Anthony Burgess is an accomplished composer as well as being one of England’s most prolific contemporary authors. He has acquired a reputation for being feisty and willing to experiment. In ON MOZART, Burgess disdains the conventional tribute of the composer by combining a dialogue, a libretto, a fragmented filmscript, and more into a whole for the celebration of the bicentennial of Mozart’s death in 1991. Anyone who is unfamiliar with Mozart’s life and his musical achievement should look elsewhere for satisfaction. The reader will learn more about Burgess than Mozart in this playful volume. The opening section of ON MOZART finds such musical giants as Ludwig van Beethoven, Richard Wagner, Sergei Prokofiev, Sir Arthur Bliss, and Felix Mendelssohn arguing up in heaven. They trade insults with one another. At later points in the book, George Gershwin, Arnold Schoenberg, and many others also join in the fray.
Mozart is introduced as a character in an opera libretto that strains to be both informative and funny. Unfortunately, before any resolution is forthcoming about the true nature of Mozart’s greatness, the entire exercise becomes rather tiresome. Burgess continues on with a filmscript that is no more than a fragment. Mozart is presented here as having strong opinions that will most certainly lead to trouble. Burgess then moves on to a prose poem based on Mozart’s K. 550 (1788). This verbalization comes across as somewhat ill-formed, but it seems evident that Burgess is having a romp with the wordplay. In a dialogue that the author conducts with himself, he picks at his own prose-poem experiment, as well as commenting on Mozart. Burgess himself overshadows everything that is going on so much that it is hard to find Mozart outside of the shadows. ON MOZART is no more than a confection, a mere doodle for a major writer. For the uninitiated, this book will not make a good starting point for understanding where Mozart fits into the world of music. For those who are all too familiar with the details of Mozart’s life and work, this volume may be good for a few hearty chuckles.