Most Americans are probably familiar with King George III as a figure from childhood history textbooks. As the ruler of Great Britain during the Revolutionary War, he’s typically portrayed as a menacing presence across the Atlantic, threatening the American colonies with hefty taxes and the Redcoat army.
What many Americans might not know is that King George struggled with bouts of mental illness for much of his adult life. In his final years, after losing his eyesight and hearing, he began a slow, grueling descent into dementia. Removed from his throne and locked away from public view in Windsor Castle, he suffered from manic episodes where he would babble nonsense for hours on end. The king lingered on like this for nine years before his death in 1820 at the age of 81.
“Mad King,” 4 p.m. Dec. 16, Big Medium, 916 Springdale Road, density512.org
Nearly 150 years later, British composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies resurrected the tragic character of King George III in his “Eight Songs for a Mad King.” Composed for baritone and six-member chamber ensemble, the work centers on an elderly George III, stripped of his crown and plagued by episodes of dementia, as he reflects on events from his life.
Austin-based chamber music collective Density512 puts “Eight Songs for a Mad King” at the center of its Dec. 16 concert at Big Medium Gallery.
Even for Davies, who had developed a reputation for dark avant-garde compositions, “Eight Songs” represented a new level of sensationalism when it premiered in 1969. In its full staging, the score calls for the musicians to perform from giant birdcages placed onstage. The character of King George III interacts directly with the musicians during the performance, including a climactic moment when he grabs the violinist’s instrument and smashes it onstage.
The 30-minute, one-man opera is notorious for the demands it places on the baritone soloist who plays the ailing King George III. The part is riddled with extended techniques — sounds outside the typical repertoire of vocal music — including screeches, muttering, and outright shrieks. There’s even a section where the king and the flautist carry on a conversation through “birdsong.”
“Davies captures (the king’s) torment perfectly,” says tenor Alex Bumpas. “It is deeply tragic, yet at the same time, wonderfully played.”
Bumpas is in the midst of rehearsals, preparing to sing the role of King George III in the upcoming production. And though Bumpas acknowledges the musical challenges in the role, he’s eager to tackle some of the extended techniques.
“I have always been the kind of singer that enjoys making noise. Most of the wilder sounds I get to make are almost second nature to me.”
In addition to the vocal gymnastics, reading and interpreting the score itself presents another challenge. Davies’ composition is full of unconventional markings, including written directions, flowcharts, and diagrams. There’s even a page where the musical staves are arranged in the shape of a birdcage.
“This piece requires a great deal of concentration and commitment to Davies’ intentions,” says Bumpas. “I am determined to decipher this piece with respect to (these) intentions, and find myself quietly studying the score like an explorer might do so with a map before an expedition.”
Jacob Schnitzer, Density512 founder and co-artistic director, echoes this sentiment. As the conductor of the chamber orchestra, he’s pored over the score as well.
“If you were to look at the score (for “Eight Songs for a Mad King”) and try to figure it all out, you’d have to constantly stop to read all the words and follow all the arrows,” he explains. “It’s going to be challenging for the musicians to keep track of how the intricacies line up, since they’re not in time or tempo in any way.”
For Schnitzer, conducting “Eight Songs” is akin to directing a theatrical performance. “The big challenge is how we’re going to pace the whole thing so we get really clear moments of tension, and then we get really clear moments where we relax, take a breather, and set the scene for the next song. It’s all about creating a sense of drama throughout the whole thing.”
Schnitzer decided to balance out the spectacle of “Eight Songs for a Mad King,” which occupies half of the concert’s program, with a medley of more introspective works. Two shorter chamber pieces by Davies are accompanied by 16th-century vocal works.
A devotee of Renaissance music, Davies drew inspiration from 16th and 17th century musical forms, often combining them with avant-garde techniques. His “Tenebrae Super Gesualdo,” written for soprano and chamber ensemble, intersperses direct quotes from motetes by Gesualdo with smatterings of sound and brief musical fragments. The overall effect is akin to observing a simultaneous dialogue between vocalist and instrumentalists, as well as between old and new.
While researching the motets referenced in Tenebrae Super Gesualdo, Schnitzer stumbled upon a striking collection of motets written by an anonymous 16th-century Italian composer. Curious to learn more, he followed a trail of research which led to the work of Laurie Stras, a professor at the University of Southampton. Stras concludes that the mysterious motets were likely composed by Lenore d’Este, the daughter of infamous courtesan Lucrezia Borgia. For much of her life, Lenore lived as a nun, circumstances which likely forced her to publish her music anonymously.
“I thought (the motets) would be a really beautiful parallel with the Gesualdo (excerpts) from (Davies’) Tenebrae Super Gesualdo,” says Schnitzer. “They’re highly chromatic, highly expressive, and there’s just a lot of depth in both of them. I thought they would complement each other really nicely in the middle of the program.”
For this performance, Density512 returns to Big Medium Gallery in the Canopy arts complex in East Austin. Schnitzer is excited to present an intense work like “Eight Songs for a Mad King” in the intimate gallery space.
“The people at Big Medium are really kind and supportive. It’s neat to be doing something like this in a space where there are lot of other artists working on different projects. And to perform in a space that’s at the center of the city’s art scene — I think that’s a positive thing for everybody.”
Just as Davies drew inspiration from older musical forms when composing, Schnitzer hopes that the tragic tale of King George III will resonate with today’s audiences and feel relevant.
“I’m hoping that the whole theater of this (performance) feels immersive in some way. Hoping that people not only get to experience the music but also the stories behind it, and think about how the past informs the present.”