Phrases of the loon

The recent passing of the actor Jerry Lewis, forever branded the nutty professor in the madness rankings, put me in mind of British entertainers The Crazy Gang (yes, I am that old), the 1960s comedy film It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world, and a whole host of other loony screenings. When crazy turns from eccentric to psychotic, however, a whole new scene is set. So I wondered: how have composers captured the notion of madness, not just the state of being love-crazed but, more seriously, lunacy-inclined?

Maybe you can readily think of some basic techniques composers might use to express unpredictability and abnormality, such as dissonant harmony, extremes of pitch and angular phrases shooting off at a tangent. This week’s blog digs into the crazy corner of the catalogue to find some examples.

One of the first and most arresting that springs to mind is Peter Maxwell Davies’ 8 Songs for a Mad King (8.558191-92), which was first performed in 1969. I will never forget the impact it made on me when I first saw it broadcast on television, its bold, expressionistic gestures and violent mood swings sucking you into empathy with King George III of England, the monarch who experienced distressing bouts of madness. The tunes that were built into a miniature pipe organ owned by the king, dotty utterances attributed to him and recorded by Fanny Burney in her diaries, and the phenomenal vocal dexterity of Roy Hart, who gave the first performance—these all combined to construct the piece’s unique sound world. Here’s the opening few minutes of the first ‘song’, The Sentry, which sets this opening section of lyrics by the Australian poet Randolph Stow:

Good day to your Honesty.
God guard who guards the gate.
Here is the key of the kingdom.
You are a pretty fellow:
next month I shall give you a cabbage.

William Bolcom’s song The crazy woman (8.559249) forms part of his setting of a cycle of texts (I Will Breathe a Mountain) by American women, in this instance by Gwendolyn Brooks. The composer explains: “When Marilyn Horne asked for a cycle of songs from American women poets, she had already picked Emily Dickinson’s The Bustle in the House … I in turn asked my friend Alice Fulton to pick an anthology for me, including one of her own poems; I felt her choices would lend  I Will Breathe a Mountain a special verbal topography.”

The resulting wide poetic range is reflected in the musical styles. The crazy woman is aptly captured by Bolcom in his errant vocal line and … well, you can hear for yourself.

One of the most famous staged ‘mad scenes’ occurs in Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor (8.660255-56), a tragic tale of love, feuds, deception, madness and murder. If Donizetti were to be remembered by just one work, it would be this one; for almost a century it was on Lucia that his reputation principally rested. The choice of the glass harmonica to echo Lucia’s fragile state of mind may seem strange, but the resultant sound-world is certainly other-worldly. Forced into an unwelcome marriage, Lucia kills her bridegroom and succumbs to the insanity of imagining she is about to be wed to her true beloved, her thoughts soaring into coloratura cloud-cuckoo-land. Here’s part of that scenario.

A generation before, Mozart gave us a neat example of using stratospheric vocals to suggest a suspicious sanity. The character of the Queen of the Night in his opera Die Zauberflöte (8.553438) urges her daughter to take a dagger and kill her arch-enemy Sarastro, using an aria of hellish coloratura revenge to get the adrenalin going.

Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream received a musical representation in Robert Jager’s Suite from Edvard Munch (9.70023). Munch’s depiction of a person covering their ears and wearing a distressed facial expression clearly represents an abnormal state of mind. Jager translated it into music in which the elements are likewise unhinged: unpredictable melodic contours, unstable rhythms, off-the-track harmonies, and volatile combinations of timbres.

The mental anguish of post-traumatic stress disorder, following participation in the horrors of war, for example, is often invisible. The bottling up of emotional trauma, stalking silently, frequently leads to later, tragic consequences. Ge Gan-ru lets the devil out of the deep in his String Quartet No. 5, “Fall of Baghdad” (8.570603). The score records Ge’s musical thoughts that were prompted by the Iraq war. The first movement is headed:

Abyss: Screaming – Living Hell – Barbaric March – Abyss – Threnody

Here’s the opening of that movement.

We’ll end on a slightly different tack by mentioning composers who themselves suffered from a certain mental instability. Was Satie just being eccentric when insisting on a purely ‘white’ diet, from coconut to chicken cooked in white water? Was Schoenberg ‘all there’ with his triskaidekaphobia, or fear of the number thirteen? Robert Schumann was certainly deranged. Often beset by depression, he made attempts on his own life, and died in an asylum for the insane. But let’s end on a note of optimism by marvelling at what Schumann did achieve, despite his affliction, not least in the genre of song. Here’s the opening of his song cycle Dichterliebe: Im wunderschönen Monat Mai (8.554219).

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