More Ricardian Music: The “Consonance” of Richard III meets the “Dissonance” of Henry VII
In past blog posts, we’ve reported on the subject of Ricardian music and the flourishing of compositions and concerts inspired by the life and reign of Richard III. (https://murreyandblue.wordpress.com/?s=geoff+davidson, and https://murreyandblue.wordpress.com/?s=ricardian+music). There is even a kickstarter campaign for a new opera based on Richard III by Karen Griebling: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1281885484/richard-iii-an-opera-by-karen-griebling.
It seems we are on a positive trend here. Not only is the reputation of Richard III being reassessed and redeemed from the clutches of Thomas More by current historians, but musicians are also lending their quills to the task, as evidenced in a blurb recently reported in the June 13, 2015 Leicester Mercury:
“The evensong [on June 14], which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Leicester Cathedral Old Choristers’ Association and begins at 5.30 pm, also features the first-ever performance of a new work by David Fisher – ‘Richard III: Out of the Deep’, with words from the scriptures and the king himself. The Battle of Bosworth anthem features triplets, triads and intervals of a third to reference the king, and is contrasted with chords containing sevenths for his nemesis in Leicestershire, King Henry VII. The Leicester Cathedral Choir will be conducted by Chris Ouvry-Johns and accompanied by Simon Headley on the organ.”
It is a delightful coincidence that the interval of a third (here, representing Richard III) is traditionally considered in Western music theory to be a very pleasing, “consonant” interval — melodically and harmonically speaking — even in its minor diatonic form. It is also a happy coincidence that English composers from the 15th century made innovative use of the major/minor third in their choral writing, a development that differentiated them from what composers were doing in sacred choral music on the Continent.
Unlike the third, the interval of a seventh (here, representing Henry VII) is traditionally considered one of the most “dissonant” sounds in Western music, following its inversion (the minor second). In the words of one music theorist, William Fleming in his “Understanding Music” from 1958, it is an interval of “unbearable tension”. For that reason, it is rarely used as a “resting place” in harmony or melody, and requires a more consonant resolution in order for it to please the ear and the senses.
Of course, musical pitch intervals cannot be perfect metaphors for historical figures, but it is fascinating that a composer who was inspired by Richard III has deployed this device to characterize the reign of the last Plantagenet king (consonant) and the one of his enemy at Bosworth (dissonant).
Sound a little silly? Perhaps. But consider this. The use of the seventh was deployed by Modest Mussorgsky in “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs”, the penultimate movement of his Pictures at an Exhibition. You can hear it at the very first interval played by the orchestra, at 0:01, and in 0:28 in the loud French horns; it is the jarring sound of confrontation, disruption and upheaval:
Contrast it to the sonority of the “Promenade” from the same piece by Mussorgsky, which is loaded with thirds, and you can hear the difference:
Now, listen to these two approaches back-to-back, and one might see a different outcome to Bosworth, if Richard III had won, bringing an end to the dissonant into the realm of the consonant:
Let’s hope that composers and musicians continue to explore this fertile area for expression. The audiences in concert halls, church venues and soundstages of all types, are in need of new historical narratives too.