Eight Songs for a Mad King

Eight Songs for a Mad King is a monodrama by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies with a libretto by Randolph Stow, based on words of George III. The work was written for the South-African actor Roy Hart and the composer's ensemble, the Pierrot Players. It was premiered on 22 April 1969.

Eight Songs for a Mad King
Monodrama by Peter Maxwell Davies
Leigh Melrose performing the work at the Nordland Music Festival in Bodø, 2014
LibrettistRandolph Stow
Based onwords by George III
22 April 1969 (1969-04-22)

Lasting half an hour, it is scored for a baritone with an extraordinary command of extended techniques covering more than five octaves, and six players (Pierrot ensemble + percussion):

The songs derive from tunes played by an extant mechanical organ owned by George III, tunes that he attempted to train bullfinches to sing:

  1. The Sentry (King Prussia's Minuet)
  2. The Country Walk (La Promenade)
  3. The Lady-In-Waiting (Miss Musgrave's Fancy)
  4. To Be Sung on the Water (The Waterman)
  5. The Phantom Queen (He's Ay A-Kissing Me)
  6. The Counterfeit (Le Conterfaite)
  7. Country Dance (Scotch Bonnett)
  8. The Review (A Spanish March)

The action unfolds as a soliloquy by the king, the players being placed on stage (ideally) in large birdcages, and climaxes in his snatching and smashing the violin.

The score is published by Boosey & Hawkes, and its cover shows a famous excerpt in which the staves are arranged like the bars of a birdcage.[1]

Besides Hart, exponents of this work have included William Pearson, Michael Rippon, Thomas Meglioranza, Julius Eastman and Vincent Ranallo. The Swedish baritone Olle Persson performed the work in Stockholm in the 1990s. The British baritone Richard Suart has performed the piece in GelsenkirchenMilanHelsinkiStrasbourgStavanger and Paris; in 1987 The Musical Times described Suart's take as "compelling from start to finish".[2] Welsh baritone Kelvin Thomas sang the role at Munich's Kammerspiele Schauspielhaus in 2011, and in a production by Music Theatre Wales in 2013.


  1. Cover of the score Archived 2007-09-28 at the Wayback Machine
  2. The Musical Times, Vol. 128, No. 1736 (October 1987), p. 577
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