This was a formative work for me. I went with a friend to see a performance in London at the Queen Elizabeth Hall while I was still at school (it must have been 1974 or 1975). I can’t remember who the soloist was, but I do remember that the clarinetist Alan Hacker was there, as was Mary Thomas, who performed Pierrot Lunaire at the same concert. I also recall that I found the whole thing very hard to take, but at the same time very exciting. My friend was bolder than I, and got us back stage afterwards where we met Maxwell Davies himself, who was very friendly and encouraging.
Eight Songs for a Mad King is a monodrama for baritone and six players with a libretto by Randolph Stow, based on the words of George III, whose illness was chronicled by (among others) Fanny Burney. The flute, clarinet, violin and cello represent the bullfinches that the King taught to sing, and in some performances they are placed in giant birdcages. The percussionist represents the King’s keeper. Just as Pierrot sings to the moon, the King’s dialogue is directed at the instrumentalists, and he is both inspired and frustrated by their responses. It’s humorous as well as haunting and sometimes shocking. The music is peppered with references and quotations from other music, particularly Handel, though there’s also some Birtwistle in there. The third movement – a dialogue with the flautist – is portrayed in the score in the shape of a birdcage (shown above), with the King’s line notated in the vertical bars and the flute part, representing the bullfinch, moving within and between them. The words are particularly poignant here as the King recalls how the young ladies of the court fear him. “Madam, let us talk, I mean no harm, Only to remember”.
This is first of all music theatre, and even in performances where the theatre element is minimalized, there are two moments in particular where the drama takes over. In the seventh, “Country Dance”, the King begins with an explicit reference to The Messiah. “Comfort me, comfort me my people, with singing and with dancing”. The ensemble breaks into an off-kilter foxtrot, and the King reacts violently, grabbing the violin and smashing it. And at the very end of the piece, as the King contemplates his death, he runs from the stage with the percussionist following, beating time as the desperate words fade into the distance: “He will die howling, howling, howling…”. However “difficult” the music is perceived to be, it’s impossible not to be moved by the theatricality when it’s seen in live performance.