There’s no shortage of pandemic inspired music out there but I figured I wanted something that more closely evoked the sheer madness of life in Ontario right now. So, I turned to a 1969 piece by my fellow Manc Peter Maxwell Davies. It’s his Eight Songs for a Mad King inspired by that nutty old Hanoverian George III. The genesis of the piece is quite complex. It involves a music box, once owned by the king but by 1968 in the possession of the historian Steven Runciman. Once used by the king in an attempt to teach bullfinches to sing, it provides the inspiration for the eight “tunes” that make up the Eight Songs. The libretto is largely drawn from the king’s own words and other contemporary sources.
The piece is scored for vocalist, flute, clarinet, violin, viola, piano/harpsichord and percussion. The vocalist represents the king while the flute, clarinet, violin and cell perform in cages to represent the four bullfinches though they are also addressed by the king in other guises; for example a lady-n-waiting and the river Thames. Both the vocal and instrumental writing involves a variety of different styles and seriously extended technique. The results are often very weird indeed like in No.7 Country Dance which mashes up a jazzy little dance tune with a weirdly distorted version of Handel’s Comfort Ye.
This recording was actually made by baritone Kelvin Thomas with the Manchester based Psappha ensemble at the University of Salford in 2012 for an 80th birthday celebration (2014) release on the Psappha label.. This time it’s being released through NMC Recordings as a limited edition of 500 vinyl discs with a larger vinyl rerelease and digital edition to follow. I listened to it as 44.1kHz/16 bit .wav files and it sounded just fine. I don’t do vinyl anymore. There’s a disc insert (rather than a booklet!) with very good notes and full texts.
This isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste but if you need some sympathetic magic against the craziness of Fordlandia this might just do it.