Mad for Music: Christopher Smart, Benjamin Britten, and the Aesthetics of Lunacy
The “Mad Song” as a genre has a long history in English music. Centuries before Donizetti, Verdi, and Thomas sent their heroines into coloratura frenzies, English audiences in the 17th century enjoyed the antics of folk song antiheros “Tom O’Bedlam” and his unfortunate helpmeet “Mad Maudlin.” The theater in Restoration England abounded with insane characters, and composers such as John Eccles, Dr. John Blow, and Henry Purcell all wrote well-known mad songs. Around this time, Bethlem Hospital (better known as “Bedlam”) became synonymous with insanity. Inmates languished on beds of straw and the public could, for a fee, observe them like animals in a zoo.
But insanity takes on a different color when faced in reality rather than for entertainment. Brilliant, tragic Christopher Smart (1722-1771) started his career as an accomplished academic. He attended Pembroke College, Cambridge on a scholarship, won many accolades and prizes, and remained at the university as a don. However, he began to abandon the academic life for the more carnal pleasures of London. He married, thus forsaking academia entirely, and began running up huge debts, spending extravagantly on clothing, carousing, and heavy drinking. While these behaviors are reminiscent of the rollicking gentlemen of the Restoration, in the era of the Enlightenment such conduct was less acceptable—and indeed, in William Hogarth’s wildly popular series of paintings, The Rake’s Progress (1732-1734), Tom Rakewell ended up in Bedlam. Through a modern lens, however, these symptoms are also consistent with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, from which modern scholars suspect Smart suffered.
In order to support his wife, daughters, and increasing debt, Smart took on onerous writing assignments. He suffered what we would now consider a mental breakdown characterized by religious mania, and was confined by his father-in-law (and erstwhile publisher) to St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics in 1757; he remained there until 1763, when friends secured his release. Among such influential friends were the actor David Garrick, who held a benefit performance in 1759 on Smart’s behalf; and Samuel Johnson, who said of the poet, “I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else.”
St Luke’s was a fairly enlightened hospital, not as ignominious as Bedlam, and Smart was originally considered “curable.” While incarcerated, Smart was allowed to garden and had the company of his cat, Jeoffry, immortalized in verse by Smart (and in song by Britten as the soprano solo in Rejoice in the Lamb). He also wrote the two works he is now best known for, The Song of David and Jubilate Agno (“rejoice in the lamb”). Both works are rambling, erudite, and have a distinctly disjointed voice, veering from the most sublime praise of God and the natural world to venal complaints about the poet’s rivals and enemies. The Song of David was panned in Smart’s lifetime; his madness was uncomfortable and perhaps embarrassing—particularly for Smart’s father-in-law, the publisher John Newbery, who attempted to sabotage publication of the poem. The poem sank without a trace, and Jubilate Agno was not published at all for more than 165 years. Smart himself continued his extravagant and self-destructive ways, and was arrested for debt in 1770; he died in prison a year later.
But times and fashions change, and Smart was rediscovered and championed in the 19th century by poets such as Robert Browning, who wrote a poem entitled “With Christopher Smart,” and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who called The Song of David “the only accomplished poem of the last century.” With a new aesthetic, Smart was revered as a visionary precisely because of his madness.
Jubilate Agno was not discovered and published until 1939. When Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) began searching for a text to set for a commission in 1943, Smart’s poem was suggested to the composer by his friend, the poet W.H. Auden. (Auden had yet to write the libretto for Stravinsky’s opera, The Rake’s Progress, but he was clearly already attuned to 18th-century depictions of madness.)
Britten thus embarked upon his own “mad song.” Britten, called the greatest English composer of the 20th century, was tremendously influenced by Henry Purcell (1659-1695), arguably the greatest English composer of all. He based the primary theme of A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra on a theme from Purcell’s Rondeau from Abdelazer and also composed a series of arrangements of Purcell songs, including Purcell’s most famous mad song, “Bess of Bedlam.” Britten’s realizations of Purcell songs are spare, unsentimental and modernist—very unlike the historically informed performance interpretations more popular today. (To listen to an example of the Britten realization of “Bess of Bedlam,” click here. To hear a rendition perhaps more in keeping with Purcell’s time, click here.)
Yet in Rejoice in the Lamb, Britten clearly pays homage to Purcell and the mad songs of the 17th century: the use of text painting in Britten’s rare and deliberate melisimas, the lightning-fast changes of meter and inching up the scale in the first movement’s description of Biblical figures and animals, and the relentless use of ostinato are all reminiscent of Purcellian techniques.
Where Purcell and his cohort always had an eye to the theatrical, exploiting madness for effect, Britten takes a more intimate, humane approach to Smart’s condition. He chose to set lines from the poem that present a holistic view of the relationship between humanity, the natural world, and God, focusing on the part of God that dwells in nature (Smart’s cat Jeoffry; the mice that must have also been his daily companions; the flowers in the garden), and that man can access through music (an irresistible motif for a musician!). The middle of the piece is a compassionate look at the poet’s madness: “For the officers of the peace are at variance with me, and the watchman smites me with his staff./For Silly fellow! Silly fellow! is against me…” Britten moves from the manic first and seventh sections to the gentle and ravishing “Hallelujah” theme, and the cantata ends in the peace that Christopher Smart probably never found in his lifetime: “Hallelujah from the heart of God, and from the hand of the artist inimitable, and from the echo of the heavenly harp in sweetness magnifical and mighty.”