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In 1967, Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle founded The Pierrot Players (after Birtwistle left in 1970, it was renamed The Fires of London). They modeled their contemporary-music group on the chamber ensemble Schoenberg devised for his Pierrot Lunaire in 1912 (see below). Maxwell Davies’ involvement with The Pierrot Players inspired this landmark work of experimental music theater, centered on a representation of insanity.
Eight Songs for a Mad King is one of several theatrical works where the composer, in his most avant-garde period, pushes the performers to extremities of technique and emotion. The idea for the piece came when Maxwell Davies’ collaborator, librettist Randolph Stow, was shown a miniature mechanical organ able to play eight tunes. It had once belonged to King George III. Stow imagined the King attempting to teach his pet birds the music which obsesses him. He devised eight monologues that the King delivers while listening to his beloved bullfinches.
For the premiere, the string and woodwind players were staged inside large cages, as they are meant to represent George’s birds. The percussionist is the “keeper” who is supposed to ensure the King doesn’t harm himself (or others). The role of the reciter/King requires virtuoso singing and acting alike. Maxwell Davies originally crafted it for baritone Roy Hart, who could command not only extremes of register (ranging nearly five octaves) but an entire repertoire of distorted vocalizations.
The musical content, which blends passages of free-play with rigorously notated effects, in one sense seems to emanate from the King’s delusional mind. The players riff and gloss on his exclamations, sometimes using mechanical birdcalls. There are also close-up dialogues between the King and each of his “birds” (flute in No. 3, cello in No. 4, clarinet in No. 6, and violin in the climactic No. 7). Maxwell Davies interweaves musical references known by George – particularly his adored Handel in No. 7 – with later ones, including some sly winks at Pierrot Lunaire and Birtwistle. These borrowings serve as “musical stage props” for the reciter. But the score mixes styles and textures in a highly disconcerting way: “Comfort Ye” morphs into a fox-trot, while innocently jaunty tunes are racked into schizophrenically out-of-phase alignments.
The eight scenes of Stow’s libretto depict a sequence of fantasies and delusions, even quoting lines attributed to the King by observers who heard George talking himself hoarse for days on end. These adventures take place in the King’s imagination, while he is in fact apparently confined to his chambers. He greets his sentry on his way to a country walk but has a sudden break-down (No. 1). Made nervous by the mirages he sees on his promenade (No. 2), the King finds himself conversing with a “well-bred young woman” (No. 3). He then sails down the Thames, dreaming of retiring to America (No. 4). Esther is the “phantom queen” whom George imagines as a substitute for his real wife (No. 5). The historical Queen Charlotte enlisted a spy to record the King’s monologues – the basis for the “counterfeit” in No. 6.
As he regales his people with Handel during a “country dance” at Windsor (No. 7), the King has another breakdown. This leads to the climax of Eight Songs: The reciter snatches the violin from the bird cage to break it, as night descends and he reflects on evil. This outburst of violence, Maxwell Davies writes, “is a giving-in to insanity, and the ritual murder by the King of a part of himself, after which, at the beginning of No. 8, he can announce his own death.”