ELEVENTH BIENNIAL INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON BAROQUE MUSIC
Manchester, 14th-18th July 2004
Henry Purcell’s Bess of Bedlam (Z.370): performing “The Mad” in seventeenth-century England
Henry Purcell’s song Bess of Bedlam has gained a certain popularity among singers of Baroque music, but this has done little to shed light on its origins or on its complex use of traditions. Its interesting association with Thomas D’Urfey’s drama, A Fool’s Preferment was first revealed by Baldwin and Wilson in 1981, and yet the implications of this for its “theatrical” character and “popular” status have yet to be fully explored. Moreover, its position within the so-called “genre of the mad song” also remains to be elucidated, as do its supposed significations of gender.
This paper will first examine the text of the song so as to reveal its indebtedness to popular culture, and its use of conventionalised images of the insane. Second, the structural aspects of the song, with their frequent discontinuities and shifts in mood, will be shown to have proffered a model for later examples as the genre moved toward its zenith. Third, the many forms in which the song appeared following its first publication in 1683, will be examined for what they can tell us about its changing social reception: the shift to “single-sheet” editions seem to exemplify a transformation in the status of the mad song from an important sub-genre of dramatic music towards an artefact of common entertainment, based on the simple promotion of the bizarre. Finally, the cultural import of this song as a signification of the bizarre will be explored within discourses established by Michel Foucault and Mikhail Bakhtin.
Last updated on 11 May 2004