Eight Songs for Aladdin Sane: Peter Maxwell Davies and David Bowie – Can those boys foxtrot!

Written by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Here we are, halfway through 2009, and within a few months we shall enter the second decade of the 21st-century, whereby the 1960s will be half-a-century away, fifty years ago for those who remember them, yet to hear some people talk, especially musicians, one might think it was only yesterday.

The Moon landings, which began at the close of the 1960s

Why do we (and, occasionally, I admit I’m one of them) think that the music of the sixties is such a recent phenomenon, when in reality it was 50 years ago? The main reason, of course, is that it was decade of enormous change, and we don’t have to rehearse the historical ground covered in those ten years – in the USA, from President Eisenhower to the first moon landings – to grasp the essence of those changes, but for the emerging ‘baby boom’ generation, then grown to early manhood, the relative freedom of that decade, so far as the United Kingdom was concerned, can be summed up in the greater preponderance of sex, drugs and rock‘n’roll, together with such visual personifications as fashion, the cessation of enforced National Service in the armed forces for all fit young men over the age of 18, alongside greater freedoms in the introduction of legal abortion, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the abolition of the death penalty, and so on.

Bob Dylan. Photograph: bobdylan.com

But for musicians, the 1960s meant the arrival of what might be termed, without wishing to appear too highfalutin’, an intellectual aspect to popular music, the impact of which transcended purely musical aspects – at least in the work of people as varied (and as important in their lasting influence) as Bob Dylan and, of course, The Beatles. It was additionally an era of change in terms of the direction in which what then might still be regarded as ‘classical music’ was taking – the emergence and occasional domination of serial composition, largely brought about by the opening up, so far as – once again – the United Kingdom was concerned – of the hitherto shamefully neglected (and, therefore, misunderstood) repertoire and aims of the Second Viennese School and their immediate post-war successors in Europe.

Nor was this necessarily, so far as German music was concerned, a case of ‘post-Nazi hysteria’, the result of the shattering of German musical culture by the insane destruction through racial hatred of large swathes of the country’s heritage in the course of the years of Hitler’s rule or the necessary destruction of that rule by the combined Allied forces in 1945.

Wilhelm Furtwängler

As Wilhelm Furtwängler protested, at the time of his post-war de-nazification hearings: ‘Germany was never a Nazi country: it was a country ruled for twelve years by the Nazis’. But however it came about, a young German composer in, let’s say, 1949, with the deaths in that year of Richard Strauss and Hans Pfitzner, had nothing to look forward to in terms of a continuation of the great lineage that began before J. S. Bach, over three hundred years earlier, and which, in practical terms, lay in ruins around him. None the less, if ‘tradition’ had been shattered, the Second Viennese School was, essentially, a continuation of that lineage, and with its two younger members already dead by the end of the War, and Schoenberg himself in exile in the United States with but two years left to live – the bulk of his life’s-work behind him – the torch had manifestly been passed to the youngest generation.

Nor is this the place to revisit the reasons for the neglect at that time in the UK of the Second Viennese School and its post-war followers (and, let’s be honest, developers), for it was certainly the case that, by the beginning of the 1960s, most young British composers, generally speaking, lagged behind their European counterparts in their knowledge of the latest developments in music on the Continent.

Sir William Glock

If they wished to study those developments – or even hear the music – they had to go abroad. The BBC (in the shape of the Third Programme, the precursor of Radio 3) wasn’t interested – but at the very least, with the appointment of William Glock as Controller, Third Programme at the end of the 1950s (Radio 3’s current daily wall-to-wall daytime programming of record programmes of ‘popular classics’ has certainly removed whatever intellectual content the station once regularly had fifty years ago) change was in the air, and it came about, in our world of classical music, almost – for some people – with a vengeance.

It’s all very well having freedoms, but you’ve got to know what to do with them, and on the one hand, classical musicians had the ‘freedom’ (some commented that this ‘freedom’ was nothing more than the freedom to tie oneself up in a straight-jacket) to explore the consequences of serial composition (at times, of course, total serialisation) and, on the other, popular musicians had the ‘freedom’ to explore the fact that – thanks to the playing-time of the average ‘long-playing’ record – pop music didn’t have to be confined to songs lasting three minutes (today, of course, we’ve reverted to the ‘three-minutes’ syndrome, unless there’s a nine-minute disco mix or other smaller-scale fragmentations of the imagination of pop ‘composers’) – late 1950s and 1960s popular music, crystallised in instrumental terms into a four- or five-piece rock band of a couple of guitars, perhaps keyboard, and drums (again, the instrumental make-up hasn’t changed in half a century) explored the greater ‘freedom’ afforded by the long-playing disc by expanding into such seminal masterpieces as The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or The Who’s Tommy (a genuine ‘grand opera’ in two acts), with the creators’ ability to make comments on all aspects of contemporary life, and to so do on a bigger scale than hitherto.

Perhaps these twin streams of 1960s music could come together? In some respects, they did – with Jon Lord’s Concerto for Rock Group and Symphony Orchestra a prime example of such a fusion, or the rock group the Soft Machine giving a late-night gig, devoted entirely to them, at the Henry Wood Proms in the Albert Hall (another worthwhile innovation by William Glock) being another, or Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells demonstrating what can be achieved through electronics – but rather than exploring one or other attempt in those days to bringing together musics that are fundamentally separate, I should like to highlight an aspect of the influence of one composer in the broad ‘classical’ field on another in the broad ‘pop’ arena.

David Bowie

The influence is not inherently ‘musical’, although the result is certainly music and nothing else; it is, at heart, an aesthetic one. The year is 1969, and on April 22nd, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, the first performance of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King – described as a music theatre piece for male reciter with flute, clarinet, keyboards, percussion, violin and cello – receives its first performance by Roy Hart, with the Pierrot Players (forerunners of The Fires of London) conducted by the composer. In the capacity audience is David Bowie, brought to the concert by a neighbour of his who had been in the habit of taking the young singer-songwriter to several classical events and had been encouraged by the 22-year-old’s positive responses to those visits.

The effect of Eight Songs for a Mad King on the audience was electrifying; outside, perhaps, of a horror movie, no-one had ever seen or heard any piece of music quite like it. The text, by Randolph Stow, concentrated upon the depiction of the madness of King George III in the last years of his life, when he attempted to teach bullfinches to sing, the bullfinches personified musically by the flute, clarinet, violin and cello, with which the King has extended ‘dialogues’, as the composer described them: the percussion player ‘stands for the King’s “keeper”’. In his programme note, the composer continued: ‘they are projections stemming from the King’s words and music, becoming incarnations of the King’s own psyche.’

Peter Maxwell Davies. Photograph: John Santana

The depiction of that state of madness in musical art had, until then, been largely confined to opera – those ‘mad scenes’, effective cadenza-like solo arias and the like, essentially from 19th-century examples – and although Eight Songs is naturally (and correctly) described as a ‘music theatre piece’ it is not, at heart, an opera – even if elements of the work are undoubtedly operatic. Perhaps the most ‘operatic’ part of the work is that which the composer described as the climax, citing: ‘the end of No 7, where the King snatches the violin through the bars of the player’s cage and breaks it … a giving-in to insanity, and a ritual murder by the King of a part of himself.’

At this point in the work, the violin itself is absorbed into the narrative; as Michael Burden has pointed out, in his essay A foxtrot to the crucifixion [in Perspectives on Peter Maxwell Davies, edited by Richard MacGregor, Ashgate Publishing, 2000], ‘The violin can also be seen to represent the King’s voice, an ‘instrument’ also driven to complete destruction by being used so constantly during the King’s ravings that it becomes hoarse and unrecognisable.’ In that first production, as Burden earlier stated: ‘the musicians, as the bullfinches, were ‘caged’ in large wooden latticed upright cylinders. Yet there is the feeling here that the cages kept the King out as well as the musicians (as ‘songbirds’) in, a feeling which conveys all too clearly the isolation of the King in his madness.’

Paul Griffiths [in Peter Maxwell Davies, Robson Books, 1982] hits the nail firmly on the head when he states: ‘… this is far from being a Bedlam sideshow to titillate an audience. Nor does the work allow us to congratulate ourselves as superior to the eighteenth [actually, early nineteenth] century in our gifts of compassion, and in this respect it joins all those other Davies works that reject the easy solution … the perturbing character of the work is due not merely to its startling depiction of insanity but more to the fact that it obliges us to acknowledge that the madhouse does exert a terrible fascination.’

The smashing-up of the violin may have been akin to those contemporary accounts of rock musicians smashing-up their guitars and loudspeakers – the personification of a deep frustration, railing against a world that could not then bring to account the American quagmire of the Vietnam War, or the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia – and if, forty years ago, peace was not being given a chance, as John Lennon hoped it would be, it seemed – more to the point, in this instance – Peter Maxwell Davies’s later arrangement for solo guitar of the Lennon-MacCartney song Yesterday, demonstrated that, beneath the surface differences of late-1960s rock music and avant-garde ‘classical’ composers (even Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Concert for Peace’ in Washington Cathedral – radical-chic or no), there was a unifying sense of common humanity, especially amongst the young, which could – in Eight Songs – depict a ruler’s madness at one historical remove and relate it powerfully to the ongoing ‘terrible fascination’ (as Griffiths said) for modern audiences of what happens when things get wholly out of hand and beyond our control.

David Bowie

To a young, impressionable, artistic, musically-gifted observer at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in April 1969, witnessing this masterpiece for the first time, the effect must have been extraordinarily powerful. Less than two months later, with a new recording contract just signed with the American Mercury label, David Bowie recorded the first two songs for a new album, Wild-Eyed Boy from Freecloud and a new version of Space Oddity. The latter song had not yet become the world-wide hit it was soon to be; it was to be the title-track of the new album on reissue in 1972. If this album is more famous because of Space Oddity, there is an amazing track which, surely, has to have been inspired in part by the experience of seeing Eight Songs six weeks earlier – namely, Cygnet Committee. This oddly-titled song, with its distant recollections of a collection of fledglings, is without question Bowie’s most remarkable creation up to that time. It traverses an exceptionally-wide harmonic spectrum with tension and counter-tension present in every bar. There is hardly one bar in the whole of this nine-and-a-half-minutes track which can be said to be in any one particular key; although that may be an exaggeration, the impression of harmonic uncertainty is unmistakable. The harmony screams tension and drama; there is no let-up as the singer expounds his tract. The considerable ambiguity in this song would appear to be the imagined confession of a superman figure sympathetically looking down on those of his followers who, through free will, have merely been handed the tools by which they will fashion their own destruction. No better example of the correlation between music and meaning can be found in the phrase ‘and as the sparrow sings’. It begins in B flat minor and then suddenly slides down a semitone to A with an added D-sharp, almost tilting the music through a vast tonal spectrum, dizzying the listener with richness and strangeness. Such is Bowie’s power that in the concluding pages the music almost takes on a modal aspect, with the voice high in its register, (self-) tortured between two semitones (the melodic justification for the earlier harmonic slip), incessant in its demands and (self) pity, recalling (in Griffiths’s phrase) the ‘manic intensity’ of Maxwell Davies’s earlier Revelation and Fall (the HMV recording of which Bowie is known to have heard). The kind of monstrous physical assault the song depicts leaves most listeners stunned. No more potent pointer to aspects of Bowie’s later developments can possibly be found in his work up to this time.

The more one studies Bowie’s work after Cygnet Committee, the more one is convinced that the impact of witnessing Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs set off one of the most iconic rock careers in living memory. Ziggy Stardust – an imaginary other-worldly figure, infuses the next album, concluding with a deranged suicide attempt, the whole traversing the diabolus in musica, an augmented fourth (G major to D flat) and the following album, Aladdin Sane (‘a lad insane’?), is chock-full of further extraordinary dichotomies: in essence, those of derangement and rediscovery. Are we reading too much into our observations if we relate Bowie’s later work to Maxwell Davies’s succeeding Vesalii Icones, as if both artists, the one having influenced the other, in going their separate ways, arrived at similar conclusions – in the sense that, at any one time, no artist’s work is ever concluded – except by death? Perhaps we are – but, then again, maybe not, for Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King can be shown to have spawned more than his own later developing work, which – as we celebrate his 75th-birthday this year – stands as a series of images, reflections and shadows from one of the most powerful creative minds in music today.

  • This article was written for Musical Opinion and published in the May-June 2009 issue
  • It is reproduced on The Classical Source with permission
  • Musical Opinion

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