That there are links between music and literature is not a new or original notion. In both, one finds meaning and messages in sets of complex symbols. But comparing the two art forms, listing their differences and similarities, determining what one does better than the other, is no easy task. Namely because both the process of creating art and experiencing it are highly personal and thus hard to define. The only thing one can hope to accomplish, then, is to remark on how they might inform each other.
This Man and Music is a collection of essays by the late author and composer Anthony Burgess, first published in 1982. Burgess presents an analysis of the relationship between music and literature, discussing how music influenced his writing and vice versa. The new edition, part of the Irwell Edition of the Works of Anthony Burgess series, was edited by Christine Lee Gengaro. It includes an introduction, previously unpublished documents from library archives, and initial reviews of the book.
The essays are based on a series of lectures Burgess gave at the University of Kent in the spring of 1980, and Kenyon College in the fall of 1980. Because of a dispute about which publishing house would get rights to the resulting essay collection, Burgess ended up changing the title and ditching the original foreword, which had explained the essays’ origin.
As Gengaro said recently, “Burgess removed a vital piece of information that might have directed readers to expect a loosely connected series of essays and not a traditional autobiographical narrative.” Thus, Burgess’s aim was unclear, and the reviews were mixed.
Somtow Sucharitkul wrote in the Herald Tribune that “the average reader will probably lack the technical knowledge required to understand the detailed interconnections.”
Writing for Classical Music, John Greenalgh said, “Reading Burgess the musician is rather like reading Wagner the author. Life is too short for such unrewarding tasks.”
The lack of clarity may stem from the range of topics the book covers, and the details Burgess chooses to focus on. He shifts from his early days performing the piano to the intricate process of writing a symphony to outlining the entire plot and purpose of his novel M/F.
In the book, Burgess does offer direct comparisons of music and literature. They both work in the dimension of time, and a melody in a song is akin to a hero or heroine in a novel. The scale and the alphabet are “merely the code out of which significant structures are made” and are not significant structures in and of themselves. He also says that music can teach the importance of structure to the novelist—for instance, that themes, once introduced, must appear again.
Burgess discusses at length the way James Joyce used music to inform his prose and the musicality of the works of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. As we learn in the introduction, these two authors were some of the most influential on Burgess’s own work, and even early on he was taken with the way they tried to blend the two genres.
Writing prose is the arranging of words, and Burgess says that words are themselves only referents. Music, on the other hand, “has associations, but no referents.” It’s not about anything. A reader could happily be entertained by a novel without noticing the writing—it is, in fact, the author’s job to remain unnoticed.
Of course, there are different kinds of novels (and readers). Burgess classifies fiction into two categories: Class 1 fiction is more directly concerned with plot and character, and Class 2 fiction is concerned with how structure and language inform plot. Thus, Class 1 is similar to film and Class 2 to music. He places his own fiction and that of Joyce in Class 2, in which the novelist “is more concerned with art than moving the reader’s flesh.”
Burgess also argues that the assigning of emotion we give to music is mostly subjective:
“It was always nonsense to proclaim that Beethoven’s music was about the brotherhood of man, Jew and Gentile, or mystical union with the god of the liberals. If fascists and democrats found, as they did, the same matter for exaltation, then music cannot be about morality.”
Notes are not words and are worthless without structure. Music may move an audience, may draw up emotional images, but there’s no point comparing what we feel to what a composer intended.
It could be argued that Burgess, though much more celebrated in the realm of literature, thinks music is the higher art. One of the appendices in the new edition is an essay Burgess published in the New York Times in 1975. He recounts watching the Iowa University Symphony Orchestra play one of his musical compositions: “I had written over 30 books, but this was the truly great artistic moment.”
Whether or not a book-long argument can be made about the interconnectedness of music and literature, reading how the two forms approach and withdraw from each other does provoke thought. Burgess was captivated by their mutual influence throughout his life and was drawn to art that made him question these ideas. Perhaps his essays will change the way some readers view these two types of literacy.
He ends the final essay this way: “Music is not inert and arbitrary, but it is not iconic either. We do not know what it is, except a great and sustaining mystery. I do not think we know what literature is either.”
This Man and Music
By Anthony Burgess
Manchester University Press
Published May 19, 2020
Meredith Boe is a Pushcart Prize–nominated writer, editor, and poet. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Passengers Journal, Newfound, Another Chicago Magazine, Chicago Reader, Mud Season Review, After Hours, and elsewhere, and her chapbook What City won the 2018 Debut Series Chapbook Contest from Paper Nautilus.