginsburgh for providing the best possible way for us to think of Anthony Burgess in this way. Kudos should also go to the International Anthony Burgess Foundation for their support; learn much more about the musician/author at

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