Written in 1969, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ iconic work Eight Songs for a Mad King changed the direction of British music. Psappha Ensemble has worked closely with Sir Peter to create a new way of interacting with the work through a 3D gaming environment. Here Psappha performs Eight Songs for a Mad King with baritone Kelvin Thomas.
The eight songs are:
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)
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies writes:
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.
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.