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Proms at Wiltons, <em>Eight Songs for a Mad King</em>
04 Sep 2017

Proms at Wiltons: Eight Songs for a Mad King

It’s hard to imagine that Peter Maxwell Davies’ dramatic monologue, Eight Songs for a Mad King, can bear, or needs, any further contextualisation or intensification, so traumatic is its depiction - part public history, part private drama - of the descent into madness of King George III. It is a painful exposure of the fracture which separates the Sovereign King from the human mortal.

Proms at Wiltons, Eight Songs for a Mad King

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Marcus Farnsworth

Photo credit: Mark Allan


Full credit, then, to director Olivia Fuchs, conductor Sian Edwards and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group for this imaginative, thoughtfully programmed and highly engaging contextualisation of the work - one which gave us not only eight songs for a mad King, but also the songs of the deluded monarch: the music that rings and rages through his mind, heart and soul; real or imagined.

Librettist Randolph Stow explains in the score of Eight Songs that the text was inspired by ‘a miniature mechanical organ playing eight tunes, once the property of George III’. A scrap of paper sold with the organ stated: ‘This organ was George the third for Birds to sing.’ Stow describes how disturbing it was to imagine 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’.

Davies’ score incorporates fragments and allusions to early eighteenth-century and mid-twentieth century popular songs, and so the BCMG’s programme comprised music from the same periods, and contrasted the freedom offered to the soul by the sounds of nature with the constriction and suffering resulting from disruptive human relationships and illness.

Throughout the programme, our Mad King - baritone Marcus Farnsworth - was present at the foot of the concert platform of Wilton’s Music Hall. Strait-jacketed, emitting occasional twitches and moans, he was by turns delighted, distracted and distressed by the sounds he heard. Alone, vulnerable and exposed, this lonely figure seemed to charge us with the same voyeuristic pleasure that his contemporaries took in his fall from grace.

The extended narrative was presented as a continuity, although some disruption and interruption resulted from necessary re-arrangements of the stage. These slight hiatuses, though, did not detract from either the persuasive wholeness and striking intensity of the concept, or the skilfulness of its execution.

Book-ending and infiltrating the ‘prelude’ to Eight Songs - which begins with George in his aviary attempting to teach his birds to sing - was Alaskan-based John Luther Adams’ multi-layered soundscape, songbirds. Perched in the gallery, percussionists Julian Warburton and Steve Gibson provided percussive cracks and rumbles to accompany Tony Robb’s piccolo trills and flutters.

Adams’ work was composed in the 1970s, at which time Messiaen had of course been taking inspiration from birdsong for several decades. Adams has noted that with ‘the self-consciousness of the self-styled young iconoclast’ he deliberately set out to eschew Messiaen’s influence, and we were able to judge for ourselves, for an example of the latter’s own orni-morphism followed. Le merle noir (The Blackbird), composed in 1951 for the Paris Conservatory, explores the way the bird’s song can be not simply portrayed or mimicked but actually grounded in the mechanism and implementation of an instrument itself. Pianist Mark Knoop exploited the composer’s divergent registers to establish the tremulous mood at the start, before flautist Marie-Christine Zupancic delicately crafted the diverse detail of the bird’s ‘cadenzas’.

Though our King had seemed entranced by Adams’ ‘Morningfieldsong’, during Le merle noir his head was bowed and clutched; a figure emerged and seated herself at the front of the stage, wrapping herself in Wilton’s generous red velvet curtain - a figure who, judging from her purple lace, frizzed hair and kohled eyes, had wandered straight from Gay’s Beggar’s Opera. Soprano Jennifer France’s subsequent rendition of the anonymous ballad ‘Mad Maudlin’s Search for Her Tom O’Bedlam’ was highly theatrical. Accompanied by Tom McKinney’s paradoxically elegant guitar, France’s soprano rolled richly around the text. In fact, the latter is almost surreal in its imagery and fragmentation: what are we to make of Mad Maudlin’s claim to have ‘cut mince piece from children’s thighs’, ‘boiled ten thousand harlots’ in a cauldron and ‘beaten The Man in the Moon to powder’.

Soprano Jennifer France and guitarist Tom McKinney perform Mad Maudlin's Search for Her Tom O'Bedlam at Proms.jpg Soprano Jennifer France and guitarist Tom McKinney perform Mad Maudlin's Search for Her Tom O'Bedlam. Photo credit: Mark Allan.

It certainly added to the disorientating strangeness, and the sense of ‘oddness’ continued in Rebecca Saunders’ Molly’s Song 3 - shades of crimson which adds four radio sets to its ensemble of alto flute, viola and steel-stringed acoustic guitar. The music is derived from Molly Bloom’s inner monologue at the close of Joyce’s Ulysses ; in an explanatory note in the score, Saunders explains that Molly’s Song 3 ‘seeks to sustain a musical energy strong enough to with stand the assaults of a succession of destructive events’. It’s certainly fraught and dramatic, the viola player (Christopher Yates) in particular being asked to produce an astonishing array of timbres.

Some soothing balm was administered by France’s charming rendition of Alminera’s aria ‘Augelletti che cantate’ from Handel’s Rinaldo (in 1711 Handel arranged for the release of real birds in the theatre at this point in the opera). She traced a mellifluous line - convincing the King that he had re-gained his Queen - while the flute swept through its virtuosic song.

But, the picture of pastoral peace and emotional reunion was but a cruel illusion. In the closing stanza, France confined the King to his strait-jacket once more. The musicians took their places for Eight Songs, for Davies and Stow intended that the players should be visually present performing music which is both diegetic and non-diegetic, and an exteriorisation of the King’s neuroses.

Much of the work requires the players to improvise from graphic notation and the synchronisation and precision of the BCMG was remarkable, always confident and taut as they moved between pointed unisons and strident dissonances, but bursting with energy too. Even the ‘out-of-phase’ rhythmic disintegrations and fragmentations sound ‘just right’, as the players depicted the dissolution of the King’s mind. In the third song, ‘The Lady -in-Waiting (Miss Musgrave’s Fancy), King and flute duetted in chirrups and tweets with playfulness and freedom. In the climactic ‘Country Dance (Scotch Bonnet)’, after the piano’s opening cocktail bar ‘smooch’, the piano and bass drum hammered terrifyingly as the King grabbed Alexandra Woods’ violin and violently smashed it to smithereens.

The role of the Mad King encompasses more than four octaves and asks the performer to deliver a range of multi-phonics. Farnsworth’s groans, bellows, screams, whispers, gargled phonetic gestures, Sprechstimme and, occasionally, song vividly conveyed the King’s torment. After a brief disappearance, he returned for the ‘Country Dance’, his long-johns and night-shirt now decorated with red feather boa, his lips rouged, for a flamboyant melisma, ‘Comfort Ye’ - a sardonic allusion to Handel’s Messiah, a particular favourite of George III’s - before descending to a disturbing, rasping ‘my people’. Flamboyance was followed by frenzied wrath when the King, unable to join in with the musicians, exploded with frustration; the shattered, forever to be silent violin was a poignant embodiment of his own impotence and irrelevance.

Farnsworth recited the ‘Review’ of his regnum with dignity, but he was a haunting presence, his majesty already obliterated and forgotten. He marched around and out of the Wilton’s auditorium to a merciless, whipped drum-beat - punished, disregarded, elapsed. The empty stage was a reminder of the ‘gap’ between the King’s powerful and pitiful selves, a ‘gap’ into which the King, his two ‘selves’ estranged, plunged into nothingness.

Claire Seymour

Proms at … Wilton’s Music Hall: Jennifer France (soprano), Marcus Farnsworth (baritone), Tom McKinney (guitar), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Sian Edwards (conductor), Olivia Fuchs (stage director).

John Luther Adams - songbirdsongs (Morningfieldsong); Olivier Messiaen - Le merle nori; Unknown - Mad Maudlin's Search for Her Tom O'Bedlam; Rebecca Saunders - Molly's Song 3, shades of crimson; Georg Frideric Handel - Rinaldo (‘Augelletti, che cantata’); Adams - songbirdsongs (Meadowdance); Peter Maxwell Davies - Eight Songs for a Mad King

Wilton’s Music Hall, London; Saturday 2nd September 2017 (3pm)

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