The first half of the 20th century was a sort of golden age for British art song unparalleled since the days of Purcell and Blow. There are works by, inter alia, Finzi, Britten Vaughan Williams and Butterworth that are still staples of the repertoire. After the second world war though it starts to tail off and I’m hard pressed to think of songs/song cycles from the last two or three decades of the century that have become at all popular. In fact, it seems to me, the most popular art song like works from this period are stage works which are based on a cycle of songs like Maxwell Davies’ Miss. Donnithorne’s Maggot. I was interested then to come across a 1999 CD of (actual) songs for voice and piano written since 1970. The CD is Peripheral Visions by soprano Alison Grant and pianist Katherine Durran.
There are, perhaps remarkably, two operas on the theme of based on Anatole France’s short story about a juggler monk who impresses the Virgin Mary with his skills. There is a long one by Massenet and a much shorter one by Peter Maxwell Davies which I shall deal with here.
It’s perhaps misleading to call it an opera. It’s a stage work which requires a juggler mime. That bit doesn’t work so well on CD! There’s only one singer; a baritone playing the abbot who is initially shocked by the juggler and then comes to understand. There’s lots of nstrumental music played by a small chamber ensemble and, rather oddly, the last three minutes or so feature a children’s band.
Continuing my exploration of the music of Peter Maxwell Davies I’ve been listening to a 1992 recording of a couple of very different pieces inspired by Orkney. The first is Black Pentecost from 1979. It’s somewhere between an orchestral song cycle and a symphony inspired by the threat to start mining uranium ore on Orkney (which also produced the very lovely piano piece Farewell to Stromness). It’s a four movement work for orchestra, mezzo-soprano and baritone and it’s uncompromisingly modern in idiom. The text depicts environmental destruction and decay and “the Controller”s increasingly strident justification of it as necessary to “human progress”. It begins with orchestral music evocative of the unspoiled landscape but becomes increasingly tougher with menacing brass and percussion and screechy vocals from the baritone before collapsing into a matter of fact description of environmental degradation.
Mr. Emmet Takes a Walk is the latest in the series of rereleases of works by Peter Maxwell Davies performed by the Manchester ensemble Psappha. The work premiered in 2000 and was recorded in 2005 and it’s the composer’s penultimate work for the stage. (FWIW I’ve heard five of PMD’s stage works but never seen one performed).
The libretto, by David Pountney, describes what goes on in Mr. Emmet’s head as he prepares to commit suicide by having a train run over his head. It’s a series of blackly comic episodes including. negotiating a deal with Hungarians in a Japanese hotel, a sinister encounter with a heating engineer, a cabaret act and more. The scenes are interspersed with pre-recorded lists of “things to remember” including “things to dislike” like Americans and New Labour. Like other PMD pieces the instrumentalists are sometimes incorporated i the stage action.
Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot is a sort of companion piece to Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King. Indeed, the idea was suggested to the composer by the librettist at the after party for the premier of Eight Songs, or at least so Maxwell Davies claims in the interview that follows the performance on the recording.
The idea comes from the life of a reclusive lady in Sydney who may have been the model for Dicken’s Miss Haversham. She’s a bit nuts but in an altogether less depressing way than king George. It’s another theatrical performance piece (apparently repeating many of the gestures from Eight Songs but, obviously that’s not apparent in an audio recording). Once again the piece is scored for.vocalist, this time a mezzo, and small ensemble. The degree of extended vocal technique required here is less than in the earlier piece, maybe on a par with something like Pierrot :Lunaire. The ensemble though is supplemented with all kinds of toys including four metronomes, a football rattle and a whistle.
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.
This review first appeared in the print edition of Opera Canada.
The 1994 recording of Peter Maxwell Davies’ opera Resurrection, previously released on Collins has now been re-released on the Naxos label. It’s a hugely ambitious and somewhat confusing work; even harder to get to grips with on CD than it might be with visuals. It’s an anarchic parody of establishment figures and attitudes executed via a pastiche of multiple musical styles.