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A guest post from (Professor) Karen Griebling

From time to time I have alluded rather obliquely to the fact that I see strong similarities between late 15th century English politics and early 21st century American politics and that is among the reasons I think that Richard III’s story needs to be told, and told NOW especially. I had been sitting on those revelations all this time because I felt that art needed to be given a chance to make its point, that the libretto and the music would bring those things to light; but I suspect I am putting too much faith in that. People will be struggling with the plot, the music, and the language on the first hearing so perhaps now is the time to make that statement.

To most people nowadays the Wars of the Roses seem to have been a Hatfield versus McCoy family feud of remote antiquity. Little do they realize that international diplomacy had a great deal to do with it, that Louis XI “the Spider” of France, Charles ‘the Rash” of Burgundy, Francis or Brittany, Maximillian of Austria, the Pope, the Doge of Milan, the Hundred Years War, gun powder and the printing press (technology), Spain and Portugal, Scotland and Ireland, the emergence of the middle class, gender roles and rights, religious ideology, the middle east, and international economics and trade agreements were key players in those events. Change is a constant; but the more things change, the more they remain the same in some ways. Having immersed myself in the politics of the 15th century for some time now, I am more aware of the similarities than ever, and the cyclic tendency of things.

Meanwhile, among the strong similarities between American politics and those of the late 15th century in Britain as I see it, are the House of Lancaster being somewhat equivalent to the Republicans, rewarding insiders and throwing money into costly and futile foreign wars (The Hundred Years War) while bankrupting the state and allowing its subjects to starve, doing anything in their power no matter how ridiculous/devious to malign and unseat the reigning house, and the House of York being similar to the Democrats who were allied with the Duchy of Burgundy and generally more progressive, more liberal, more populist, and tended to shake up the status quo by introducing commoners to court/inside the beltway.

The Medieval concept of Fortune’s Wheel is certainly apropos. It’s a wheel that twists on it axis as it turns, though, I think. We think of Mesopotamia as the Cradle of Civilization, but that civilization erupted through violence and competition for limited resources among peoples with conflicting and exclusive ideologies. East and Southeast Asia were also in the ascendant early on, and culture and civilization spread West to Europe gradually, via Turkey, Greece and Rome to Europe. The late 15th c. then saw the discovery of the Americas by Europeans (Richard III had died in battle just 7 years earlier, in fact.) The west appears to be in decline now and the East appears to be ascending, and the strife in the Cradle of Civilization, always at a dull roar, it seems, is increasing once again.

I DO think that this accounts for the popularity of shows like “Game of Thrones” which is loosely based on the Wars of the Roses, and “The White Queen”. And somehow I feel as though the discovery of the mortal remains of Richard III coincided with this time 530 years after his death for a greater purpose. As Joe Leaphorn character in the Hillerman mysteries says, (and I paraphrase) ‘I don’t believe in coincidences’. Or rather, I do, but I believe they have meanings and a significance that we may or may not grasp immediately.

Some of you may recall that I taught a course on musical rhetoric and politics a couple of years ago. The focus of that course had been of interest to me ever since I was a DMA student at University of Texas and wrote a paper on ‘protest music’–no, not the folk-pop music of the ’60s and ’70s, but protest music in 20th century classical art music by composers such as Hindemith, Dallapiccola, Britten, Berg, Schoenberg, and others. The course I taught in 2013 though, went back to the beginnings of European classical music–examining the nature and purpose of Gregorian chant as a tool of the church for subjugating, unifying, and pacifying the masses (!), through the development of word painting in the Renaissance, and structural abstractions as codes during periods of intense censorship in the late 18th century and in Soviet Russia in the 20th century, the use of quotation in masses by Josquin and in early Postmodern composers like George Rochberg, etc., the use of music dramas first to flatter the patron and teach moral and ethical lessons, not unlike early TV sit-coms, and the later use of them to lampoon aristocrats (the SNL of the 18th and 19th centuries!), and the emergence of music by women and composers of color during the mid twentieth century equal rights era, etc..

That, all of it, comes to bear in the opera, Richard III: A Crown of Roses, A Crown of Thorns. This isn’t just a romantic piece about a long-dead king, or pretty arias and exciting battle scene music, it isn’t just about rehabilitating his reputation through art (though that is certainly its mission), but it is about critically examining and understanding the world we live in and drawing attention to the patterns of repetition from history that we sometimes fail to recognize so that we can learn from them.KG1 KG2 KG3

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17 thoughts on “A guest post from (Professor) Karen Griebling

  1. Kalina on said:

    Professor?…..hmmmmm….American?….Constant matters in history are only: people need to eat (calories), drink (water), reproduce and secure a good and safe existence for their children. For it they need a political and material power . History never happens again in the same form, because reasons and elements of historical processes are different in different periods. We can compare in example the social situation of England in XV c. and analogical one in Russia in XV c. too. We could get seen the main elements forming these situations and find the main reason of later events in both of countries. We could see the main differences between western and eastern historical ways. Comparing England in XV c. with USA in XXI c. is like comparing a chair and a computer. Different situation, different people…

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    • Kalina on said:

      I not only understand English language not quite well but also (I am afraid) I do not feel English humor. Thist text above is a joke may be?:)))

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      • halfwit36 on said:

        Kalina, over time I have discovered that when something reads like a parody or a joke, the chances are 60/40 that it is not, but meant quite seriously.
        History repeats itself? No, but as Mark Twain said “It surely does rhyme.”

        Anyway, IMHO the professor has it all wrong. Lancastrians _= Republicans? Nonsense. Here’s my view of at least one lancastrian, Henry VII ( with a nod to W. S. Gilbert):

        Henry’s ‘soak-the-rich’ policy made him the first liberal, you see.
        Richard (III) his opposite in great and small ways, would vote Republican always.
        What, always?
        Almost always.
        Conservative almost always!

        Remember, ‘fore you write or speak, my tongue’s most firmly in my cheek!

        (It was W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert & Sullavan, who penned these immortal words:
        Every lad and every gal
        Who’s born into this word alive,
        Is either a little Liberal
        Or a little Conservative. – The sentry’s song, from Iolalthe

        I await the production of a learned paper on the influence of “Iolanthe” on 21st century US politics. I may even write one myself!)

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      • “Soak the rich” has nothing to do with being liberal, actually it’s the exact opposite of liberalism. But claiming that Henry was a proto- socialist would be even stranger – I’m not aware of social services he founded and financed from the budget. At leaat Richard’s Parliament installed some reforms that benefited the lower classes. Trying to apply modern economic and political concept to the 15th century is pretty hilarious, in any case.
        Likewise, what was conservative in the 15th century and what us conservative now are two very different things. Kind of like the Europe and the USA having very different ideas about what’s left or right on the political scale, where the Americans seem to see the Democrats as leftist, while for Europeans they are clearly on the right, while the Republicans are even righter.

        The only thing that is certain is that Richard, Henry and anyone else from that era would be perplexed by the very idea of general democratic elections, if they somehow found themselves in the 21st century. Unless they were reincarnated, born and raised in our times, in which case they would be different people, with different beliefs.

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    • Would very much like to know why you question “Professor” and “American” and the “hmmmmm”, Kalina. I have held the position of Professor of Music at a college in the USA since 1987, and I hold a doctorate in music from the University of Texas, Masters in Music form the University of Houston, and Bachelors of Music from the Eastman School of Music in New York.

      History repeating itself IS a classic theme and our failure to recognize when it is doing so (largely because it is disguised in the trappings of time and place, much as an actor dons period costume, or a production of a dramatic genre may employ an anachronistic setting to make a point, or a piece of literature may employ allegory or metaphor) dooms us to making the same mistakes.

      You may disagree with the details, my interpretation of specific events, or with “my” personal politics, but in essence, this is true. Empires are exploitative and when they grow too big to be sustained, they implode (the Roman, Greek, British empires etc. have all done this, and while we eschew the term empire, the Pax Americana/American empire is on the verge of imploding as it spreads itself thinly around the world putting out fires that endanger its economic interests); most political systems start with admirable, reform-based, ideologies that are proposed as ways to ensure that their group thrives by establishing protections for survival (food, shelter, protection from attack, etc.) but over time, greed and corruption infect all of them, the disenfranchised grow weary of being exploited, revolutions and war topple the regime, and the whole cycle begins anew. That is cautionary.

      We in the USA are on the cusp of just such a situation. I consider my opera to be a tribute to the past life by memorializing a king that set about to reform the corruption and greed he saw around him having inherited a court that was corrupt and rotten, and a country that was poised on the edge of a knife to fall apart because of it, and he succeeded within a year in revolutionizing the judicial system of England to ensure that his subjects had equal access to justice regardless of their station in life, with more laws than had been enacted in the preceding 30 years; but that king was killed by those who sought to maintain the status-quo. Under the Yorkist kings, the first Jew was knighted (Sir Edward Brampton who served Richard III as an able diplomat to the court of Portugal) whereas preceding administrations had expelled Jews and persecuted them.

      We in the USA have a president who inherited the leadership of a country that was poised on the edge of a knife to fail for economic, military, political and other reasons. At the time he took office, we were staring down the gun-barrel of economic depression, the failure of the banks, and all sorts of other crises. I thought at the time, he must be crazy to even want to take on that sort of situation. But he did. He averted disaster and succeeded in enacting progressive laws that ensured that citizens had equal access to health care regardless of their station in life, but he has been challenged and fought every step of the way by those that seek to maintain the status quo. Under the Obama administration, we have been addressing issues of equality for minorities, and those who have been persecuted for their race, gender, religious belief, and/or sexual-orientation.

      These are “big trends”–the names of people and ideologies and even political systems are merely ‘period costumes’ in a ‘period costume drama’. Most of humanity prefers to take its medicine (history) in the form of entertainment pills–hence the popularity of costume dramas and historical fiction. Numbers, dates, facts, make our collective heads swim. People in the entertainment industry KNOW this. That is why I made the reference to Saturday Night Live (or, for you across the pond Monty Python) and to the situation comedies of the 50s and 60s that sought to teach us ethics and morals in 30 minutes each week under the guise of “Leave it to Beaver”, “The Andy Griffith Show”, and so on.

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      • Kalina on said:

        Hi, Proffessor Griebling!
        It is very kind of you that you are answering me:)) You ask me why American? Hmmmm….look at the posts here. The Authors of them are English. These posts are very wise, competent and…very peaceful, kind and even cold. Your post is quite different! It is very emotional, full of colours and…controversial. Only American could write so.:)) However I cannot agree with it I like it. I am Polish and I am able to appreciate this style. I used to read very hot and strange discussions in my country. But I like you for more important reason: I have not listened your opera, but I like very much the reasons for which you got interested King Richard. I mean: Richard as the iniciator of good, revolutionary laws. All defenders of Richard debate questions: if Richard was an usurper, if he murdered his nephews, if he loved his wife etc. Only Matt Lewis wrote about these main successes of Richard,s reign on his blog. You are a musician, I am a historian (however only a doctor). But I love music too. I do not understand a modern music yet so I prefer an ancient music, specially English. I love Purcell, Gibbons and Haendel. It is a pity that I cannot to hear your opera. I hope that you (and King Richard) will make a great hit. Best regards!

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  2. Kalina on said:

    :))))))) Do not wait, write yourself!

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    • halfwit36 on said:

      That was my point, or part of it, bunny: applying modern strictures to the 15th century is ludicrous in itself. That said, it amuses me that many Ricardians call themselves Liberal (capital L) and are all for taxing the upper 1% or 5% or whatever, but are down on Henry VII for doing just that. No, he provided no social services for the poor; that was the province of the Church. All 15th century monarchs would, of course, have been anti-abortion.
      I remember, years back, when it was popular to show comparisons, even coincidences, between JKF and Lincoln. Similarly, I could, off the top of my head, think of 4 or 5 parallels between Barrack Obama and Henry Tudor. A fun exercise when one has nothing better to do, but proves nothing at all.

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  3. Kalina on said:

    I compare with great satisfaction Queen Elizabeth I and myself. We both were (are) beautiful and wise women capable to manipulate all men:)) It is joke of course but I am sure that many feminists consider her as first just a feminist:)))

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  4. i agree with timetravelingbunny. I rate Henry Tudor up next to King John, not Charles the First. Humour me once again in this! Liberal Democrats in the USA have been exposed to the social contract ideas of John Locke, and all “tony” Tory Conservatism in the U.K stems from Edmund Burke’s reaction to the Revolution going on at about 1792 in France. The Yorkist middle classes under Henry VII experienced a most arbitrary whim contingent tax code. He is not at all like Bernie Sanders at all, let alone FDR! Nor is he a precursor to Donald Trump or Rand Paul!

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  5. halfwit32 — i find it much easier to compare Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama, despite the century that separates them by time rather than basic ideology. The only important difference is that Wilson liked Segregation and our sitting POTUS regards it as something barbaric and unfair but not as severe as was the most peculiar institution that it sprang from! I actually find it easier myself to compare Henry VII and Disney’s Scrooge McDuck, in light of all the tax monies that Henry VIII rapidly squanders after 1509! I am curious, what were at least four or five of the terse points of comparison you thought of? Admittedly, your posting would be most interesting! If we all can keep this civilized, it might be fun to contrast Thomas Hobbes with John Locke and Rousseau in terms of gov’t Leviathans and social compacts! I do think most mediaeval kings could not be as Absolutist as Louis XIV due to the way the Church was organized and structured prior to the Reformation!

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    • Apropos of the comment that the medieval monarchs would not have recognized democratic elections as we know them, I’d like to respectfully disagree based on the following observations” 1. Richard III WAS, in fact, elected by the Three Estates of the Realm in 1483–his claim to the throne was, in fact, distinguished by that fact in contrast with his predecessor and successor who claimed by right of conquest–THAT was probably one reason why European/British traditionalists ironically fail to recognize his claim–the culture valued primogeniture and conquest–sort of the Viking/Norman/Feudal tradition–but an election by a representative group akin to today’s electoral college was outside the box as far as feudal values and traditions were concerned. 2. Richard was an outsider to court because he spent most of his adult life protecting the border with Scotland and his affinity were “northerners” from Yorkshire–a race apart from the southern courtly gentry and that was often perceived uncouth, uncultured, barbaric, and a separate ‘race’ (Anglo-Saxon) from the Norman-French court–compare this to the racism with which President Obama faces, 3. yes, The Church dispensed the social services of the day, but noblesse oblige was also in effect and it was the House of York and its one-time ally Warwick (Richard III’s mentor) that were famous for their fair treatment of the lower classes that depended on them, from opening the kitchens to feed the hungry, to publishing laws in English so that their subjects could understand them, to enacting fare trade laws that allowed the middle classes to flourish as merchants, and abolishing “benevolences”, the arbitrary compulsory taxation of all subjects, establishing communication pipelines throughout the kingdom. and fair and equal access to the justice system for all subjects regardless of class and location (in earlier times subjects had to come to London to plead their cases–and the poor could not afford to do so and were generally subject to the whims and corruption of their overlords, and had little recourse to appeal since the laws were published in languages that they did not understand, assuming that they were even literate at all) All of these things were promoted and established during Richard III’s Parliament of January 1484, on models that his father, Richard Duke of York, had begun to implement as a challenge to the House of Lancaster between 1450 and 1460–it was the primary reason Marguerite of Anjou viewed York as a threat, had him exiled to Ireland and even attempted to have him assassinated on route. Meanwhile, she was ruling on behalf of her largely incapable husband Henry VI (Henry VII, despite his and subsequent Tudor propaganda was not actually a Lancastrian) and, as a French woman who was alleged to have taken Edmund Beaufort as a lover and promoted him as court favorite–Beaufort managed to bungle the British occupation of France during the 100 years war so that all that remained in British hands by 1460 was Calais–this must have made Marguerite’s French relatives ecstatic. Her husband, Henry VI had been crowned in both France and England when he was an infant; but by the time of his death in 1471, Louis XI was a force to be reckoned with and the only thing holding him in check was the House of York’s allegiance with Burgundy, which was protecting British trade interests and allowing the British economy to flourish with the peace and prosperity established by Yorkist king, Edward IV. These are the reasons I see parallels with American politics NOW–not necessarily of the early or mid 20th century–but beginning in the Reagan era of deregulation with a president that was suffering from Alzheimers, continuing the the folly of Bush-era/dynasty militarism, contrasted with Carter/Clinton/Obama policies, I think you MIGHT see where I am finding parallels. Alas, the ‘inside the beltway’ oligarchs that are manipulating the system against the President at every turn, might also be likened to the Woodville/Rivers faction that were/are out to protect their own interests at the expense of subjects/citizens, greedy and rapacious, and ambitious to rule from behind the throne/elected office at the expense of justice.

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    • @Karen Griebling: Being offered the crown by the Three Estates of the Realm on the basis of a hereditary claim is hardly the same as modern general democratic elections where every commoner and every noble in the realm, male or female, over a certain age, has one vote in secret elections to determine the ruler of the country from the pool of more than one candidate. I’m not saying that Richard or any contemporary of his would necessarily dislike it, but they would certainly be surprised by such a concept.

      The ironic thing about the British traditionalists scoffing at Richard’s ascension to the throne because he was offered the crown by the Three Estates is that, if they were consistent, they should also deny Elizabeth II and the entire Hannover/Saxe-Coburg and Gotha/Windsor dynasty the right to the throne and considered them usurpers, since George I only ascended the throne because of an act of Parliament – the difference being it did not grant him the crown because of anyone’s illegitimacy, but barred a whole bunch of other people from the throne due to their religion.

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    • halfwit36 on said:

      Points of comparison? Well —
      -both tall & thin.
      -both members of ‘despised’ races, in Henry’s case, Welsh.
      -both raised by women other than their mothers; in Obama’s case his grandmother, in Henry’s, Anne Herbert.
      -both faithful husbands, at least AFAWK.
      -lack of military experience.
      All very superficial, of course.
      I have tried to use good or at least neutral comparisons. The much easier way to do this is to find people you dislike and draw up comparisons between them. Lancastrians and Republicans? Easy-peasy. Hitler and ??? Stalin and ???.

      Not so easy to make flattering comparisons.

      I don’t see Henry as Scrooge McDuck. Unca Scrooge is too cuddly. Besides, Henry was not a miser, he was just greedy – for money only because it represented power. But he didn’t really get his bad reputation until he stopped raising taxes and turned to ‘benevolences’ and bonds instead.

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  6. sorry, halfwit36… i did an unintended typo

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  7. Case in point — William Rufus and Thomas A Beckett have a very basic conflict over the Church’s role,indeed by comparison poor Henry II is actually more of a centrist/moderate on this issue despite what his four knights did after the king got rather drunk one day…

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  8. Interesting comments everyone. Thank you for you input.

    Whether or not you agree with my interpretation of events, and of history’s cyclic nature, I believe some of you missed that the point of my post is that it is an artistic statement presented in advance of my opera, “Richard III: A Crown of Roses, A Crown of Thorns” that premiers Saturday 22 August in Little Rock, AR. I am not a professor of politics or history, but a professor of music and a professional musician and composer. This opera is presented as a memorial tribute to Richard III who was killed in battle 530 years ago. I conceived of the project 40 years ago and spent 2 sabbaticals researching the material from primary sources from which to create the libretto so that I could answer Shakespeare’s political propaganda with something nearer the truth.

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