Notes from the Asylum

New recording Notes from the Asylum is an exploration of songs about female madness, inspired by the process of commissioning and performing Vivienne. Libby Burgess (piano) and I recorded the CD at Champs Hill in March 2015, for release on 29 April 2016.

The full track list is as follows:

notes from the asylum cdBess of Bedlam (Purcell arr. Benjamin Britten)

Crazy Jane (Harriet Abrams)

Ophelia Lieder (Johannes Brahms)

Five Lieder to Agnes’ songs from Mörike’s Maler Nolten (Hugo Wolf)

Ariel Songs (Ned Rorem)

Vivienne (Stephen McNeff)

(Order the CD from Amazon, Presto Classical, Naxos Direct or MDT)

A note on the repertoire:

Early on in the process I identified two types of song that appealed to me: presentations of madness in fictional characters such as Ophelia and Agnes (usually by male authors) and in real women whose experience is recorded in poetry (Sylvia Plath) or private correspondence (Vivienne Haigh-Wood).

Historically, madness tended to be regarded in one of two ways. As a form of entertainment, the observation of lunacy in the asylum gave rise to Bedlam songs and ballads, of which Crazy Jane and Bess of Bedlam are examples. It was also seen as indicative of moral inadequacy (“moral insanity” being the diagnosis made of Vivienne as late as 1914) or the inability to overcome heartbreak. These themes were the stuff of literary creations such as Shakespeare’s Ophelia and Mörike’s Agnes, who suffer mental agonies as a result of experiences out of kilter with society’s (and thus their own) expectations of love. Agnes’s severely religious upbringing only serves to increase her sense of failure and abandonment by God and man.

The role of the Crazy Woman in literature, like the Fool, is often to speak difficult truths, for which she is generally punished. The real-life women, Vivienne and Sylvia, also seem to partake of this tradition and their words make uncomfortable listening because we know they underwent these specific experiences. The electric shock treatment that Plath writes about in The Hanging Man is arguably an even more barbaric way to subdue her than the toxic chemicals prescribed to Vivienne. Sylvia, in her own words, and Vivienne, in Andy Rashleigh’s, react to their (mis)treatment with understandable black humour and rage.

This programme was inspired by a new work, Vivienne, written for me by Stephen McNeff and Andy Rashleigh. Stephen McNeff and I had collaborated before on various projects (including Madrigali dell’Estate for Champs Hill Records) and Vivienne was premiered in 2013 at Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival. Other performances followed in fully-staged and concert versions at the Bloomsbury, Camden and TS Eliot Society Festivals.

Vivienne is a cycle of six songs examining the marriage of Vivienne Haigh-Wood to the poet TS Eliot. Their union was not a happy one but it gave rise to one of the most important poems in the English language, The Waste Land (1922). During his lifetime Eliot himself stipulated that his poetry could not be set to music. That instruction has been carefully upheld since then, with very few exceptions. However, our interest was less in his modernist voice, ground-breaking as it was, than in finding a voice for his wife who was forcibly silenced and died in an asylum. In Andy Rashleigh we found the ideal librettist, who not only understood Eliot’s poetry but used it as a jumping-off point to create a powerful identity for Vivienne.

It has been suggested that Vivienne may have taken her own life, as did Sylvia Plath and the fictional heroines Ophelia and Agnes featured here. Certainly it is beyond question that Vivienne’s abandonment by Eliot exacerbated her fragility. Medicated to the point of addiction and confusion, she became an embarrassment to her family and husband. The fact that Eliot never visited her after her incarceration, and that her tombstone was carved with the wrong date of her death, demonstrate how little care was accorded her once she was safely out of sight.

In more recent times has it become acceptable for a woman to write freely about her own experience of psychological crisis. Confessional writing is now a literary genre of its own, whether in poetry or prose. Sylvia Plath, writing the Ariel poems in the early 1960s was, to my mind, ahead of her time in owning her illness so explicitly. Vivienne was not able to transmute her experiences directly into art any more than Ophelia or Crazy Jane could, but Stephen McNeff and Andy Rashleigh have allowed her to tell her side of the story for the first time

You can read my blogpost written after the recording sessions in March.