Video: Mad Bess, Twice Unhinged



One of the more fascinating if macabre details about London during the Restoration involved the Bethlem Royal Hospital, popularly known as Bedlam, an institution for the mentally ill that traces its origins back to the 13th Century (pictured above at its current location in South London).

Londoners apparently visited the notorious hospital as one might go today, let say, to the zoo. The peculiar and often disturbing behavior of Bedlam’s patients was an attraction in and of itself, what you might call a “must see.”

The mentally ill or disordered person was also a popular stock character found in Restoration theater, more often than not played by women, an object of titillation and sexual fantasy for a mostly male audience.

These characters regularly sang about what troubled them, almost always suffering from lovesickness. The finest examples of so-called mad songs were composed by Henry Purcell, John Eccles, and John Blow.

Of the more famous among many written by Purcell is a song variously known as “Bess of Bedlam,” “Mad Bess,” or “From silent shades.” It is one of most often performed of his mad songs, attractive to sopranos for its depth and dramatic potential. Bess isn’t just crazy, she’s totally gone off the rails.

Undoubtedly, the song was the inspiration for morethanmusic‘s performance of works by Purcell at the 2010 Festival INNOVANTIQUA in Winterthur, Switzerland.

The many sections and multiple personalities that Purcell gave Bess are taken to a whole new psychotic level in an updated arrangement that incorporates jazz and improvisation.

The basso continuo group, traditionally a viola da gamba and harpsichord, has been transformed with the addition of electric guitar, double bass, saxophone, bass clarinet, and percussion (the harpsichord is retained).

Add a few props, a bit of staging, a soprano in character and you get poor mad Bess, twice unhinged.

Morethanmusic‘s performers are Kristīne Jaunalksne, Tamar Halperin, Jaro Milko, George Ricci, Martin Wyss, and Michael Stulz.

Watch (excerpts):

Learn More: Short History of the Bethlem Royal Hospital

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