Eight Songs for a Mad King
The flute, clarinet, violin, and cello, as well as having their usual accompanimental
functions in this work, also represent on one level, the bullfinches the King was
trying to teach to sing. The King has extended ^Ìdialogues' with these players
individually &endash; in No.3 with the flute, in No.4 the cello, in No.6 the
clarinet, and in No.7 the violin. The percussion player stands for the King's ^Ìkeeper.'
Just as the music of the players is always a comment upon and extension of the King's
music, so the ^Ìbullfinch' and ^Ìkeeper' aspects of the players' roles
are physical extensions of this musical process &endash; they are projections
stemming from the King's words and music, becoming incarnations of facets of the
King's own psyche. The sounds made by human beings under extreme duress, physical
and mental, will be at least in part familiar. With Roy Hart's extended vocal range,
and his capacity for producing chords with his voice (like the clarinet and flute
in this work), these poems presented a unique opportunity to categorize and exploit
these techniques to explore certain extreme regions of experience, already opened
up in my Revelation and Fall, a setting of a German expressionist poem by Trakl.
Until quite recently ^Ìmadness' was regarded as something at which to laugh
and jeer. The King's historically authentic quotations from the Messiah in the work
evoke this sort of mocking response in the instrumental parts &endash; the stylistic
switch is unprepared, and arouses an aggressive reaction. I have, however, quoted
far more than the Messiah &endash; if not the notes at least aspects of the styles
of many composers are referred to, from Handel to Birtwistle. In some ways, I regard
the work as a collection of musical objects borrowed form many sources, functioning
as musical ^Ìstage props,' around which the reciter's part weaves, lighting
them from extraordinary angles, and throwing grotesque and distorted shadows form
them, giving the musical ^Ìobjects' an unexpected and sometimes sinister significance.
For instance, in No.5, ^ÌThe Phantom Queen', an eighteenth0-sentury suite
is intermittently suggested in the instrumental parts, and in the Courante, at the
words ^ÌStarve you, strike you,' the flute part hurries ahead in a 7:6 rhythmic
proportion, the clarinet's rhythms become dotted, and its part displaced by octaves,
the effect being schizophrenic. In No.7, the sense of ^ÌComfort Ye, My People'
is turned inside out by the King's reference to Sin, and the ^ÌCountry Dance'
of the title becomes a foxtrot. The written-down shape of the music of No.3 becomes
an object in fact &endash; it forms a cage, of which the vertical bars are the
King's line, and the flute (bullfinch) part moves between and inside these vertical
parts. The climax of the work is the end of No.7, where the King snatches the violin
through the bats of the player's cage and breaks it. This is not just the killing
of a bullfinch &endash; it is a giving-in to insanity, and a ritual murder by
the King of a part of himself, after which, at the beginning of No.8, he can announce
his own death. As well as their own instruments, the players have mechanical bird
song devices operated by clockwork, and the percussion payer has a collection of
bird-call instruments. In No.6 &endash; the only number where a straight parody,
rather than a distortion or a transformation, of Handel occurs, he operates a didjeridu,
the simple hollow tubular instrument of the aboriginals of Arnhem Land in Australia,
which functions as a downward extension of the timbre of the ^Ìcrow.'
The keyboard player moves between piano and harpsichord, sometimes acting as continuo,
sometimes becoming a second percussion part, and sometimes adding independently developing
musical commentary. The work was written in February and March 1969. -- Peter Maxwell
A note on the text The poems forming the text of this work were suggested by a
miniature mechanical organ playing eight tunes, once the property of George III.
A scrap of paper sold with it explains that ^ÌThis Organ was George the third
for Birds to sing.' Another fragment identifies its second owner as ^ÌJames
Hughes who served his Majesty George 3 near 30 years penshen of in 1812 at 30 pouns
year served HRH princes Augusta 8 years Half penshen of in 1820 at 30 year.' The
organ remained in the family of Hughes until a few years ago, when it was acquired
by the Hon. Sir Steven Runcimen, who in 1966 demonstrated it to me. It left a peculiar
and disturbing impression. One imagined the King, in his purple 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, which once murdered Handel for
Fanny Burney's entertainment. There were echoes of the story of the Emperor's nightingale.
But this Emperor was mad; and at times he knew it, and wept. The songs are to be
understood as the King's monologue while listening to his birds perform, and incorporate
some sentences actually spoken by George II. The quotations, and a description of
most of the incidents to which reference is made, can be found in the chapters on
George II in The Court at Windsor by Christopher Hibbert (Longmans and Penguin Books).
-- Randolph Stow
1. The Sentry
King Prussia's Minuet
Good day to Your Honesty: God guard who guards the gate.
Here is the key of the Kingdom.
You are a pretty fellow: next month I shall give you a cabbage.
Undo the door!
Who has stolen my key? Ach! my Kingdom is snakes and dancing,
my Kingdom is locks and slithering. Make room!
Pity me, pity me, pity me. Child,
child, whose son are you?
2. The Country Walk
Dear land of sheep and cabbages. Dear land.
Dear elms, oaks, beeches, strangling ivy,
green snakes of ivy, pythons. God guard trees.
Blue-yellow-green is the world like a chained man's bruise.
I think of God. God also is a King.
3. The Lady-in-Waiting
Miss Musgrave's Fancy
Madam, let us talk, let us talk.
Madam, I mean no harm.
Only to remember, to remember
what it was that through silk,
lace, linen and brocade
swooped on my needle. To remember. Madam,
let us talk, I mean no harm.
4. To Be Sung on the Water
Sweet Thames, sweet Thames, far, far have I followed thee.
God guard my people.
Sweet Thames, flow soft. Flow, burdened by my people
(deliver me of my people; they are within)
to Eden garden, unto Eden garden
in Hanover, Bermuda or New South Wales.
Sweet Thames, flow soft. Evacuate my people.
I am weary of this feint. I am alone.
5. The Phantom Queen
He's Ay A-Kissing Me
Where is the Queen, who does she not visit me?
Esther! O my heart's ease.
Have they chained you too, my darling, in a stable?
Do they starve you, strike you, scorn you, ape your howls?
They say some other woman is my wife,
but the Queen's name is Esther
Fall on my eyes, O bride, like a starless night.
6. The Counterfeit
I am nervous. I am not ill
but I am nervous.
If you would know what is the matter with me
I am nervous.
But I love you both very well;
if you would tell me the truth.
I love Doctor Heberden best; for he has not told me a lie
Sir George has told me a lie: a white lie, he says
but I hate a white like!
If you tell me a lie,
let it be a black lie!
7. Country Dance
Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people
With singing and with dancing,
With milk and with apples.
The landlord at the Three Tuns
Makes the best purl in Windsor.
Sin! Sin! Sin!
Black vice, intolerable vileness
In lanes, by ricks, at Courts. It is night on the world.
Even I, your King, have contemplated evil.
I shall rule with a rod of iron.
8. The Review
A Spanish March
My people: I come before you in mourning,
On my breast a star.
The King is dead.
A good-hearted gentleman, a humble servant of God,
A loving husband, an affectionate sire.
Poor fellow, he want mad.
He talked with trees, attacked his eldest son,
Disowned his wife, to make a ghost his Queen &endash;
A ghost his Queen.
So they seized him (yes!) and they whipped him
(ach! yes!) starved him, jeered in his face,
while he talked he talked he talked he talked he talked:
they could not shave him, his mouth was never still.
Sometimes he howled like a dog.
And he veiled the mirrors not to see himself pass by
For his eyes had turned to blackcurrant jelly.
Poor fellow, I weep for him.
He will die howling.
Randolph Stow and King George III
mark the last in a series of vocal works which explore the sounds of exotic
realms. Written in 1926, they were preceded by "A Thousand and One Nights"
(1903) which evokes oriental Arabia, the "Cinq Melodies Populaires Grecques"
(1907), "Chants Populaires" (1910) which explore the sounds of Italy, Russia
and Scotland, and the "Deux Melodies Hebraiques" of 1914. The "Chansons
Madecasses" are settings of three poems by Evariste Parny, a frenchman who lived
in the tropics in the eighteenth century. Although Parny claimed the poems were simply
translations of the original Madgascan, it has since been proved that they are in
fact his own writings. The first poem "Nahandove" is an erotic, ardent
love song, "Aoua" is a battle cry directed against the white inhabitants
of the coast who threaten to oppress and tyrannize the islanders, "Il est doux"
is a tender lyrical Idyll, a prelude to nocturne sung into the evening wind. Ravel
described his composition as "a kind of quartet in which the voice plays the
part of the main instrument." At this point in his career, Ravel strove to move
away from the use of harmonic devices to drive a piece, rather, he wanted to return
to "the spirit of true melody". In the "Chansons", each part
is treated independently, and the texture is created by the interweaving of the various
"Bloom" is, in an abstract way, about the process of creation or transformation.
This 'blooming; is, however, not a gentle and delicate metamorphosis but a struggle
which is at times fiery and harsh. The first movement "emerging", reflects
this idea with one large wedge shape in which a slow quiet opening passage builds
to a high point of intensity, only to push on with no release until the very end
of the movement. "playful" has a lighter feel, yet even this scherzo has
moments which echo the aggressiveness of the previous movement. In "hushed"
there is, at last, peace and a quiet stasis through repetitions of a simple motive
which appears with only slight variations.