Bipolar, gay, and … no, wait: Purcell, and bipolar disorder

I am sorry, I still had my mind on a quote about Stephen Fry I stumbled upon yesterday.

Stephen, you’ve got it all: gay, Jewish and bipolar – How could you not succeed in Hollywood?!
— Carrie Fisher

It just sprang to my mind when I was listening to this recording of  “I attempt from love’s sickness to fly.”

(At about 2 min in this recording).

Well, random connections is what my mind is really good at, but after all, I am not the first one who connects lovesickness and bipolar disorder, commonly known as manic depression.

Purcell, and bipolar disorder

“I attempt from love’s sickness” is always popular, but seldom well-performed. An explanation might be that Purcell’s songs and arias in general are usually classified as “mostly harmless.”  With “harmless,” I mean: They neither demand any great virtuosity nor range, so eventually, every singer gets to sing some Purcell.

For me, Purcell was a genius. Not overall maybe like J. S. Bach, but then, Bach is not any more a genius but a veritable God of music, so let’s keep him out of the competition.

Let me illustrate Purcell’s splendour at the example of the first bars of this lovely aria. Well, it’s actually a song, but Purcell didn’t use a strophic but an A-B-A-C-A form. The A-part — the refrain — is repeated, reminding us over and over of the futile attempts of the singer in distress. Not only this, but the repetition consolidates the state. It doesn’t get resolved — of course not. On the contrary, it gets more deliciously suffering every time it gets repeated.  (If I had been Britten there, I’d fallen in love again only at the way Pears sings those lines.)

The song is brilliant from the writers’ part as well as of Purcell’s; he manages to get more details out of each phrase than words alone ever could, thus adding his own interpretation already. In my opinion, Pears and Britten are as perfect in picking this up as it is possible to get.

Psychologically, it is said that if someone starts a sentence with “I’ll try to,..” it is already destined to fail. I don’t completely agree, and in fact, I like to use the phrase. I love trying, and maybe failing sometimes as well. Success isn’t what defines a human so much, but how we handle failure. Whatever, the first sentence, “I attempt from love’s sickness to fly,…” already states a certain half-heartedness, and includes the possibility of failure — set by Purcell to drop back to the keynote  already at “sickness,” taking swing to get to the fly-away attempt. If sung at a quicker tempo, the coloratura is a valiant effort. The way Britten and Pears perform it, however, it is a try that cannot succeed. Speaking in physical terms:  The run-up is already too slow. Musically and psychologically speaking, the phrase is already so full of dwelling in the sweet pain of love that the after note, “… in vain,” is actually obsolete.

To get back to Stephen Fry: According to this pristine gem of mankind, only two percent of the people suffering from bipolar disorder, if given the choice to press a button that would cure them of the condition, would choose to press the button.

Why so few? Because no matter how horrible the bad phases are, you are rewarded with joy a completely sane mind is not capable of. Even though I had depressive phases in my life, I am not bipolar, but I can align to a certain degree. Oh, and of course I have been lovesick.  It was horrible, and still, I wouldn’t have wanted to skip out of it for nothing in the world. I am a very emotional person, and I pay dearly with taking things to heart — but on the other hand, it is not suffering that scares me, feeling numb is.

It isn’t even written for a man!

In the actual opera, the song is sung by a female character. The question is: Is this dwelling on and display of lovesickness typically female? Usually, in Purcell’s operas, the females get to sing those emotional parts.

Another example: “Let me weep,” (The Plaint), from “The Fairy Queen.” In most stagings it is sung by Titania. Here it is sung by… Philippe Jaroussky. I love how he changes his voice just a little to make it sound more feminine, without it becoming a travesty.

So, is the display of emotions something typically female? Well, emotions of this kind are traditionally seen as a female character trait or even weakness. What “The Plaint,” and “I attempt from love’s sickness” have in common is that they both deplore a state that cannot be resolved. And furthermore, the person suffering wouldn’t even want this state to end if the alternative would be the absence of feelings. Being the victim of anything — and be it feelings — and utter helplessness is hardly a trait that is seen as typically male.

Peter Pears, Death in Venice

Britten wrote most of his operas for Peter Pears. He loved the lyric tenor voice, apparently — its fragility, brilliance, its elegance and its limits — so perfectly fitting the roles he created. But, let’s look at the rest of the repertoire for lyrical tenors: Tamino (scared of snakes), Ottavio (the most patient man in opera — I would stage him as gay best friend of Donna Anna — but I digress), … Lyrical tenors aren’t natural heroes — they get the emotional bits like “Una furtiva lagrima.”  This use and preference for lyrical tenors, of course,  only came much later in musical history. In Baroque times, tenors were mostly father figures (Bajazet), and heroes in some very rare cases (Ercole).

Peter Pears, Peter GrimesBritten’s roles written for Pears are exactly like this song. Death in Venice, Peter Grimes, Billy Budd — the characters are stuck in a situation they cannot resolve. Rigoletto cannot either, but Britten’s roles are yet different. The worst problems the characters have to face, and the suffering they are put under are of course amplified by the society the opera is set in, but they are inherent in the character of Aschenbach, Grimes, or Vere. They are indeed their own “fever and pain.”

I find the idea delightful that this piece would be sung as an intermezzo by Aschenbach or Vere.  (Or even Grimes, but the idea creeps me at the moment, so I refuse to dwell upon it.)

“Man is for a woman made” — honestly?

To get back to this recording: I am not naturally fond of accompanists, most of the time they  really are a p.i.t.a.. At times I get the urge to give them a good smack with the sheet music when I listen to Lieder. (What the heck is wrong with the accompanist of Bostridge’s Erlkönig?– *smack!) Being a good pianist doesn’t make you a good accompanist — It takes more than that.

How Britten accompanies, however, is close to the best thing I ever heard. I am not so much of a fangirl that I would assume this was especially because of his romantic relationship with Pears; it is just two musicians performing in absolute perfection. But still, I feel it would be unjust to turn a blind eye on who the performers were. This regards first and foremost the selection of songs.

  1.  “How Blest are Shepherds”
  2.  “I attempt from love’s sickness to fly”
  3.  “Take not a woman’s anger ill”
  4.  “Man is for a woman made”
  5. “A morning Hymn”

A recital is not an opera performance where a singer’s persona gets swallowed up by the role. People still see Britten and Pears, and their relationship wasn’t a secret at this time. So, “Man is for a woman made,” really? Well, it is from another opera called “The Mock Marriage,” actually, famous for scandalous content at the time, including a bed-trick. The whole opera mocks society and marriage, and I like to think that that was at least one of the reasons why they chose it for the recital.

I refuse to believe that anything about the choice of songs is random. I am sure they chose the repertoire for a variety of reasons. “How Blest are Sheperds” is a lovely anti-war-anthem,  and for the “Morning Hymn” the reason might have been as simple as that it was a concession maybe to mainstream demands and expectations. The reasons to pick the others? I would have loved to ask them about it.

Random fact of the day: The writers of the original play “The Indian Queen” were related, as John Dryden was Sir Robert Howard’s brother-in-law.

I attempt from Love’s sickness

From “The Indian Queen,” a Semi-opera by John Dryden and Sir Robert Howard

Music by Henry Purcell

I attempt from Love’s sickness to fly in vain,
Since I am myself my own fever and pain.

No more now, fond heart, with pride no more swell,
Thou canst not raise forces enough to rebel.

I attempt from Love’s sickness …

For Love has more pow’r and less mercy than fate
To make us seek ruin and love those that hate.

I attempt from Love’s sickness …


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