The Kennedy Center

Dances in the Madhouse for Violin and Guitar

About the Work

David Leisner Composer: David Leisner
© Thomas May

The composer, performer, and teacher David Leisner initially became known as a world-class guitarist, winning first prizes in the Toronto and Geneva International Guitar Competitions while he was still in his 20s. As both guitarist and composer, he is primarily self-taught. But in 1984, just as his performing career was taking off, he started to suffer from the symptoms of focal dystonia: the neurological condition which causes the fingers to curl up with a loss of control. Though painless, it's of course a debilitating condition for a performer and has afflicted such artists as the pianist Leon Fleisher. Leisner suffered from focal dystonia over a 12-year period, from 1984 to 1986, but was eventually able to cure himself and make a complete recovery by developing a method to manipulate the arm and shoulder muscles.

Along with his pioneering work as a guitarist and teacher at the Manhattan School of Music (where he co-chairs the guitar department), Leisner has written extensively for his instrument and has also composed works for such artists as baritone Wolfgang Holzmair, the St. Lawrence Quartet, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, and the New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble. His composition mentors included Virgil Thomson and David Del Tredici.

Dances in the Madhouse, which dates from 1982-early in Leisner's career and before his ordeal with focal dystonia began-is his best-known work and has enjoyed widespread success (including appearances on multiple recordings). Leisner scored Dances for a duo of guitar and flute (for which a violin can substitute); the work has also been performed in his orchestral arrangement. Rather than physical malady, here Leisner turns a creative gaze toward psychological disturbance. His inspiration was a lithograph by the American realist painter George Bellows (1882-1925): Dance in a Madhouse, from 1917, which is held in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The composition shows four groups of inmates of an asylum dancing (three couples and one woman dancing alone), with another group seated as the "audience." Leisner designed the piece as a sequence of dances for each of the four dancing groups. He begins with Bellows's image of the solitary woman "dancing a stylish dance, alone," as Leisner characterizes it, for the opening "Tango Solitaire." "Waltz for the Old Folks" accompanies what the composer describes as the "happy couple who seem to be perfectly comfortable with their insanity," while "a forlorn, despairing couple of women, sitting on the sidelines, prompted "Ballad for the Lonely" (and what a different kind of loneliness this is, in comparison with the opening dance). The suite concludes with the irresistibly energetic "Samba!"-the dance Leisner imagined for the third, middle-aged couple. Cocooned by the guitar's percussive special effects and the flute's seductively lilting melody, they give themselves over to "a wild, dizzy dance" (featuring a correspondingly bold and dynamic compositional design in the lithograph).