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This article is taken from PN Review 229, Volume 42 Number 5, May - June 2016.

From the Burgess Archive

05: A Shakespeare Song
Andrew Biswell
A Shakespear Song sheet

Photograph © International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Anthony Burgess’s setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments’) was written in March 1951 for Barbara Beck, an amateur musician. The song for piano and female voice was presumably written for her to perform, although there is no record of her having done so. Burgess (known at that time as John Burgess Wilson) and his first wife, Llewela, came to know Barbara Beck and her husband, John, when they were neighbours in the village of Adderbury in Oxfordshire. Llewela formed a close friendship with John Beck, a visual artist, while Burgess used to attend concerts with Barbara. Around the same time, Burgess also composed incidental music for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Banbury Grammar School, where he taught English from 1950 until 1954.

Burgess composed three other settings of songs from Shakespeare, including ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ and ‘Apemantus’s Grace’ from Timon of Athens (‘Immortal gods, I crave no pelf / I pray for no man but myself’). Yet his most ambitious musical encounter with Shakespeare comes in the final movement of his Symphony in C (1975), in which the tenor and baritone perform passages from Love’s Labour’s Lost, ending with the song of the owl and the cuckoo. The final line from the play is spoken, not sung (‘The words of mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo’), and the symphony ends on an uplifting ...


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