Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

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Eight Songs for a Mad King

Music theatre work for male voice and instrumental ensemble

audio sample: Eight Songs for a Mad King
opus number: 39
completion date: 1969
duration: 30 minutes
movement titles: 1. The Sentry (King Prussia's Minuet)
2. The Country Walk (La Promenade)
3. The Lady-in-Waiting (Miss Musgrave's Fancy)
4. To be Sung on the Water (The Waterman)
5. The Phantom Queen (He's ay a-kissing me)
6. The Counterfeit (Le Contrefaite)
7. Country Dance (Scotch Bonnett)
8. The Review (a Spanish March)
scoring: Male voice, flute (+ piccolo), clarinet, *percussion (1 player), violin, cello, piano (+ harpsichord)

*percussion: side drum, bass drums (very large, small,) suspended cymbals (large, regular, small), foot cymbals, railway whistle, wood blocks (large, small), chains, ratchet (small), tom-tom, tam-tam, roto-toms, tambourine, 2 temple blocks, toy bird calls, wind chimes, crotales, very small bells (jingles, etc), small steel bars (non-resonant), crow, dijeridu (if the Australian aboriginal instrument is not available, take a light metal or heavy cardboard tube, about two inches in diameter and three feet long, and blow down it to produce the required rhythmical grunting sounds), children's glockenspiel, glockenspiel, small anvil, scrubbing board, squeak, football rattle, band kit
world premiere: 22 April 1969, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
The Pierrot Players, Roy Hart, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies conductor
dedication: Steven Runciman
publisher: Boosey & Hawkes
category: Dramatic work
difficulty level: 6 (most difficult)
text: Randolph Stow and George III
press quotes:

One of this composer's finest and most moving achievements.

The Daily Telegraph
April 1969

programme note: Short Note by Paul Griffiths

Long established as a classic of music-theatre, the work is an extravagant, disturbing and poignant portrayal of madness. The king is George III of England - or maybe another madman who believes himself to be that monarch - vocalizing weirdly as he bemoans his fate and tries to teach his instrumentalist-birds to sing. The string and woodwind players are the captives of his insanity, intended to play from within giant cages, while the percussionist is his keeper, holding him within the confines of a maddened musical sensibility. But all the musicians are essentially projections from within his own mind. The focus is always on him, and on his wild vocal performances, which include various kinds of Sprechgesang, chords and a range of over four octaves. The virtuosity of the instrumentalists is no less, nor that of the composer in playing spikily over a range of eighteenth-century references.

Deutsche Anmerkungen (kurz)

Dieses Werk, längst etabliert als ein 'Klassiker' des Musiktheaters, bietet ein so exaltiertes wie spannendes under erschütterndes musikalisches Portrait des Wahnsinns. Der König ist George III, von England, möglicherweise auch ein Verrückter, der sich für diesen König hält. Er beklangt sein Schicksal in bizarren Vokalisen and versucht, seinen Instrumentalisten-Vögeln das Singer beizubringen. Streicher and Holzbläser sind die Gefangenen seines Irrsinns, die in riesigen Käfigen eingesperrt agieren; des Schlagseuger dagegen ist der Wärter des Königs, der ihn seinerseits in den Schranken eines verrückten musikalischen Buwußtseins hält. Alle Musiker aber sing eim Grunde nichts Anderes als Projektionen seines eigenen Inneren. Alles konzentriert sich auf die Figure des Kökigs and seine fantastichen Vokaldarbeitungen, die einen Umfang von mehr also vier Okvaven durchmessen and neben Mehrklängen auch verschiedene Arten von Sprechgesang einbeziehen. Nicht geringer is die Vertuosität der Instrumentalisten und die des Komposten, der mit spitzer Feder musikalische Zitate aud dem 18. Jahrhundert paraphrasiert.

Extended Note by Veronica Slater

We now know that George III suffered from porphyria, but to his contemporaries he was 'the Mad King'. The disease occurred intermittently, but during bouts of it, the King would behave as if demented. One of his few consolations was a group of caged bullfinches he taught to sing.

There is still in existence a miniature mechanical organ playing eight tunes, once the property of George III. A scrap of paper sold with it explains 'This Organ was George the third for Birds to sing'. We know from Fanny Burney and other courtiers how the King behaved during his illness and how he reacted to his bullfinches. It was a reaction somewhat similar to that of Pierrot to the moon. The birds were an audience for the King to express his terror of himself and horror at the evils of his age.

Randolph Stow's poems which form the text of the Eight Songs were suggested to him by the organ tunes. When he heard them he says that he imagined the King 'in his purple flannel dressing-gown and ermine night-cap, struggling to teach the birds to make the music which he could so rarely torture out of his flute and harpsichord'. He could hear the King attempting to sing with them, 'in that ravaged voice, made almost inhuman by day-long soliloquies'. On stage, four of the instrumentalists - flute, clarinet, violin and cello - sit within huge cages to represent bullfinches, and the reciter has extended dialogues with them. The percussionist and, to a lesser extent, the keyboard player represent the King's keeper.

Like Schoenberg, Maxwell Davies has heightened certain moments by the use of parody - in particular, parodies of Handel. In the seventh song there is a quotation from The Messiah as the King addresses the violin. It is in this that the climax of the work occurs; the King snatches the violin from the player and breaks it. As Maxwell Davies put it: 'This is not just the killing of a bullfinch - it is a giving-in to insanity, and a ritual murder by the King of a part of himself, after which, at the beginning of the last song, he can announce his own death'.

The songs are to be understood as the King's monologue while listening to his birds perform, and they incorporate sentences actually spoken by George III. In the first the King sees himself as the prisoner of one of his own sentries. 'Pity me, child' he says. Then, as he imagines himself walking in the country, he grows nervous as his failing sight distorts the countryside into grotesque forms. In the third he addresses the flute whom he sees as a young courtier. But he is reminded that well-bred young women are terrified of him. Then to the cello the King fancies himself in a boat on the Thames, and dreams of being relieved of his God-given burdens. The fifth song tells of the King yearning for an imaginary Esther whom he thinks he has married after divorcing Queen Charlotte. The next is called 'The Counterfeit' and is taken from one of the King's own monologues recorded by Fanny Burney. In it he addresses the clarinet. Then comes the episode with the violin. Finally, after announcing his death, the King, in one of his more lucid intervals, becomes conscious of his predicament and of the fact that he has yet to die in reality.

Mad scenes were popular ingredients in nineteenth-century operas (mad songs go back at least to Purcell), the heroines - coloraturas all - going gracefully out of their minds to the accompaniment of a flute. But even the best of these scenes were no more than an excuse for a display of vocal pyrotechnics: no serious attempt was made to portray, let alone understand, madness. The pyrotechnics are still there in the Eight Songs for a Mad King (the vocal part was suggested by the extraordinary technique of Roy Hart, who gave the first performance); there too is the flute, along with the clarinet, violin and cello, to accompany the voice. But this is a work of deep understanding and compassion for wretched George III, his pathetic attempts to teach his caged bullfinches to sing, and occasionally to sing with them himself, and also the agonized recognitions of his own madness.

Randolph Stow's text includes known quotations from the King himself: they are intended sometimes as monologues (as the King listens to the birds singing), and sometimes as dialogues (when his tortured mind invests the birds with different characters). The birds are represented by the flautist, the clarinettist, violinist and cellist; sitting in cages, they also play mechanical birdsong devices, while the percussionist represents the King's keeper (the percussion part is sometimes shared by the keyboard player, who otherwise alternates between piano and harpsichord, acting either as continuo player or musical commentator). All the players' music goes beyond mere accompaniment to comment on and extend the King's music. This music includes quotations from a variety of composers, the most instantly recognizable being Handel, whose music the King is known to have attempted to perform. At the end of the seventh song, the King is suddenly overwhelmed by an awareness of evil: he snatches the violin through the bars of the cage and breaks it. To repeat the composer: 'This is not just the killing of a bullfinch - it is a giving-in to insanity, and a ritual murder by the King of a part of himself after which, at the beginning of the last song, he can announce his own death'.

Note by the Librettist, Randolph Stow ©

The poems forming the text of this work were suggested by a miniature mechanical organ playing eight tunes, once the property of George III. A scrap of paper sold with it explains that 'This Organ was George the third for Birds to sing'. Another fragment identifies its second owner as 'James Hughes who served his Majesty George 3 near 30 years penshen of in 1812 at 30 pouns year served HRH princes Augusta 8 years Half penshen of in 1820 at 30 year'.

The organ remained in the family of Hughes until a few years ago, when it was acquired by the Hon. Sir Steven Runciman, who in 1966 demonstrated it to me. It left a peculiar and disturbing impression. One imagined the King, in his purple flannel dressing-gown and ermine night-cap, struggling to teach birds to make the music which he could so rarely torture out of his flute and harpsichord. Or trying to sing with them, in that ravaged voice, made almost inhuman by day-long soliloquies, which once murdered Handel for Fanny Burney's entertainment. There were echoes of the story of the Emperor's nightingale. But this Emperor was mad; and at times he knew it, and wept.

The songs are to be understood as the King's monologue while listening to his birds perform, and incorporate some sentences actually spoken by George III. The quotations, and a description of most of the incidents to which reference is made, can be found in the chapters on George III in The Court at Windsor by Christopher Hibbert.

This is a copyright note, and may not be reprinted or reproduced in any way without prior permission from the author.
composer’s note: The flute, clarinet, violin and cello, as well as having their usual accompanimental functions in this work, also represent, on one level, the bullfinches the King was trying to teach to sing. The King has extended 'dialogues' with these players individually - in No. 3 with the flute; in No.4, the cello; in No.6, the clarinet; and in No.7, the violin. The percussion player stands for the King's 'keeper'.

Just as the music of the players is always a comment upon and extension of the King's music, so the 'bullfinch' and 'keeper' aspects of the players' roles are physical extensions of this musical process - they are projections stemming from the King's words and music, becoming incarnations of facets of the King's own psyche.

The sounds made by human beings under extreme duress, physical and mental, will be at least in part familiar. With Roy Hart's extended vocal range, and his capacity for producing chords with his voice (like the clarinet and flute in this work), these poems presented a unique opportunity for me to exploit these techniques and thus to explore certain extreme regions of experience.

Until quite recently 'madness' was regarded as something at which to laugh and jeer. The King's historically authentic quotations from The Messiah in the work evoke this sort of mocking response in the instrumental parts - the stylistic switch is unprepared, and arouses an aggressive reaction. I have, however, quoted far more than The Messiah: if not the notes, at least aspects of the styles of many composers are referred to, from Handel to Birtwistle. In some ways, I regard the work as a collection of musical objects borrowed from many sources, functioning as musical 'stage props', around which the reciter's part weaves, lighting them from extraordinary angles, and throwing grotesque and distorted shadows from them, giving the musical 'objects' an unexpected and sometimes sinister significance. For instance, in No. 5, 'The Phantom Queen', an eighteenth-century suite is intermittently suggested in the instrumental parts; in the Courante, at the words "Starve you, strike you", the flute part hurries ahead in a 7/6 rhythmic proportion and the clarinet's rhythms become dotted, its part displaced by octaves, the effect being schizophrenic. In No. 7, the sense of 'Comfort Ye, My People' is turned inside out by the King's reference to Sin, and the 'Country Dance' of the title becomes a foxtrot. The written-down shape of the music of No. 3 forms an actual cage, of which the vertical bars are the King's line, and the flute (bullfinch) part moves between and inside them.

The climax of the work is the end of No. 7, where the King snatches the violin through the bars of the player's cage and breaks it.

This is not just the killing of a bullfinch - it is a giving-in to insanity, and a ritual murder by the King of a part of himself, after which, at the beginning of the last song, he can announce his own death.

As well as their own instruments, the players have mechanical bird song devices operated by clockwork, and the percussion player has a collection of bird-call instruments. In No. 6 - the only number where a straight parody, rather than a distortion or a transformation, of Handel occurs - he operates a dijeridu, the simple hollow tubular instrument of the aboriginals of Arnhem Land in Australia, which functions as a downward extension of the timbre of the 'crow'. The keyboard player moves between piano and harpsichord, sometimes acting as continuo, sometimes becoming a second percussion part, and sometimes adding independently developing musical commentary.
synopsis: Long established as a classic of music-theatre, the work is an extravagant, disturbing and poignant portrayal of madness. The king is George III of England - or maybe another madman who believes himself to be that monarch - vocalizing weirdly as he bemoans his fate and tries to teach his instrumentalist-birds to sing. The string and woodwind players are the captives of his insanity, intended to play from within giant cages, while the percussionist is his keeper, holding him within the confines of a maddened musical sensibility. But all the musicians are essentially projections from within his own mind. The focus is always on him, and on his wild vocal performances, which include various kinds of Sprechgesang, chords and a range of over four octaves. The virtuosity of the instrumentalists is no less, nor that of the composer in playing spikily over a range of eighteenth-century references.
recording: Psappha, Kelvin Thomas baritone
Psappha PSA CD 1001

The Fires of London, Peter Maxwell Davies conductor, Julius Eastman baritone
Unicorn-Kanchana DKP (CD) 9052
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