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.