Prospect Magazine – 14 July 2023
When classical, rock and jazz music all pondered the meaning of England
“Mitchener inhabited King George’s fracturing identities with an unsettling intensity.”
There was an effervescent moment in the 1960s when composers such as Peter Maxwell Davies and bands such as the Kinks made the country their own
Peter Maxwell Davies conceived Eight Songs for a Mad King in 1969 when his reputation stood apart from that of the amenable, feted composer he would become later in life; a composer whose light piano miniature “Farewell to Stromness” would be broadcast on loop on Classic FM and who would have regular audiences with Queen Elizabeth in his role as master of the queen’s music. During the earlier part of his career, Maxwell Davies refused to slot his view of modern composition into any neat stylistic pigeonhole. Each piece seemed to start over from scratch, and people often didn’t know what to think. Audience walkouts and bruising critical dusting-downs proved an occupational hazard.
Nobody walked out of the Wigmore Hall in May, when the singer Elaine Mitchener and the ensemble Apartment House, led by cellist Anton Lukoszevieze, took another look at Eight Songs for a Mad King, easily Maxwell Davies’s most notorious and troubling score. True, the piece is a known quantity now, and nobody comes expecting to hear dainty classical niceties. Also true, Mitchener, who operates across modern composition, jazz and improvised music, brings an audience of her own who take what she does on trust, and they lapped the piece up. Yet for those accustomed to hearing Mitchener improvise ecstatic free jazz, Maxwell Davies’ visceral, blood-curdling composition might have been her hardest sell to date. A recording was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 a couple of weeks ago, and is currently available on catch-up.
Cutting across music-theatre and monodrama, Eight Songs teleports us inside the head of George III as he slowly, but very surely, loses his mind. Maxwell Davies extrapolated the musical essentials of his piece from the eight tunes that whirled inside a mechanical organ that was once the property of George. As the king’s mind spirals towards breakdown, the music ticks and tocks anxiously. Is the mechanism of George’s mechanical organ falling apart, losing its bearings, jamming into demented repetitions—or is it his mind? Hurtling towards the climax, George snatches a violin from out of the ensemble, strums it manically, then tramples it underfoot—before limping offstage like a wounded beast, mewling, gurgling and spluttering, his staggering accompanied by funereal thwacks from a marching-band bass drum.
Even 60 years after the heyday of Jimi Hendrix and The Who, the sight of a musician wantonly destroying an instrument onstage is still guaranteed to deliver a kick to the solar plexus. Such nihilism ought to play no part in music—and especially onstage in the Victorian majesty of the Wigmore Hall, London’s mecca for chamber music, where classical greats like Myra Hess, Benjamin Britten, Yehudi Mehuhin and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf historically held court! Mitchener has commented that Maxwell Davies must surely have been aware of the tendency Hendrix and The Who’s Pete Townshend had for trashing their guitars onstage, and of the disturbing symbolism of their actions.
Not only was he aware, but Maxwell Davies apparently found a way to incorporate, indeed integrate, this theatre of instrumental decapitation into the inner-workings of his score, and in doing so he drew a trajectory between early 20th-century modernism and late 1960s rock excess, a place where Arnold Schoenberg could shake hands with Hendrix.
The modern music textbooks tell you that Maxwell Davies modelled Eight Songs after Schoenberg’s totemic Pierrot lunaire, another work for voice and small ensemble that dances on the brink of lunacy. But Pierrot was already six decades old as he wrote Eight Songs, and the landscape in which Maxwell Davies worked was brimming with musicians of all stylistic stripes dealing with questions of musical culture and language—and of where English music now stood. Michael Tippett’s 1970 opera The Knot Garden picked apart The Tempest to explore gay politics, while Harrison Birtwistle reached inside English pastoralism to locate dark undertones of ritual and myth. Meanwhile, the free improvisers Derek Bailey, John Stevens and the collective AMM were all attempting to define what could differentiate an authentically homegrown improvised music from the American free jazz of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor.
It was into this thriving and diverse atmosphere that Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs was performed for the first time at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 22nd April 1969, and a month later, on 22nd May 1969, a young David Bowie—a few months away from releasing “Space Oddity”—performed at the Wigmore Hall, where Eight Songs would reappear 53 years later—as part of a gig with the folk musician Tim Hollier. At the end of 1964, Bowie—before he became Bowie, and was still Davie Jones—had toured in a package with The Kinks, a group obliged to ponder its relationship with British culture more than most. Following an unruly American tour in 1965, they had been banned from touring that country for the foreseeable future and had to think local.
Maxwell Davies was formally trained; Ray and Dave Davies, who led The Kinks, were proud autodidacts. Max, as he was known, was 35 when he wrote Eight Songs; Ray and Dave were in their twenties as they worked their own thoughts about England, madness and empire into two classic albums: The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, released at the end of 1968, followed up a year later with a royal-themed album of their own, Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), which came complete with a Terry Gilliam-esque caricature of a portly Queen Victoria on the cover.
What were these musicians saying about their own country? As Hendrix released Electric Ladyland and The Rolling Stones their psychedelic Their Satanic Majesties Request and hard-edged Beggars Banquet, the opening track of Village Green sounded a note of caution: the world was changing apace, but were we in danger of losing sight of those precious markers around which the nation united; joys such as strawberry jam, warm real ale, custard pies and Sherlock Holmes stories? Apparently—and this would have amused those who, at the time, kept up with tabloid stories of The Kinks’ bedroom antics—virginity was worth preserving too, although, as Ray Davies subsequently explained, more as a metaphor: the album was all about treasuring things that, once gone, are gone for good.
The British Empire was another example of something that was gone for good, and The Kinks pegged their Arthur album around the true story of their Uncle Arthur, disillusioned with England, emigrating with his family to Australia, where it turned out life was even harder.
As the first British woman, and the first black woman, to tackle Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs, issues of empire and power hung heavy over Elaine Mitchener’s performance at the Wigmore Hall. Mitchener inhabited King George’s fracturing identities with an unsettling intensity. Before trashing the violin, her George gasped his way through a parody of “Comfort ye, my people” from Handel’s Messiah—and hesitations about who “my” people might have been were powerfully articulated.
Violent, psychologically charged music-theatre and a shimmering, sometimes wry, rock album shot through with Blakean visions of Albion. On the surface, the two don’t share much in common. The Kinks had absorbed inspirations from blues, jazz and rock; Maxwell Davies brought an unusual breadth of influence that ranged from medieval and renaissance music to Messiaen and Webern. Yet they both realised that looking outwards to comment on England, and where English music stood in relation to the modern world, was the sane thing to do.
Philip Clark is an author and journalist who has written about classical music, jazz and rock for many leading publications, including The Wire, Gramophone, the Guardian and London Review of Books. His biography of Dave Brubeck, A Life In Time, was published in 2020, and he worked with the legendary guitarist of The Kinks, Dave Davies, on his autobiography, Living On A Thin Line, published in 2022. Philip is currently writing Sound and The City—due for publication in 2025—a history of the sound of New York City. He was co-winner of the 2021 Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer’s Award.