Tuesday & Wednesday, May 16 & 17, 8pm
Pre-concert talks at 7:15pm
Trinity St. Paul's Centre, 427 Bloor Street West, Toronto



Our title comes from the dictum famously attributed to Aristotle, that "There is no wisdom without a mixture of madness". However, as our programme reveals, "madness" is a complex and fluid concept, usually judged against some social or scientific standard of what is rational or "normal".

Our survey culminates in the complete personality collapse of George III, and the effect of that trauma on the woman closest to him, his wife. We precede that with the portrayal of the denizens of the 17th-century Bedlam hospital, the episodic delusions of Don Quixote, the visionary imagination of William Blake, and the emotional intensity of the night poetry of Marina Tsvetaeva, a rational woman living through the irrational historical moment of Bolshevik revolt.

How insanity is defined, described, and treated depends not only on how it manifests itself in an individual, but very much on the subjective responses and needs of friends, family, society at large, and those in power. Many artists through the ages have been regarded as unstable and dangerous – sometimes a clinical diagnosis is possible and appropriate, sometimes the assessment arises from fear, the deep unease which an expanded and unconventional vision may cause in those who have not shared it. Sometimes both these things are true. Social and political reformers have often been dismissed as irrational, and disconnected from reality, and only those who succeed in overcoming such condemnation are ultimately recognized.

We are beginning, slowly and imperfectly, to move away from the open-mouthed voyeurism of 17th-century visitors to Bedlam, toward understanding mental illness as a phenomenon which affects, and sometimes torments, human beings without making them less intrinsically valuable. And, difficult as it is, such progress comes less through polite, or even affectionate, disregard of delusion and instability, than from unblinking and fiercely observant compassion.

Mitch Leigh: 'The Impossible Dream' from Man of La Mancha, arr. Laura Jones. Lyrics by Joe Darion
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Ten Blake Songs (selections). Poetry by William Blake
John Plant: Insomnia. Poetry by Marina Tsvetaeva
Henry Purcell: Mad Songs (selections). Various texts
Alice Ping Yee Ho: The Madness of Queen Charlotte. Text by Phoebe Tsang
Peter Maxwell Davies: Eight Songs for a Mad King. Words by Randolph Stow and George III

Mitch Leigh: 'The Impossible Dream' from Man of La Mancha, arranged by Laura Jones for baritone, oboe, violin, viola, and cello. Lyrics by Joe Darion

The musical Man of La Mancha draws its inspiration from Miguel de Cervantes' picaresque 1605 novel Don Quixote. But it creates a complicated "play-within-a-play" structure, in which the actions of the "errant" (in every sense of the word) knight Don Quixote are performed by Cervantes and a motley assembly of fellow prisoners as he waits to appear before the Spanish Inquisition. (Cervantes did remark that the idea for Don Quixote had come to him in prison, but his incarceration is presumed to have been for bankruptcy rather than heresy). The musical's shifting layers of reality – the stage with its conventions, the prison and the debate among the inmates about how the play should unfold, the actions of Don Quixote and the other characters, and the Don's interior mental landscape – allow for a constant questioning about the inter-relationships of reality and delusion, truth and falsehood, nobility and self-interest.

"The Impossible Dream" is the most enduringly successful song from the production. It allows the protagonist to claim, in grandiose terms, the importance of aspiring to something more than "mere" reality. Laura Jones has given the vocal line a string accompaniment which emphasizes the song's bolero character, and supplied an oboe interlocutor who begins with a Spanish-flavoured improvisatory introduction.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Ten Blake Songs (selections), for voice and oboe. Poetry by William Blake

Vaughan Williams' settings of short lyrics by the English artist, poet, and mystic William Blake (1757-1827) were composed during Christmas of 1957, less than a year before the composer's death, for Guy Brenton's film for the Blake bi-centennial, The Vision of William Blake. The cycle was dedicated to tenor Wilfred Brown and oboist Janet Craxton, who gave the first public, soundtrack, and broadcast performances. His wife, Ursula Vaughan Williams, recorded that

The film-makers brought film and machinery and ran the film through and showed Ralph the poems they would like him to set. At first he was not at all enthusiastic. He had always admired Blake as an artist, but he did not care greatly for his poems. However, he said he would see what he could do. ...

The resulting songs (most from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and one from Auguries of Innocence) capture the combination of apparent simplicity and metaphysical profundity in the texts. These are some of Blake's most accessible poems, but nevertheless provide an impression of the vividness of his poetic imagination. To William Wordsworth is attributed the remark "There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott."

With the exception of "London", which is for the voice alone, these songs are true dialogues. The oboe neither accompanies nor, with a few brief exceptions, echoes the vocal line, but interweaves and responds to the text in its own idiomatic language.

John Plant: Insomnia, for soprano, clarinet, and piano. Poetry by Marina Tsvetaeva

American-born composer John Plant is no stranger to Talisker audiences. His Sonetto di Gaspara Stampa was premiered by Anita Krause and the ensemble in October of 2012, and several other works have been presented over the years.

Plant settled in Canada in 1968. From 1993 to 2008 he taught at Concordia University, and he now lives in Nova Scotia. Most of his career has focused on the composition of vocal music, much of it inspired by his partner, the singer Jocelyne Fleury. Insomnia, however, was commissioned by saxophonists Michael Couper and Jennifer Bill, and premiered at Carnegie Hall in October of 2015 by Couper, soprano Yungee Rhie, and pianist ChoEun Lee. It is performed this evening in a version with clarinet instead of saxophone.

Insomnia sets poems by Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941), written in Moscow on the verge of the 1917 Revolution, but not explicitly connected with the social or political realm. They depict a nocturnal adventure in which the spiritual and physical overlap and interact, and the vividness of an experience is no guarantee of its factual reality. Of the work's structure, the composer has written

Throughout the work the intensity and intimacy of the poet's encounter with the night are reflected in the intertwining of the saxophone's melodic line with that of the soprano, while the piano evokes and reveals the mysterious world in which she moves, at times echoing the sound of the poet's footsteps, at times providing shadows or glints of light.  The saxophone … anticipates, punctuates, illuminates and intensifies the spiritual journey traced by the singer.  The overwhelming mood is one of alert stillness.  

Henry Purcell: Mad Songs (selections), for soprano and harpsichord. Various texts

London's "high society" in the 17th century was at once fascinated and appalled by the phenomenon of insanity. Bedlam, the public asylum, ran tours for visitors, sometimes including contact with inmates, as if with residents of some exotic land, conveyed to London for the convenience of the curious. Diarists and writers recorded their impressions of the place and the people, and composers – Purcell, Eccles, and Blow among them – composed "mad songs" depicting the circumstances, and sometimes the utterances, of those who had been consigned to there.

A number of these pieces are included in the anthology Orpheus Britannicus (1698 and 1702), a selection of works by Purcell's widow Frances and publisher Henry Playford. Most take the form of miniature cantatas, which use rapid alternations of tempo and mood to depict the quicksilver volatility of delusion.

The brief (and fairly unified) "Not All My Torments" employs complex and wide-ranging melismas effectively on such words as "torments", "pity", "sorrows and despair," to evoke the derangement of unrequited love. "From silent shades, and the Elysian groves," usually better known as "Bess of Bedlam," is perhaps more typical of the genre, shifting abruptly in metre and melodic style to portray the longing of an unstable (but clearly well-read) woman for her lost love. "I'll sail upon the Dog-Star" was composed as incidental music for Thomas D'Urfey's A Fool's Preferment (1688), where it is sung by Lyonel, "a well-bred ingenious gentleman" who lapses into temporary madness after losing his inamorata to the king.

Alice Ping Yee Ho: The Madness of Queen Charlotte, for flute, viola, cello, and piano. Text by Phoebe Tsang (commissioned work, world premiere)

The versatile and accomplished Canadian composer Alice Ho has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2016 Louis Applebaum Composers Award, prizes in the 2013 Boston Metro Opera International Composition Competition and the International League of Women Composers Competition, and a 2015 Juno nomination for her work Glistening Pianos. Her compositions have been featured in international festivals and concert series in North America, Europe, and Asia.

The Madness of Queen Charlotte is conceived as a prologue, or companion piece, to Peter Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King, based on accounts of George III's episodes of mental disturbance. Ho's work, using a text by Phoebe Tsang, imagines Queen Charlotte's response to the disintegration of her husband's mind and personality – a maelstrom of grief, nostalgia, anger, and empathy which takes her to the edge of mental collapse herself, as attested by such witnesses as the novelist Fanny Burney, who served as the queen's Keeper of the Robes. Charlotte overhears the king playing the harpsichord, singing, and shouting, and characterizes his illness as a mistress who has stolen him from her.

The musical style is not derivative, either of the 18th-century music associated with the madness of the king (although it sometimes alludes to it), or of Maxwell Davies' composition. The vocal part conveys the queen's shifting states of mind, with the instrumental ensemble, in the composer's words, "fusing and unravelling contrasting textures and instrumental colours to create an idiosyncratic chemistry". Ho employs some extended instrumental techniques, but maintains strict control over the isolated aleatoric elements of the work – the queen is not mad, but undone by the madness of one she loves.

Peter Maxwell Davies: Eight Songs for a Mad King, for baritone, flute/piccolo, clarinet, violin, cello, piano/harpsichord, and percussion. Words by Randolph Stow and George III

Eight Songs for a Mad King is a landmark of the British avant-garde – theatrical, cacophonous, employing structural randomness and extreme vocal techniques to evoke the dementia of George III (a condition now thought to have been the result of porphyria). Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016) was a major figure in contemporary music from his student days, as a composer, teacher, performer, and conductor of the Royal Philharmonic and BBC Philharmonic Orchestras. In 2004 he was made Master of the Queen's Music.

The monodrama which made such an impact in 1969 was composed for the Pierrot Players, founded by Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwhistle (and later re-named Fires of London), and for the extraordinary South African baritone Roy Hart, who had a vocal range of nearly five octaves, and had devoted himself to the study of such techniques as multiphonic singing, the simultaneous production of multiple notes.

The libretto by Randolph Stow includes the quotation of some of the recorded utterances of the king, and was inspired by a miniature mechanical organ said to have been used by him to try to train his caged bullfinches to sing its repertoire of dance tunes. Four of the instrumentalists in the ensemble – violin, cello, flute, clarinet – represent the king's birds (in the premiere, they were enclosed by cages), while the percussionist, who commands a bewildering array of instruments including toy bird-calls and a digeridoo, is designated the "keeper", whether of the birds or of the king himself is never quite clear.

The composer uses the baroque tunes of the mechanical organ as source material, parodying, twisting, and stretching them into grotesque and barely recognizable forms to reflect the deterioration of the king's mental state: Handel's "Comfort ye", for example, becomes a sneering foxtrot. The image of the cage – the confinement of the birds, and of the king himself – dominates the work, and even finds visual expression in a page of the score.

Although the depiction of the king's madness is something brutally difficult to watch and hear, and the echo of the mockery faced by the mentally ill hangs in the air, the work ultimately engages the audience's sympathies with the fallen monarch, his isolation and loneliness, and his own consciousness that everything has gone profoundly wrong. As Maxwell Davies wrote in his introductory note to the score, the violence with which the king responds to the violin at the end of the seventh song, is "a giving-in to insanity, and the ritual murder by the King of a part of himself, after which, at the beginning of the eighth song, he can announce his own death."


contact: words.music@taliskerplayers.ca, 416-466-6546