Peter Maxwell Davies - The lady-in-waiting from Eight Songs for a Mad King

Lady in Waiting

Country Dance

The mad king is the British monarch George III (reigned 1760-1820), who suffered from a hereditary condition that made him prone to periods of insanity, especially when he was older. When not in his right mind he would try to teach caged birds to sing, and this image of the king and the birds is what fascinated Peter Maxwell Davies. Davies has the king played by a vocalist, who has to sing across an extraordinarily wide range of notes. The birds are represented by instrumentalists on flute, clarinet, violin and cello, while the percussionist has the role of the person in charge of the king. There's also a keyboard player.

'Lady in Waiting', the third of the mad king's eight songs, is a duet for him and the flute player. 'Country Dance' is the last song but one, and the most dramatic. A tune from Handel's Messiah, much loved by the real George III, is grotesquely distorted. We also hear the popular music of the composer's youth. And that's not all.

Peter Maxwell Davies (born 1934)

Born and brought up in Manchester, Peter Maxwell Davies has spent half his life in Orkney, the group of islands off the north coast of Scotland. He went there to find peace, and it worked. He's written far more music than most composers these days: symphonies, operas, music for choirs, music for solo instruments, everything. In 1987 he received a knighthood.

Eight Songs for a Mad King, written in 1969, comes from a time when his music was pretty wild. Musical instruments, very definitely including the human voice, are pushed to make sounds never heard before. Great classics are quoted and sent up. Popular dances of Davies's childhood, especially the genteel foxtrot, appear way out of context. Later he quietened down (and speeded up), but he still likes to take you by surprise.