Jess Langston Turner

Songs from Bedlam

For solo baritone voice and orchestra

View Score
Published in 2015 18'


Tom O’Bedlam is an anonymous poem from 17th century England about a fictitious inmate from the infamous Bedlam insane asylum. During the time in which the poem was penned, it was quite common for asylums to allow outsiders to stand at the gates and watch the inmates, much as one would watch animals in a zoo today. Thrill-seekers were even allowed to bring sticks with which to goad the inmates if they were not acting in a sufficiently entertaining manner. Tradition holds that the asylums became so overcrowded that inmates were periodically turned loose into the countryside to fend for themselves. Tom O’Bedlam was one of these (likely apocryphal) inmates who wandered the land begging for food and money. References to the character of Tom O’Bedlam appear often in the literature of the day, including the works of Shakespeare.

The drama of the music, as in the poem, is primarily psychological, taking place mainly in the sick mind of poor Tom as he is tormented by both his plight as a beggar and the inscrutable hallucinations and delusions which haunt him day and night. The music is broken up into four sections, each of which corresponds to a stanza of the poem. Between each of these sections, a short refrain appears in which Tom sings his begging song, asking for food, clothes, and money, while reassuring the listener that he is in fact completely harmless. In the first stanza, Tom offers words of caution to the listener. During the first part of this first section, the vocal line hovers between speech and song, making use of occasional extended techniques such as vocal fry, sprechgesang, and falsetto singing. Tom then breaks into an obsessive sing-song as he urges the listener to take care lest they find themselves in the same condition as he. In the second stanza, Tom describes his time in the Bedlam asylum. Within this stanza, the language used to describe to horrors of Bedlam directly contradicts the situations themselves (“stubble soft and dainty,” “Sweet whips,” “wholesome hunger,” etc.). Throughout this section, a Renaissance dance tune appears in various guises,
juxtaposed with violent outbursts from the winds and brass and brutal whip strokes and anvil strikes from the percussion. In the third stanza, Tom bemoans his constant loneliness accompanied by far-off animal cries and faint snatches of distant church music. Here, the music requires the singer to navigate large leaps, constantly breaking from full voice to falsetto. This technique serves to heighten the sorrowful mood as Tom softly weeps and moans to himself. The fourth stanza sees Tom being whisked away by his delusions and hallucinations. Tom joins in an imaginary battle and imagines a journey far beyond the edge of the known world. The music here is militaristic, complete with drums, cymbals, and fanfares, however, everything is distorted and confused as Tom attempts to march with a beat that is mercurial and impossible to follow. It is not he who has gone mad, it is the world around him. However, in the end, reality takes over and a despondent Tom wanders away into the distance still bemoaning his pitiful condition.

Casting a shadow over the entire piece is the spectre of the famous song “L’Homme Armee” (“The Armed Man”). Much of the melodic and harmonic material throughout the piece is based on motives found in “L’Homme Armee,” and in the final section of the piece, the armed man finally reveals himself in the form of a wild tarentella that bursts forth suddenly and violently. “L’Homme Armee” also forms the basis for the Rennaissance-like church music that emerges from the distance in the third section as well as at the very end of the piece. The constant presence of the “armed man” throughout the piece serves as a reminder that violence and insanity are part and parcel of one another.