Sylvia and Vivienne

About nine months ago, I decided that I would like to record Vivienne, my most recent collaboration with Stephen McNeff. The piece is rich in emotional colours and historical context, so I thought it would be interesting to make it the centrepiece of a programme of works related by subject rather than musical lineage.

The narrative of Vivienne is fascinating to me not least because Vivienne Haigh-Wood was a real person, to whom lyricist Andy Rashleigh has given wonderfully sharp thoughts and feelings. She was highly creative and highly-strung. Considered not only troublesome but ‘morally insane’ by her own mother, she was consigned to an asylum for the final nine years of her life, unvisited by her husband TS Eliot (whom she had married without her family’s permission).

If this sounds like a depressing subject for a CD, the sheer quality of songs about madness in the repertoire suggest that it can also strike some kind of a chord. Mental instability is not only a well-worn subject for literary storylines but has often been closely associated with the creative mind itself, in artists as various as Virginia Woolf and Mark Gertler. The majority of the lyrics for such songs are presented ‘in character’ – Shakespeare’s Ophelia, Agnes in Mörike’s Maler Nolten, Rashleigh’s Vivienne – but there is one exception in my programme.

Ned Rorem’s cycle Ariel sets a group of five poems by American poet Sylvia Plath from her collection of the same name. We are closer to the reality of mental distress here than in any of the other texts, but there is still room for dark humour. Not only is Plath’s use of language virtuosic, but our knowledge that she is writing directly from her own experience sharpens every word. Like Vivienne Haigh-Wood, Plath was treated according to the best practice of the day, which was not always pleasant or even successful. Plath was able to distil this experience into poetry in a truly extraordinary way.

In the course of my research I discovered that Plath once dined with TS Eliot and his wife. It would have been wonderfully tidy if that had been Vivienne, but by that evening in 1960 Vivienne was dead and Eliot was married to Valerie.

I wonder what Sylvia and Vivienne would have made of each other.