The event, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank tonight, and simultaneously broadcast live on Radio 3, was described in the accompanying programme notes as the BBC Concert Orchestra delving ‘into the depths of the human psyche playing with fear, anxiety and madness in an examination of hysteria…’

This intrigued me. I was also unsure what to expect…

The works performed included Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, excerpts from Maxwell Davies The Devils Suite, the world premiere of Jocelyn Pook’s Hearing voices, and Muse’s Hysteria (I want it now) arranged by Patrick Nunn.

It was an extraordinary evening.

Firstly, Schoenberg. Knowing a little about the controversy that surrounded Pierrot Lunaire, I was slightly anxious about what I was going to experience. First performed 100 years ago this year, its initial reception was not overly positive. In fact, the discordant and ‘ear-splitting’ tones of Schoenberg’s work were accused of desecrating the walls of the Berlin concert hall where the premiere was held (http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/music/2012/06/02/ears-future-schoenberg-pierrot-lunaire/2RO6iTFxs5roBQNapMwlFM/story.html).

The piece is based on the poetry of Albert Giraud. Schoenberg was obsessed with numbers, and created 21 movements, arranged as three times seven, and thus Op.21 (and also presumably why ‘H7steria’). It is difficult music to explain, unpredictable, and constantly shifting in terms of mood and tone. It therefore constantly surprises, and I progressively warmed to its strangeness. In fact, the outcry that surrounded its premiere, as well as performances since, now seem inexplicable to me. The origins of Schoenberg’s composition have been linked with Freud, and the concept of hysteria, but it seems unlikely that art as complex as this could be traced to any single source or inspiration.

Secondly, excerpts from Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Devils Suite (Sister Jeanne’s Vision and The Exorcism), the score for Ken Russell’s 1971 film, The Devils. The film, similar to Schoenberg’s piece, has also been highly controversial, and was heavily censored at the time, due to accusations of ‘depravity’ and ‘blasphemy’. Today, the film can still cause shock, even outrage, with its themes of self-flagellation, masturbation and nude orgies. I was again surprised tonight by the excerpts that I heard from Maxwell Davies’ score. They were beautiful, haunting, eerie, perhaps at times even a little terrifying. Sublime.

Thirdly, the commissioned piece by Jocelyn Pook, with the composer’s song cycle Hearing Voices receiving it’s world premiere tonight. The work was primarily inspired by Pook’s great aunt, Phyllis, who was in an asylum for the last 25 years of her life. When she died, the composer discovered her great aunt’s writings in a trunk, documents of her breakdown and also her struggle to make sense of it all. Hearing Voices also tells the stories of four other women, including that of Pook’s mother, who had a breakdown in the 1950s, of Agnes Lister, who features in Gail Hornstein’s book Agnes’s Jacket, and of the contemporary artist Bobby Baker.

The mezzo-soprano who sang and acted (and did both wonderfully) the stories of these women tonight was Melanie Pappenheim, who coincidentally is a descendant of Bertha Pappenheim, Freud’s famous patient ‘Anna O’.

The BBC Concert Orchestra performed a score that alternated between being background to the voices of the women, and to the fore. A wondrous score, it haunted and still lingers, mirroring a similar effect from hearing each sufferer’s story. The combination of the orchestral score, the real voices of some of the women whose lives and experiences this work was based on, Pappenheims’s singing and acting/re-enacting, as well as images and photographs, served to create something world making, that spoke of bearing witness, and of compassion.

Finally, we were treated to Patrick Nunn’s arrangement of Muse’s Hysteria. I like the original, but Nunn did something very original and intriguing here, which did, not quite confuse me, but made me sit up and listen, and consider. I needed to make sense of the otherness of something I had thought I had been familiar with. Which perhaps was the essence of what tonight was ultimately about.

Wondrous.

CQ

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