My first task this morning was to start rehearsing for my recital slot with the Bromley Musicmakers at the end of October. (I know, I know, I said this yesterday but today is much more positive than yesterday.)

One of the pieces I’ll be singing is Bess of Bedlam, also known as Mad Bess, by Henry Purcell (1659-1695),  and here is a photo of an original manuscript from 1698, the first volume of the Orpheus Britannicus collection, dedicated to Annabella, Lady Howard, a former pupil of Purcell and later benefactor, and put together by Purcell’s widow Frances presumably to earn some money for the musician’s family who had fallen on hard times. Plus ça change.

Bedlam of course refers to the London mental hospital that was famous for treating its inmates in a non-compassionate manner. People would go there to taunt and gawk at the mentally ill patients for their general entertainment. Its modern day descendent, the Bethlem Royal Hospital is just up the road from us on a lovely site in West Wickham. You can walk your dogs in its extensive grounds as long as you keep them on a lead near the hospital buildings, but I don’t do this often as it’s rare to meet other dogs and their people there and I like my dogs to socialise on their walks.

Isn’t this manuscript beautiful? I didn’t dare to touch – it’s obviously been rebound but the paper has been stained and eaten away by worms in its long lifetime – but you can see where the bar lines were individually printed. Printed music must have been hugely expensive in those days as it took so long to produce. There are no dynamics or directions, so we couldn’t glean a huge amount about how Purcell intended the song to be sung.

I’ve been doing a little digging tonight and it appears that Mad Songs were quite a thing in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. That this is the first Diploma song my teacher chose for me is a matter of a little concern now that I’ve read up a bit. Given the emotional constraints on polite society at that time, and the fact that simply having a woman on stage singing was considered at the bounds of decency, the songs were an opportunity for people to express themselves freely and emotionally in a way that was not often seen.

This explains to me the oddness of some of the melodies; the changes in tempo and mood; the leaps in pitch, the syncopated rhythms that one would not normally associate with this period in music, just before the birth of JS Bach with his mathematical precision and regular and nonetheless beautiful melodies. It’s a really quirky song, in which poor Bess, who has been driven ro despair in her grief over her dead lover, indulges in flights of fantasy and describes her lovelorn hallucinations. Maybe she is a depiction of an archetypal hysterical woman. The song includes the line, “for the world is so mad, she can hope for no cure,” a commentary perhaps on contemporary society to which many of us can relate. Poor Bess, having realised this, goes back to whence she came to sleep in the straw, where she will be content in her own delusions.

Until now I’ve been singing this song in a straight, restrained, polite way but, having done some research, I think I’d like to play with it a bit and add some more idiosyncrasies. It’s difficult though: I’ve heard recordings of opera singers where they seem to vary wildly in rhythm from what is written on the page. I feel that the composer must have written things for a reason so I’m loth to stray. Yet these “mad songs” were written precisely to allow freedom of expression and we can see that Purcell hasn’t been prescriptive so why not bite that bullet and give it a go?

Thanks very much to Mrs Mary Fortune for allowing me to photograph her beautiful original Orpheus Britannic manuscript and for agreeing to accompany me.