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 Interview, Carolyn Sampson on Reason in Madness

Carolyn SampsonFollowing albums centring on Schubert, Verlaine and flowers, Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton take their inspiration from Nietzsche for their fifth recording together on BIS; their programme of French and German song explores depictions of vulnerable women, including Debussy’s and Koechlin’s Bilitis, and Ophelia through the eyes of Brahms, Schumann, Strauss, Saint-Saëns, Chausson. I spoke to Carolyn last month about how the programme came together, the contrasts between different composers’ depictions of the same literary figures, and the logistics of recreating a famous nineteenth-century painting (without the help of Photoshop!) for the cover…

The album has a strikingly beautiful cover - what was the inspiration behind it?

That was our reference to the famous Millais painting of Ophelia. The photograph was taken by the same friend who shot the cover for our previous album, Fleurs; they have friends who are florists, and the picture was taken in a pond in their back garden. I found the dress by accident in a vintage shop in San Francisco, and not only did it fit perfectly but it also did all the right things when I got into the water!

And Ophelia is of course a central figure on the album – how different are the various characterisations of her here?

First we hear the unaccompanied version of one of the Brahms songs, which is how they would have been heard originally - they were written for an actress to sing in a production of Hamlet, and we think the accompaniments were sketched out as a learning-aid. Whether to start or not with that song was something that we debated long and hard, but to me it seemed an appropriate opener; as I mention in my introductory notes, it sets up a slightly unsettling atmosphere, because if you’re hearing the song for the first time you can’t automatically predict what it’s going to do in terms of harmony and meter. And then we go into the Schumann Herzeleid, which is Gertrude’s telling of Ophelia’s story, so essentially we’re coming in as an observer. That’s followed by the three Strauss Ophelia songs, which are very complicated harmonically and jump about a lot – the musical language is seemingly serene, but clearly not so under the surface…

Is there a sense in any of these songs that ‘madness’ becomes a shorthand for ‘transgressive’ or overtly sexual women?

We want to be very careful about how we get into discussions about ‘madness’, and I want to stress that the programme isn’t intended as any sort of personal comment on mental illness. The title of the album is a reference to a quotation from Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra: ‘There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness’. This programme looks at the way in which composers have treated female vulnerability – and as Natasha Loges mentions in her wonderful booklet-notes, that encompasses lesbianism and witchcraft and a whole host of suspicions about women which proliferated in the nineteenth century.

What I feel when I sing these songs is that the utterances of these women are entirely logical on their own terms – they’re not mad in their own minds, these aren’t crazy people. A character such as Bilitis isn’t strictly speaking ‘insane’, but she’s an example of the vulnerability and mistreatment of women: in the first of Debussy's songs she is seduced by Pan, but by the third she is abandoned; cold, alone and pregnant. These women have all suffered in some way and been driven to distraction by their circumstances: Gretchen, Mignon, Bilitis, Ophelia, and finally Poulenc’s ‘Dame de Monte Carlo’: we see this woman returning to the gambling-tables where she’s lost her fortune and being thrown out of the casino, before defiantly throwing herself into the Mediterranean at the end. It's a snapshot of a life that could have been.

And that’s one case where that vulnerability which you mentioned isn't actually related to romantic loss...

We don’t really know much about her background, but you don’t get the impression that she’s got a loving partner at home. It’s really about a run of bad luck. Mignon is more of a child than a woman. And her background is mysterious, although we do know she was kidnapped, and then forms a very close bond with her rescuer. It's not romantic love or loss in any simple sense, although she will eventually die of a broken heart. I think the vulnerability is key, but it’s interesting that Wolf’s setting is very mature: in the second one of the group of three songs, you feel the nerviness of the character as the tempo keeps changing, pulling back, speeding up…it’s all very unsettled. The Duparc setting, by contrast, is very romantic and sounds almost more assured in some ways – possibly simply because the music’s so beautiful. (Both of these composers suffered with mental illness themselves, so perhaps there’s another level of insight and empathy there).

Did the album have its roots in a recital-programme?

The starting-point came from our Verlaine disc, because we did a few concerts with a first half of Shakespeare songs and a second half of Verlaine songs to provide a bit of variety for promoters that didn’t fancy an all-French programme! We did the Strauss Lieder der Ophelia and the Brahms as part of that, and I fell in love with them – the Strauss in particular. So I asked Joseph [Middleton] if we could devise a programme around characters like Ophelia, and Mignon came up quite quickly…That was nearly three years ago, so it’s been cooking for a while! That’s what I love about working with Joseph: every programme is always a work in progress, and this one’s taken time and a lot of care. It was wonderful to discover things like the Koechlin Bilitis songs together: they’re far less well-known than the other pieces on the album, and work beautifully as a frame for the Debussy settings.

In concert we’ve always done a German first half and a French second half, and we recorded with that structure in mind - but when we listened to the first edit it didn’t feel quite right, as it felt like blocks rather than a more fluid whole. So we thought a lot about the programme-order and in the end we went for something more integrated; I’d originally envisaged the unaccompanied Brahms as a postlude, but in the end La dame de Monte Carlo had to have the last word!

Carolyn Sampson (soprano) & Joseph Middleton (piano)

Reason in Madness was released on BIS on 29th March.

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Joseph Middleton (piano)

'A sweetly scented posy, this...Perfect, too, for all who love Sampson's fragrant, light-filled, warmly communicative soprano...Middleton's fluent and always idiomatic playing accompanies Sampson with glee and grace throughout.' (BBC Music Magazine)

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, FLAC