‘Max-imising’ madness in music
: the gift of madness in the music of Peter Maxwell Davies

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Perhaps no composer of the twentieth century has shown as much fascination with the topic of madness as British composer Peter Maxwell Davies (1934–2016). The objective of this research is to provide a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the musical representations of madness in his works. I particularly focus on four theatrical pieces: Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969), Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot (1974), The Lighthouse (1979), and The Medium (1981). 
These four compositions each explore a slightly different aspect of madness, while also speaking to each other in productive ways. Eight Songs is preeminent in displaying a challenge to the concept of madness itself. The definition and characteristics of mad behaviour and the identification of the mad individual are problematised in this piece. Miss Donnithorne offers a questioning of the representations of madness and the stereotypes of portraying insane female characters. Eight Songs and Miss Donnithorne, as companion pieces with significant similarities, also show with particular clarity how Davies treats male and female versions of insanity in different ways. Similarly, individual and collective experiences of madness are most plainly displayed in The Medium and The Lighthouse, respectively. Additionally, Davies’s representation of madness using purely vocal monologue, unaided by instrumental music and stage props, can be explored in the former, and his shifting of character roles to create confusion and collectivity in the latter. 
In the absence of a multi-dimensional study on Davies’s repertoire on madness, this research attempts to thematise, characterise, and thoroughly scrutinise the theme in the selected repertoire. More specifically, this enquiry aims to shed light on the characteristics of different representations of madness in Davies’s works, how they differ, and how they can musically and theoretically be explained. 
The theoretical starting point of this research is Michel Foucault’s conceptualisation of madness, which has been crucial for thinking in this area. If Foucault was the pioneering figure in providing a socio-cultural understanding of madness, his counterpart in the field of psychology was certainly Sigmund Freud. I will be referring to some of Freud’s ideas regarding the relationship between violence and madness. His theories on the significance of sexuality on the mental well-being of individuals also form a major part of this thesis. 
Davies’s works are further contextualised in changing concepts of madness in the 1960s, brought about by the anti-psychiatry movement, and a number of gender theories, mainly developed during the 1970s and 1980s. August Hollingshead and Fredrick Redlich’s groundbreaking work on the significance of class in relation to insanity, along with the collective aspects of madness explored by Gustave Le Bon’s group mentality and Carl Jung’s notion of archetypes, are examined as well. I will also discuss speech and singing theories of Antonin Artaud, Alfred Wolfsohn and Roy Hart, which are central to decoding Davies’s works. 
Broadly, this study revolves around the theme of madness as a form of ‘otherness’, a distinctive way of being, in connection with the avant-garde and its tendency to welcome the new and the unfamiliar. I particularly focus on Davies as a composer intensely engaged with the theme. This project brings a discourse beyond the arts to the study of Davies’s repertoire on madness to decode the symbolic significance of his dramatic and musical tools. In doing so, it reveals a sense of social responsibility in his attitude towards madness and his methods of approaching it.
Date of Award1 Nov 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorHeather Wiebe (Supervisor) & Michael Fend (Supervisor)

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