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''Daring and Remarkable'': DAVIES, Eight Songs for a Mad King

The MHS Review 406, VOL. 12, NO.10• 1988

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Paul Kresh


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Before he went off to live in the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland, where the austere air and the salt of the sea seem to have penetrated into the very fabric of his music, the Manchester-born Peter Maxwell Davies was busy writing works influenced by his studies with Roger Sessions at Princeton in the early '60s and by that ineluctable influence on so much of the music of our time, Arnold Schoenberg.

In 1967, when he wrote Eight Songs for a Mad King (the text is attributed to ''Ran­dolph Stow and King George Ill") Davies was 33 and had already written about a dozen works--including a set of Shakespearean dances--in a variety of styles, but none of them prepared au­diences for the treatment of madness in this hair-raising piece for a vocalist and six in­strumentalists, with the vocalist as often as not functioning more as a seventh instru­ment than as a voice.

The moods of Eight Songs swing from humor to horror, the events from a vaudeville ditty to clusters of wild chords and the actual shattering of a violin. King George goes mad before our very ears. There is so much latitude for the per­formers as he does so that an earlier recor­ding (by the group with whom Mr. Davies is closely identified, the Fires of London) departs in numerous details from this equally arresting interpretation, taken from a live performance at the Los Angeles County Art Museum with baritone Michael Gallup and the New Music Settings Ensem­ble under their brave music director Rhonda Kess.

Here are words George Ill is really sup­posed to have said, intoned by the mad monarch as he wanders about, trying to teach his caged birds how to sing, accom­panied by some of the mechanical in­struments in his collection. The range of his voice is startling, disconcerting. The tortured music he intones is heartbreaking. Yet the whole of this tour de force is con­stantly under the composer's complete control. At times when you're hearing it you only wish it to be over; then when it's over you immediately want to hear it again.

Seven years after Eight Songs, Davies returned once more to the subject of madness, this time taking for his subject Miss Eliza Emily Donnithorne, a woman who might well have been the inspiration for Dickens' Miss Havisham in Great Ex­pectations. But Miss Donnithorne, whose life reads like fiction, was an actual person. Her father was a Judge and Governor in the East India Civil Service in Bengal in the mid-1820s when Eliza was born. Later he retired and they moved to Australia, but when she was growing up hers was an upper-class life of luxury in India.

Before she was 30 she-became engaged to a naval officer, and a fine feast was planned for their wedding day; but with the guests assembled and all in readiness her fiance failed to show up, nor was he ever seen again. And so, in And so, in Miss Don­nithorne's Maggot, with a text by the same Randolph Stow who worked with the com­poser on Eight Songs for a Mad King, the lady relives the whole humiliating ex­perience, amid the ticking of erratic clocks (four metronomes set at different tempi), the decaying wedding cake, and hallucina­tions of snakes and spiders She hates the little boys in town who jeer at her and tell off-color jokes about her. She hates the navy, she hates all men. She prepares for her role as bride to a tortured version of the "Bridal March" from Lohengrin.

Doomed every day of her life to relive her dusty fantasy, Miss Donnithorne makes a fine companion for King George on the reverse side of this exceptional recording. Davies has supplied her with music even more daring and remarkable, as is the vir­tuoso performance by that versatile soprano of both the popular and classical music worlds, Marni Nixon. Ms. Kess and her game ensemble supply the misty milieu of arrested time in which poor Miss Don­nithorne is mired.

These are twin works devoted to madness, by one of England's sanest and most masterly composers, both brilliantly performed.

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