Anthony Burgess on the Magical Moment He Fell in Love with Music as a Little Boy
By Maria Popova
“Without music life would be a mistake,” Nietzsche proclaimed in contemplating the unparalleled power of music. “Without music I should wish to die,” Edna St. Vincent Millay echoed a generation later in a beautiful letter to a friend. “Music can pierce the heart directly,” wrote Oliver Sacks in examining the paradoxical power of music, “it needs no mediation.”
Among literature’s most ardent lovers of music was the great novelist, essayist, translator, and composer Anthony Burgess (February 25, 1917–November 22, 1993). Although he authored more than fifty books in his lifetime — including the classic dystopian satire A Clockwork Orange, later adapted into a cult-classic film by Kubrick — Burgess always considered music the supreme creative passion of his life. In 1982, he penned This Man and Music (public library) — part memoir, part aesthetic inquiry, part philosophical treatise on the meaning of music in human life.
The book begins in terrifying forte:
I was born in Manchester in 1917 while my father was serving in the Pay Corps. When I was eighteen months old he came home on leave one day from his barracks in Preston to find my mother and six-year-old sister dead from Spanish influenza and myself chuckling away in my cot.
Amid this formative darkness, young Anthony eventually found his sole source of light in music — although, by his own admission, at first he didn’t care for it at all.
Burgess recounts the moment he first came into contact with the luminous transcendence of music as a little boy, living above an off-license liquor store with his father and stepmother — a moment amplified by the thrilling creative mischief undergirding it as the young boy, nearly a century before today’s groundswell of hacker culture and the maker movement, hacked together a makeshift crystal radio receiver to bypass parental controls:
We had a five-valve radio from which I took in all the trash I could. But I was not permitted to listen to late-night dance music on it. Accordingly, in my attic bedroom, I assembled a radio of my own, with coil, variable condensor, earphones, cat’s whiskers, and carborundum pyrites. There has, I swear, never been a radio sound to touch that which came from a crystal set. One Saturday afternoon, when I should have been on the soccer field, I scratched my crystal with the cat’s whisker, searching for Jack Payen 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 striking clarinets, the harps, the muted horns, the antique cymbals, the flute, above all the flute. Eight minutes after the opening flute theme the announcer told me I had been listening to Claude Debussy’s L’Après-midi d’un Faune.
In a sentiment that validates the moments of revelation which many great artists have experienced, especially in childhood — including those recounted by Patti Smith, James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf, Pablo Neruda, and Albert Einstein — Burgess adds:
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.
Such psychedelic moments are what Saul Bellow held in mind when he asserted in his spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech that “only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world,” that “there is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of [and] this other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.”
Burgess’s This Man and Music is a marvelous read in its entirety, exploring the mechanics of melody, how Shakespeare illuminates the language of music, the spatial and temporal dimensions of how we experience art, and much more. Complement it with a wonderful vintage guide to the seven essential skills of listening to music and the science of why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity.
Published February 25, 2016