Insanity, hysteria and melancholy in seventeenth-century English continuo song
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Medicine was an important aspect of ancient Greek philosophy, which also associated sanity with reason. The Platonic and Aristotelian threads initiated then were intertwined in the Middle Ages. Medieval Scholasticism equated insanity with the gift of prophecy and melancholy with heroism. As the seventeenth century opened new horizons in science, characters suffering from mental illness and despair were frequently depicted in Restoration semi-opera and song. The term "mad song" refers to a solo song with continuo accompaniment in which the singer impersonates an individual who is genuinely mad or feigning madness. Songs of despair typically share some characteristics of the earlier lute-song tradition and display a fast harmonic rhythm. Healing songs induce a state of hypnosis during which the mad individual no longer suffers. I attempt to show how seventeenth-century English continuo song reflects the evolution from neo-Platonic philosophy to scientific thinking both thematically and structurally. Early songs of melancholy reflect the notion that the individual afflicted by love-sickness may be regarded as a martyr. Any conscious scheme in form or text underlay is absent, and specific word-painting is minimal. Large-scale text-painting plays a more significant role. In the Purcellian mad song the scene changes radically. Iatromechanical scientific thinking, based on a Cartesian causality that evokes Aristotelian neo-Scholasticism, seems evident in the precision of the word-painting. Composers connect words and figures of speech to specific harmonic structures in the bass. Causality is also apparent in that the loosely defined melancholy of earlier songs is now largely replaced by a realistic depiction of insanity. Scientific progress was reserved for scholars working within university enclaves, but theatergoers could experience a reflection thereof reproduced on stage. Although the theme of madness was essential in seventeenth-century plays, there is a gap in the academic literature with regard to the depiction of mental disease in English vocal music. One must view music and words as cotexts bound to serve Baroque rhetorical purposes. Detailed analysis of these songs throw new light on the medical, cultural and social factors which shaped aesthetics in seventeenth-century England.