Ken Walton: Royal derangement hits the road as Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ strange and disturbing piece of music theatre is revived by the Hebrides Ensemble...
The most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reason writes,” reflected the 20th-century French writer André Gide in an essay published 60 years ago.
Surely the same thought occupied Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ mind in 1969 when he wrote Eight Songs of a Mad King, an explosive piece of music theatre that, in its screaming depiction of mad King George III, and its hardcore parody of recognisable 18th-century musical targets – Handel’s Messiah gets put through the wringer – shook the classical music establishment to its core.
He said as much in an interview recorded in 2004 that was included as a tail-end track to the Manchester–based ensemble Psappha’s recording of the work that same year. “Madness”, he said, “is a touchy subject. It has to be dealt with very coolly. You can’t let madness loose. If you are lax about the composition, you get raw emotion without shape, rhyme or reason”.
Those who first witnessed Eight Songs could easily have missed that point. Just think what they were faced with: the instrumentalists of Max’s own extraordinary Fires of London ensemble (then known as the Pierrot Players) dressed as birds and playing in cages while the mad king raged and ranted around them, howling, reciting and singing dementedly over an almost inhuman five-octave vocal span. Small wonder the then guardians of British musical conservatism hailed Max as the maddest of the lot.
Looking back now, however, Eight Songs of a Mad King is generally recognised as a masterpiece of modern music theatre, with a score far more intellectually disciplined than initial reactions to its gauche eccentricity may have appreciated.
For that reason alone, a newly conceived performance by the Hebrides Ensemble, touring to Glasgow, Inverness, Edinburgh and Tain from a week on Monday, looks set to be one of the most exciting musical events in Scotland this side of Christmas.
The man charged with producing it – Edinburgh-based stage director Ben Twist, who also happens to be chairman of the Hebrides’ board – is not the least bit daunted by the challenge facing him. Having directed a 2008 touring production of the same composer’s opera The Martyrdom of St Magnus, which visited Max’s home territory for that year’s St Magnus Festival on Orkney, and having collaborated with Psappha on various Max music theatre projects as far back as the 1990s, he is familiar with the uncompromising idiom of Maxwell, now Master of the Queen’s Music’s.
In his view, Eight Songs is truly a masterpiece, and one that has stood the test of time.
“Max is who he is today because of the work he was doing back then,” says Twist. “Seeing it now with the passing of time speaks to you in the same extraordinary way that a Jackson Pollock or a Picasso still hits you when you see it face to face. I would put Eight Songs up there with that sort of thing.”
But time has presented its own challenges. Take the key role of the mad king, which was written for, and performed by, the South African actor Ron Hart, who had developed a specific technique known as multiphonic vocal production, which his own teacher had learnt from the horrifying sound of soldiers dying in the battlefields of the First World War.
Max applied this technique to Hart’s unique creation of the role, the problem being, according to the composer, “that no-one has ever done it like Hart did in the first performances.” Tragically, Hart died in a car crash in 1975.
But that hasn’t put others off formulating their own response to the role, and Twist is convinced the latest of these, baritone Marcus Farnsworth, will do just that when he plays King George next week. “There is a lovely note by Max and his librettist [Randolph Stow] that describes the King’s role as something to interpret rather than follow slavishly,” Twist explains. “Marcus knows the music better than I ever will. So does Hebrides’ cellist and director Will Conway. They, together with our designer, will have their own creative thoughts. My job is simply to make something intelligible out of it all.”
And that means applying method to the madness.
“When you do madness in theatre you mustn’t do mad acting,” he explains. “After all, what a mad person is trying to do is make sense of the world around him. Marcus has done this role already in Sweden; he knows it, he likes it, and understands how to put it over theatrically.”
So, adds Twist, do the instrumentalists of the Hebrides Ensemble, whose role in this is as much about acting their parts as playing some very difficult and demanding music – a skill they demonstrated brilliantly a few St Magnus Festivals ago in startling performances they gave with dancers of the music theatre work Max followed Eight Songs with, the darkly disturbing Vesalii Icones.
“This is where their skills and personalities rise to the fore,” says Twist. “Here is a group that is really interested in looking at new ways of presenting classical music on stage. They’re used to doing it, and they’re used to being in the limelight. If you take people like clarinettist Yann Ghiro, or percussionist Oliver Cox, they are natural showmen. They love being centre stage.”
That’s exactly where they intend to be for this entire touring programme, which prefaces the Eight Songs with four short pieces on the theme of flight by younger generation composers George Benjamin, Oliver Knussen, Colin Matthews and Thomas Ades – all of them staged as music theatre, and specially chosen to whet our appetite for the main work.
Even so, Eight Songs remains an iconic shocker.
“That moment when the violin gets smashed to pieces packs the same punch it did back in the late 1960s. It’s a piece that transcends its age,” says Twist. We’d be right royally mad to disagree.
• The Hebrides Ensemble performs Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King at the Fruitmarket, Glasgow, on 12 November; Eden Court, Inverness on 13 November; the Jam House, Edinburgh on 15 November and St Duthus Church, Tain, on 16 November, see www.hebridesensemble.com
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