Greg Waldmann at Open Letters Monthly:
Anthony Burgess probably knew more about music than any literary man since George Bernard Shaw. His life was marinated in sound, in listening, composing, analyzing, reviewing. Yet music confounded him. “We do not know what it is,” he writes in This Man and Music, ten years before his death in 1993. Where, for instance, do we place it in the continuum of art? Music, like prose, is linear, but unlike words, notes have no referents, no inherent value outside of the sounds they represent. Then why does music mean so much to us? And can there be moral value in that profundity, when Beethoven is esteemed by genocidal nationalists, or adored by a marauding droog in dystopian England?
It was partly an accident of history that Burgess was asking those questions. He was born a modern, in 1917 Manchester in the wake of a century of political and social tumult. The arts had responded, as they usually do. Painting had drifted away from faithful representation and literature was struggling with the relativity of perception. In music the old diatonic harmony of the Classical period, where the main notes were comfortably separated, their relationships clear, gave way to chromaticism, notes that were closely spaced or did not belong to the key of the composition.