The Wire – May 2023

A Cry of Anguish: Eight Songs For A Mad King

David Grundy

“Eight Songs remains an intensely visceral piece with the capacity to shock. More than that, though, it prompts reflection on the treatment of mental health and the fraught legacies of empire, issues which are still very much with us.”

As vocalist Elaine Mitchener prepares to perform Peter Maxwell Davies’s explosive 1969 monodrama at London’s Wigmore Hall, David Grundy details past renditions and speaks with Mitchener about new intersectional perspectives on the piece.

In April 1969, vocalist Roy Hart, composer Peter Maxwell Davies and Davies’s ensemble, The Pierrot Players, debuted a new work at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. Based on real life observations of King George III, who, in his famed madness, had attempted to “teach the Birds to sing”, Eight Songs For A Mad King erupted in a maelstrom of shrieks, yells, outbursts, and moments of violent parody. It was, in the words of US pianist and librettist Stephen Pruslin, a “succès fou”, met with both mid-performance protests and wild applause alike: one man “exited halfway through, shouting ‘Fucking rubbish!’ over his shoulder as he reached the door”, with others “storming out and booing”, though “this minority reaction was drowned out by a standing ovation” at the work’s end.

Eight Songs emerged from the London of the 1967 Dialectics of Liberation Congress, the Antiuniversity, and RD Laing’s anti-psychiatry experiments at Kingsley Hall, which radically challenged conventional ideas of mental health. The piece’s librettist, Randolph Stow, was on the front line at the 1968 ‘Battle of Grosvenor Square’, in which the police beat anti-Vietnam demonstrators. While suffering a mental crisis of his own, he sought out, then rejected the advice of psychiatrist Anthony Storr, who encouraged him to find a way to “maturity” past his queer sexual orientation. Such experiences predisposed Stow to sympathy when he was shown a mechanical organ owned by King George while holidaying with historian Stephen Runciman in August 1968. Stow took Davies to meet Runciman, the composer reportedly playing the organ so vigorously that it “never recovered”, and Eight Songs was born.

Incarnating the title role was the extraordinary South African vocalist Roy Hart. While training as an actor at RADA in the 1940s, Hart had encountered the Jewish German audiotherapist Alfred Wolfsohn. Having served in the trenches in the First World War, Wolfsohn had cured himself from audio hallucinations of dying men by vocalising their sounds, developing the technique into a broader therapeutic method. Hart studied with Wolfsohn for 15 years. After the latter’s death, he applied Wolfsohn’s methods to avant garde art with his company the Roy Hart Theatre, opening the Abraxas Club in Hampstead in North London, where Davies and Stow witnessed his adaptation of Euripides’s Bacchae.

Inspired by Jung’s theories of the Collective Unconscious, Hart’s work manifested a ritualistic primitivism. But more recent historical events were to the fore of Eight Songs. Hart’s studies with Wolfsohn rooted his approach in wartime trauma. Even if he’d not experienced this directly himself, he was of Lithuanian-Jewish background and more than aware of the horrors that had unfolded in Europe shortly before his arrival in London. Davies, meanwhile, recalled his parents playing 1930s foxtrot records as they hid out from bombing during the Second World War. This memory suffused the foxtrots quoted in Eight Songs and in the massive orchestral piece St Thomas Wake, premiered the same year, something he saw as “its own comment on the political and moral irresponsibility of its time (bearing in mind what we know of the period’s history)”.

At the premiere of Eight Songs, wrote Stow’s biographer Suzanne Falkiner, “the musicians were to be housed in bamboo cages resembling those used by the Japanese to punish prisoners on the Burma railway [during the Second World War]”, a subject Stow had discussed with his friend and former lover Russell Braddon, who had experienced it first hand as a prisoner of war. Lit by spotlights, the resonances with wartime camps, along with other contemporary prisons and institutions, were clear, if non-specific.

All this, perhaps, helps explains the emotional intensity of the performance, to which Hart’s contribution was vital. When, at the premiere, Hart fell offstage, cracking three ribs, he carried on performing, channelling the pain into the vocal part. It would, perhaps, have initially seemed hard to imagine anyone else in the role. But having premiered Eight Songs, Hart fell out with Davies over ownership of the piece the following year, feeling that he deserved a co-composer credit for having originated the vocal part. As a result, the still-definitive recording of the work came to be made by Julius Eastman in 1970. Now, 54 years after the premiere, the piece is to be performed at London’s Wigmore Hall by Elaine Mitchener and Apartment House, where it will be paired with a work by Fluxus artist Albert M Fine.

Only the second female singer to perform the work, after Iranian-American mezzo Haleh Abghari, Mitchener first heard the piece at music college. Struck by its anarchic energy, she likens its visceral impact to encountering free improvisation around the same time. Davies was already 34 by the time he wrote Eight Songs, but, as Mitchener remarks, the work “has this youthful vigour, as if Davies was saying ‘I’m young, I don’t give a fuck, I’m going to do this’. I think that’s what gives it its edge today.”

The piece’s performative aspects, Mitchener suggests, channel the irreverence of Fluxus works by George Macunias and Naim June Paik, along with the rock energies of Jimi Hendrix and The Who. In the seventh song, the singer is instructed to grab and smash a violin. “It’s the late 60s and everything is kicking off,” Mitchener comments. “And I can’t imagine Davies not being aware or slightly influenced by that.” As well as a symbol of rebellion, such gestures are about extending the available vocabulary of possible sounds: in Mitchener’s words, “when you want to extract other sounds out of the instrument, more than what you’re hearing around you.”

It was only some years after first hearing the piece that Mitchener realised it was Julius Eastman’s voice, on that 1970 recording, she’d first heard performing the work, and that Eight Songs had also been performed by another gay Black American vocalist, William Pearson, who spent much of his career in Germany. “That was really a mind-blowing thing for me to discover,” she remarks. “Two Black baritones both played the King of England. The optics are subversive and political. I thought, why not have a go myself?”

Mitchener approached Davies for permission shortly before his death in 2013. What she took away from their brief conversation was his openness. “He was very happy for me to perform it, so I felt encouraged. He just said, ‘change octaves where necessary, make it work for your voice’.

“By and large,” she notes, “I’m actually singing most of it as written, except where there are bass notes which I obviously don’t have.” However, she suggests, “I’m using this opportunity as an attempt to re-examine the work and hopefully bring fresh characterisations of the multiple identities experienced by George, and shine some new perspectives on the piece.”

Refiguring the role for a female voice, for instance, makes perfect sense, given its radical history. Voice artist Marita Günther, like Hart a student of Alfred Wolfsohn, noted that Wolfsohn believed that the human voice “had within [it] all the elements of male and female, ranging from height to depth in colour and expression”. And in Eight Songs, Mitchener notes, “Davies plays on the gender aspect throughout the work, with the vocal line swapping between male and female spoken and singing ranges. At one point in the work he quotes the aria, “Comfort Ye, My People”, from Handel’s Messiah, giving the description ‘silky’. I think that’s a nod to drag artists. And of course Davies himself was gay. All these things play out in the piece.

“Often people focus on the virtuosity of the vocal line,” Mitchener notes. “I’m more interested in the subtext.” George III’s reign saw the French and American revolutions, the abolition of the slave trade, and the continuing expansion of the British Empire. What Mitchener calls the “expanding empire” is briefly alluded to in the fourth song: “(deliver me from my people they are within.)… in Hanover, Bermuda or New South Wales… Evacuate my people./I am weary of this fate. I am alone.” ‘My people’ here suggests both George’s subjects and the voices in his head, raising the question of the unequal treatment of those subjects as the burden of his guilt. “I understand that George III was anti-slavery,” Mitchener remarks, “so it must have been a huge anguish thinking about these things. It’s clear that his wealth came from a very corrupt system where people are dehumanised.”

The other key aspect of the piece concerns mental health. Roy Hart himself worked with mental health patients and gave papers at international psychotherapy conferences: in turn, RD Laing attended performances by the Roy Hart Theatre. And Eight Songs, Mitchener suggests, “tries to destigmatise mental illness. We’re in a time now where people talk more openly about mental health, but I think society is still very troubled by people who, through no fault of their own, have serious mental health problems.”

Mitchener refers to the death of Jordan Neely, the homeless man recently killed in a chokehold by an ex-marine on the New York subway after shouting at passengers that he was “hungry, thirsty, and fed up with having nothing”. She remarks, “I want to believe we’re kinder and more understanding, but it’s clear we have a long way to go. And this is what Davies wanted to highlight. George III was the king, and when he suffered these bouts of mental breakdown, he was dehumanised, starved, mocked and physically abused. And yet the way the piece is written, one feels sympathy for him.

“At the heart of it,” she suggests, “Davies was really railing against how cruel society can be to those who really need help, and it’s no fault of their own. So I hope people might take away from the piece the need to be more compassionate and kinder to the most vulnerable in our society.”

Eight Songs remains an intensely visceral piece with the capacity to shock. More than that, though, it prompts reflection on the treatment of mental health and the fraught legacies of empire, issues which are still very much with us. It’s recently been revealed, for instance, that the new King Charles was cautioned against making a speech apologising for slavery by former prime minister Boris Johnson, given that a number of Commonwealth countries are rejecting the monarchy and demanding reparations. The arrests of anti-monarchy protestors on Coronation day, using facial recognition technology, have drawn fresh attention to the predominance of surveillance policing. And the acute crisis of mental health and the provision of social care becomes ever more acute in the wake of a decades-long dismantling of the welfare state, one piece of privatisation at a time.

Whether or not the audience at Wigmore Hall will pick up on such resonances, Mitchener notes, is open to question. Yet, regardless of the answer, Davies’s piece suggests ways in which new music might still remain a tool for asking questions of society, of common prejudices, musical and social alike: a cry of anguish and a demand for freedom.

Elaine Mitchener performs Eight Songs For A Mad King with Apartment House at London Wigmore Hall on 26 May.

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