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.
I admit it: when I first fell for Richard III and through him, the House of York and Wars of the Roses history in general, I hated Henry VII. (I also hated his mother Margaret Beaufort, the perfidious Stanleys, the late queen Margaret of Anjou, and anyone else I could blame for bringing harm upon my beloved Yorkists). But blind hate – like blind love – doesn’t help an objective study of history. For some vehement anti-Ricardians, the absolute conviction that Richard III was a nephew-murdering usurper warps their entire view of the man, negating every positive achievement in his life before and during his reign, and denying the possibility that his character might have possessed any likeable or praiseworthy aspects. Similarly, for some vehement pro-Ricardians, Henry VII is akin to the anti-Christ, a snivelling, cowardly pretender for whose sake a good and rightful king was treacherously done to death. Initially, the latter was my view – but the more I’ve studied the period, its personalities and politics, the more sympathy I’ve come to feel for everyone involved in that difficult, dangerous time. So, at the risk of making myself thoroughly unpopular, I’ll tell you why I don’t hate Henry: basically, it wasn’t his fault. Yes, think about it: once upon a time, just like Richard III, Henry was an innocent child caught up in a political situation that was none of his making and beyond his control. By pure accident of birth he was deprived of his inheritance, separated from his mother, and in 1472, (as the last faint spark of the Lancastrian claim to the crown), forced to flee for his life with his uncle Jasper Tudor. En route to seek help from Jasper’s cousin, Louis XI of France, they were blown off course and landed in Brittany, where they were obliged to beg asylum from Duke Francis II. Recognising them as valuable pawns in any future diplomatic games with France and England, the Duke was pleased to grant this – and thus, at the age of fourteen, began Henry’s long term of effective, if luxurious, imprisonment. So as he entered his majority, instead of taking possession of the lordship of Richmond, building his affinity, developing his career, looking for a suitable wife and enjoying all the normal rights and privileges of his rank, this blameless youth was being shunted around the Duke’s chateaux under close guard, like some priceless piece of furniture, to prevent him either being rescued by the French or captured (and probably killed) by Yorkist agents. It’s easy to imagine the sense of burning injustice, festering resentment and outright hatred building up in his heart – he certainly had no reason to love the House of York. But he had every reason to leap at the chance of revenge, and of securing an unexpectedly glorious future, which presented itself in the aftermath of Edward IV’s untimely demise in 1483. I don’t blame him for that, either – and the rest, as they say, is history. I still don’t warm to Henry VII as a character, although I believe that his dislikeable traits including suspicion, domination and avarice are a direct result of the fear, deprivation and insecurity he experienced in his early life. Nor do I particularly rate him as a monarch – his first act, predating his reign to the 21st August 1485 in order to attaint the late king’s supporters, was a nasty trick; his later treatment of the unfortunate Princess Katherine of Aragon was heartless in the extreme; and he did plenty of other stuff in between that I can’t like or approve of. Having said that, he performed remarkably well considering his unpromising start and lack of training for such office, and was a paragon of competence compared to the previous Henry. And while I’d still prefer the result of the Battle of Bosworth to have been reversed, (I think Richard III was a good king and, had he lived, would have made a great one), I’d prefer it even more if that battle had never happened at all: if Edward IV had reconciled with the Tudors, made allies of the Earls of Pembroke and Richmond, and that Henry had subsequently supported Richard’s assumption of the throne – surely their combined abilities would have made them a medieval government dream-team! So while I might not exactly like Henry VII, I can no longer find it in my heart to hate him… because I suspect that if I’d been in his position, I’d have done much the same. And if you’re open to persuasion on the subject, try reading Chris Skidmore’s Bosworth: The Birth of the Tudors – it might rouse your sympathy for Henry, as it did mine.