My Classical Graduating Recital Premieres with the Tale of Mad Bess

Join me on YouTube for the premiere of this series on Monday, March 22 at 12 noon Eastern Standard Time.

Watch as I take you on a trip through music history, from Baroque masterpieces to 20th century musical theatre. This series features songs I studied for my final singing exam from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Canada. A new video will be released each week, and compiled into one convenient playlist. 

The ARCT diploma in Voice Performance is the culmination of years of study in the many styles and traditions of classical singing—opera, art song, oratorio, jazz, cabaret, musical theatre—as well as its prominent languages—French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Latin. Additionally, the diploma requires extensive study in sight-reading, ear training, music history, harmony and music analysis, as well as piano proficiency. 

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Bess of Bedlam is a Baroque-era art song by English composer Henry Purcell. Published in 1683, it tells the tale of “Mad Bess,” a woeful resident of the Bethlem Royal Hospital, a.k.a. the Bedlam insane asylum in London. To this day, Bedlam’s name is associated with mayhem, confusion, and chaos, and points to the sordid history of how mental illness has been treated in Western society. The song’s lyrics alternate between the storytelling of a troubadour-style narrator, and the rantings of Bess herself. 

This song harkens back to a time when singers were not only the night’s entertainment, but also often travelling storytellers who told the tales of people and places near and far. These stories become part of a society’s mythology and folklore, in which social values can be tested and reflect the conscience of the times. Indeed, many mythological characters are mentioned in the lyrics of Bess’ rantings, including Oberon, Mab the Fairy Queen, and the Roman gods Mars and Venus. 

By Purcell’s account, Bess is a woman driven to a complete mental breakdown from grief and heartbreak. It ends with the sobering reminder that none of us is immune to the ensnarements and emotional turmoil of love. The narrator even suggests that, perhaps by living in her delusions, Bess has freed herself of the burdens and sorrows she would otherwise have to face in reality—and who could blame her? 

For me, not only does Purcell’s text demonstrate a compassion for the mentally ill, but also a real empathy for the plight of women in this age. The importance placed on a woman’s purity and marriageability was so severe that, if a woman were “sullied” by an errant lover, it would cause serious damage to her reputation and significantly limit her prospects in life. Heartbreak compounded with an existential crisis seems like a pretty compelling set of reasons to go mad, and Purcell asks us to understand and even relate to Bess in a way that is not often extended to female characters of unsound mind, even to this day. 

As someone who knows all too well the madness of living up to the competing expectations of women in our world today, Bess is both a tragic and fun character to play. She lead me to ask questions like, What is on the other side of not measuring up? Is delusion really madness, or simply a rejection of an unjust or unbearable reality? Is rejecting our prescribed role in this world a thing to be feared, or the path to real freedom? Or perhaps both? 

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