BBC Radio 3’s programme on “Eight Songs for a Mad King”

Peter Maxwell Davies

During the Members’ Weekend, Paul Silber and his wife Clara Silber gave a presentation centred around the BBC Radio 3’s programme on “Eight Songs for a Mad King” written by Peter Maxwell Davies in 1969 with Roy Hart, as soloist, singing the role of King George III. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies had some really interesting comments to make on the conception and creation of the piece. To illustrate the interview, various parts of the work were sung by the classical baritone, Kelvin Thomas. After each example Paul added Roy’s original interpretation of the exact same excerpt. It made fascinating listening.

When the interviewer asked Sir Peter Maxwell Davies “How does a voice, a single voice, create a chord?” he replies “There was this wonderful actor from South Africa called Roy Hart. This Roy Hart ran a vocal group who did these multi-phonics at a place in Hampstead called the Abraxas Club. It was all very much of the period, these people writhed around on the floor singing these extraordinary harmonics. … Roy Hart was the first soloist in this piece and he could do these multi-phonics so I put them in the score never thinking that anyone would want to play this piece after he’d done it....I had never written anything like this, it was absolutely crackers.… It’s a piece of its time. I’m very pleased that it’s survived its time and that there are lots and lots of mad Kings running around all over the world performing this piece.”

The interviewer finishes the programme with “It has to be said that “Eight Songs for a Mad King” is a seminal piece of music theatre. … We do confront madness here. … What’s most unsettling about this work is that, like all great works of art, it holds a mirror up to all of us. When the King and his music are more normal, in inverted commas, through this piece, not only do they throw the more disturbing material into relief but they remind us that we’re not just spectators.”

In addition to these insightful comments, Peter Maxwell Davies spoke about “pushing back borders”: how his students were tackling range in music with much less difficulty than they used to. Roy Hart was not credited with helping this trend, as he was not credited with inspiring the creation of the music line of “Eight Songs”. But he should have been. What seemed “crackers” for Peter Maxwell Davies in the late 60s has now become part of music history. As the interviewer indicated, the “pushing back of borders” has moved into people’s personal lives too and this can surely be attributed to Roy Hart’s multi-octave approach to life and our continuation of this teaching.

Clara Silber Harris 2009

Eight Songs index page