Anthony Burgess, The Devil Prefers Mozart: On Music and Musicians  1962 – 1993, edited by Paul Phillips

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Review by Rob Spence

Anthony Burgess was, of course, one of the most significant novelists of the second half of the twentieth century, publishing over thirty novels, (a centenary reading list can be found here), in a career that only started when he was approaching 40. It’s perhaps less well-known that he was as prolific in his non-fiction writing, producing a steady stream of reviews for publications as diverse as the New York Times and Country Life. Samples of this prodigious output were collected in two volumes published during Burgess’s lifetime (Urgent Copy and Homage to Qwertyuiop) and two posthumous collections (One Man’s Chorus and The Ink Trade), so one might reasonably imagine that there would be very little left to unearth. Not so. In this new volume, Paul Phillips brings together a massive collection of Burgess’s writing on music, including a number of pieces previously unpublished in book form. Music was Burgess’s real passion (he wrote a book about it, This Man and Music), and as well as being a critic, he composed as prolifically as he wrote, so this volume stands as an excellent monument to that side of his personality. As he writes in one of the pieces reproduced here: “I have published, I think, forty-odd books, and I rather despise the craft I practise because it is not the craft of the musician.”

The American conductor Paul Phillips is a leading expert on Burgess’s music, and is the author of the only full-length work on the subject, A Clockwork Counterpoint. He is therefore the ideal editor for this book, providing an informative commentary on each piece as well as scrupulous and useful footnotes. What strikes the reader immediately is the sheer range of Burgess’s interest. One might expect essays on, say, Handel, Beethoven, Elgar and Holst, and indeed they are all here. Less expected might be a late piece on Beatlemania, or an earlier one on the death of punk. In between, the reader can veer from Dowland to Larry Adler, from Respighi to Elvis, by way of Chico Marx, The Rolling Stones and Monteverdi. If that suggests a rather chaotic presentation, nothing could be further from the truth. Phillips has organised the pieces into five thematic sections, covering such topics as “Composers and their Music”, “Performers and Performances” and “Opera.” In addition, there is a section comprising Burgess’s writing about his own musical compositions, and one presenting a diverse collection of musings on musical matters. The whole is a splendid anthology of lively and pointed reflections that is a delight to dip into at random.

Burgess is as direct and opinionated as one might expect. There are no half-measures when he is reviewing a performance or a performer, though sometimes the judgments have not aged well. The 1992 piece on Beatlemania, originally written for the Corriere della Sera, opines that “ The Beatles were not enough of musicians to sustain a genuine career in the art. They belong to a brief epoch, and a rehearing of their work provokes nostalgia.” One imagines that Sir Paul McCartney might take exception to that from the vantage point of his fifty-year post-Beatles career. Burgess was never really reconciled to the pop music that emerged in the early sixties, when he was approaching middle age. His attitude is well-represented fictionally in the character of Yod Crewsy, leader of a beat combo called the Crucifiers in his novel Enderby Outside. He is an uncultured yob who steals the poet Enderby’s work. In this volume, Burgess sums up his attitude in the piece which gives the book its title In it, he responds to the news that the Archbishop of New York had condemned heavy metal music as the work of the Devil:

“As for the inner component of pop, whether it clangs heavy metal or not, it is so puerile as to be totally harmless…There is in pop or rock a watery neutrality that can only be given a semblance of meaning by being equipped with a heavy monotonous beat. It is suitable for the unformed young and it is to be despised more than feared. Noise is a different matter. His eminence is right there, but the Devil has better things to do than respond to its inanity. The Prince of Darkness is an intellectual and he likes Mozart.”

These musings on pop and rock are not representative of the book as a whole, however. The pieces on Wagner’s Ring and Handel, for instance, are impressive introductions that would stand any new listener in good stead, and there are many more items that galvanise the reader to seek out the music discussed. The section on his own work, not much performed in his lifetime, but increasingly so now, thanks largely to Paul Phillips, is really illuminating. It’s very useful to have this material, some of it completely unavailable elsewhere, collected together in this handy and accessible form. 

Anyone with an interest in Burgess, or in music generally, would do well to acquire this book, which has something to interest and delight on every page. One last example, from a talk on Radio 3 about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, shows Burgess’s ability to express the impact that music has on us:

“We’re all entitled to our own aesthetic judgements. But to hear it always has the quality of an occasion. It is astonishing what that deaf man, living in unredeemable squalor and pain, could do with twelve notes. it makes us start believing in the indomitability, and perhaps even the immortality, of the human spirit. Whatever that is.”

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Rob Spence once wrote an article about Burgess and pop music. His home on the web is at robspence.org.uk. He is also on Bluesky: @spencro.bsky.social

Anthony Burgess, The Devil Prefers Mozart: On Music and Musicians  1962 – 1993, edited by Paul Phillips (Carcanet, 2024) ISBN: 978-1-80017-308-8, 577pp., paperback.

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