I recently had the opportunity to attend a talk by Professor Jane Evans of the British Geological Survey, co-author of the multi-isotope analysis which explored what the last Plantagenet king of England ate and drank. As I mentioned in a previous science post, this study formed the basis for the widely reported claim that, although he was a capable soldier, he overindulged on food and drink and that this “dissolute” diet was the reason for his unexpected defeat at the battle of Bosworth. As this seemed to be at odds with both historical sources and also the study itself, I was hoping to finally get to the bottom of the facts. I wasn’t disappointed.
Professor Evans began her talk by explaining that isotopes are particles which transmit information from geology to us via our food chain. Basically:
Rock > soil > plants > herbivores…
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“Music,” according to Victor Hugo, “expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” While many profound words were spoken during the reinterment ceremonies for Richard III, one of the more memorable experiences from the week was the vast array of music interwoven with them. There were traditional hymns, medieval carols, military bands, chanting monks – even a gospel choir. The week witnessed performances of new “Ricardian” compositions including Graham Keitch’s Ricardus Rex, performed during a March 23rd memorial service attended by Society members, and Judith Bingham’s specially-commissioned choral anthem Ghostly Grace, performed at the pivotal moment when the king’s coffin was lowered into his tomb and blessed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The abundance of music seemed so appropriate for a king who, himself, was a patron of music, and whose choirs sang with such beauty that Niclas von Papplau wrote in 1484 it was like hearing the voices of angels.
For me, the highlight of all the musical events was the performance of Geoff Davidson’s Middleham Requiem, a “dramatic cantata” which tells the story of Richard’s life using a narrator, three vocal soloists depicting Richard, Queen Anne, and King Edward IV, two choirs (adults and children), a twenty-piece orchestral ensemble and pipe organ. The March 26th concert was sponsored by the Richard III Society, and was attended by its patron, the current Duke of Gloucester, amongst an audience of rapt Ricardians who packed the Venetian-inspired basilica of St. James the Greater church in Leicester.
The Requiem began with actor Sir Timothy Ackroyd giving a spirited narration of the words of Peter of Brixen, Carmelite monk, describing Richard as king: “If we look first of all for religious devotion, which of our princes shows a more genuine piety? If for justice, who can reckon above him throughout the world? If we contemplate the prudence of his service, both in peace, and in waging war, who shall we judge his equal?” The intention to tell a very different tale from the ones told by Thomas More and William Shakespeare was thus announced from the very opening lines. Moreover, unlike Shakespeare’s play, which is one of his longest in duration, Davidson’s Requiem was a model of brevity — taking us from Richard’s founding of a College at Middleham, to the battle of Barnet, his coronation, the death of his son and queen, and the battle of Bosworth – all within a mere 90 minutes, divided into two parts.
Using a colorful variety of orchestration and vocal textures reminiscent of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, the Requiem alternated between sacred and secular musical forms. There was high drama in the martial music accompanying the battle scenes, the chorus singing a resounding and triumphant Rex tremendae when Richard is crowned, the tender Verdi-like love duet between Richard and Anne, and their deeply mournful duet (“Hollin, green hollin”) following the loss of their son accompanied by harp and recorder. The composition concluded with the choir solemnly singing the Latin text: Requiem aeternam dona ei domine, et lux perpetua, luceat ei, Sempiternam requiem [Grant him eternal rest, O Lord, and let everlasting light shine upon him. Rest everlasting]. There were very few dry eyes in the audience as it burst into sustained applause.
The composer and conductor of the Requiem was kind enough to grant me an interview about his composition, its performance on March 26, as well as the challenges and opportunities presented when writing a piece about Richard III.
An Interview with Geoff Davidson
Q: What motivated you to write a piece about Richard III? You obviously don’t employ the “traditional” Shakespeare narrative, but rather wrote a libretto based on contemporary 15th century texts, while weaving elements of a requiem mass into it. What was it about Richard III’s life that captured your interest and inspired you?
I didn’t actually write a libretto. All the texts were gleaned from various contemporary accounts of Richard’s life including Hollinshed and other historical accounts of (for example) Bosworth. All I had to do was compile and place them into a narrative that told the story. That took twelve months. I ignored Shakespeare totally. My motivation stemmed from my wife’s enthusiasm for the Ricardian story which she had in copious amounts before I met her. In 1985 I took her on her first visit to Bosworth for the 500th anniversary and became drawn in to the dramatic tale of a man made into a monster whose bad luck was too bad to be true. As a composer I found the tale irresistible and first thoughts were to create an opera. Opera is notoriously expensive to produce and if I wanted a piece to tell Richard’s story that could be performed frequently then a choral work with soloists and narrator would be better and cheaper. I decided to create a work that uses virtually the same forces as Handel’s Messiah. For military reasons there would be a French horn added but this cost would be offset by the absence of a solo alto voice. The only extras would then be a few percussive instruments.
I’ve had experience of countless stage works over the years and believe that all stage works, even comedies, must have tension. Each scene must have its own tension. A play sags and longueurs develop if there is no tension. Richard’s story has tension to spare. From the beginning I had the narrator declaim Peter of Brixen’s commentary that here was a worthy, honest, religious and fair man and the response from those who don’t know should be – “Wait a minute, you mean he wasn’t the hunch-backed monster we all know?” There’s a tension of sorts here already.
Then there follows the battle of Barnet and victory but shortly after, there follows the episode with Clarence’s murder. Other tensions that follow are Edward’s death and the illegitimacy of the princes. With part two and the landing of Henry Tudor, tension is cranked up considerably leading to the tragedy of Bosworth and the moving letter from the people of York. At the height of the battle Richard is struck down and the orchestra is cut dead leaving a solo recorder recalling the happiest time of his life at Middleham. What does one think about when facing death? The only release comes with the final “Requiem Aeternam” at the end. I tried where possible to punctuate the narrative with movements from the Latin Requiem Mass and tried to comment on the narrative with an appropriate choice of Latin text. Hence the “Dies Irae, Dies Illa” (Day of wrath, Day of judgement – which is normally the second movement in Requiems by Mozart and Verdi and all other composers) does not appear in my Requiem until the final scene – the battle of Bosworth.
Q: I’m aware of very few musical settings of the life of Richard III. The first one I’m aware of is a very rarely-performed symphonic poem by Bedřich Smetana written in 1858. And, of course, there is William Walton’s cinematic music for Olivier’s 1955 movie. Did you do any research into past compositions such as these when developing your own conceptualization?
Unlike Beethoven I was not intent on breaking new ground with my music. I wanted to compose a piece that could be approached and appreciated by musicians and non-musicians alike. I was aware that the first performance in Fotheringhay would be attended largely by Ricardian academics and historians who would not necessarily be interested in music of this kind. I had to write with melody and harmony that conveyed the action precisely and whose meaning was easy to grasp. I made no reference to Smetana, Walton or anyone else – they were all based on Shakespeare’s character. My Requiem was described in the Yorkshire Post as a “hybrid”. Indeed it is a mixture of elements including Walton, Britten, Shostakovitch and Carl Orff (especially his rhythms) and sometimes downright romanticism. John Rutter has said he composes music that his mum and dad would like. I feel the same. I have the power to make people weep with my music and my wife, singing in the choir, was very lucky to get through the performance without dissolving into tears (though not at rehearsal!). I wrote from my heart and used devices well tried by the greatest composers. I insist on melodies and harmonies that naturally strike the heart.
Q: Although you title the piece “Middleham Requiem”, you’ve described it in the vein of a “dramatic cantata”. What is the difference between a requiem and a cantata in musical literature?
“Cantata” simply means a piece that is to be sung unlike a “sonata” that is to be sounded or played. So a cantata can be written on any subject (Bach wrote one about coffee!) and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana is described as a “scenic cantata” – a series of pictures in the mind brought to life by music. This last description is particularly applicable to my piece. A “requiem” on the other hand is a solemn setting of the words of the Latin requiem mass used by the Catholic Church at funeral services. No additions are made to it and the movements are always recited or sung in the order they appear in Catholic liturgy. Brahms’ Requiem (described as a “German” requiem) is a collection of German texts that refer to death, hope and the life hereafter. No Latin is used so the title “requiem” is loosely applied.
Q: With the exception of a recorder, I noticed that you do not employ original instruments, e.g., those from the 15th century, in your orchestration. What led you to choose modern over period instruments?
My only concession to mediaeval musical instrumentation was using the recorder to give a certain ancient feel to the music. Once Richard has ascended the throne I used an authentic mediaeval dance called “Danse Royale” for the celebration. Here I used the recorder and percussion mainly but also used harp, horn and solo violin to “represent” ancient instruments. I felt that to use proper mediaeval instruments would have been a gimmick. The raw sound of mediaeval instruments is such
a shock to the system after the beauty of modern ones. For the romantic almost Verdian duets (not something you find in mediaeval music!) I needed a full-blooded string sound. Similarly for the dramatic battle scenes the full pipe organ lent a huge and sinister sound to the mix. I believe that where Beethoven had an excellent Broadwood piano gifted to him, were he to return and play a modern Steinway, he would find his Hammerklavier Sonata sounding as it really should!
Q: I was particularly captivated by the “Hollin, green hollin” duet of Richard and Anne in Part Two, following the loss of their son. It was very melancholy but extraordinarily melodic too. It reminded me of some modern settings of traditional English folk songs, but I’m not familiar with this particular text. Can you provide some background information about its text and your approach to that particular duet?
I’m flattered that you liked “Hollin, green hollin”. In fact it was the very first thing I wrote but not as part of the Requiem. I once did a BBC Scotland recital with a soprano colleague and wrote this for us to sing with guitar. It appeared as part of three “Scottish lyrics” which were all based on children’s nursery rhymes from a book published in 1946 by the Hogarth Press. I cannot for the life of me remember where the preceding text for the narrator came from but my response to the lines — “On hearing the news of this (the death of their son) at Nottingham where they were residing, you might have seen his mother and father in a state almost bordering on madness by reason of their sudden grief” — was immediate, soulful and sympathetic. I began to search my shelves for appropriate poetry and the book of Scottish nursery rhymes fell out on to the floor jogging my memory about the duet I’d written.
I saw the sad young couple in my mind, distracted, grief-stricken and heart-broken that they had not been there at the death of their son. “Madness” was the key word. Distraction brought about by severe shock. It needed something simple and child-like to reflect their numbness. I thought they might consider happier times at Middleham. “A shade of green leaves is my home, where nought is seen but boundless green and spots of far blue sky between”. The poem itself has nothing to do with anything in the Richard III story but, for me, captured the sad moment perfectly. The poem is very old and I had no qualms about using it.
Q: I understand that the “Middleham Requiem” had its première at Fotheringhay Church in 1993. Can you describe the circumstances that led to its première at Richard’s birthplace, and your experience from that event?
The first performances were given in Fotheringhay and Hitchin and the following year two performances were given at Middleham church during the Swaledale festival. Having written the piece I approached the Richard III Society to see if they could contribute to costs but (and I can understand why) they felt unable at the time to do so. So I had to approach a fixed unit like Hitchin Thespians to see if they might be interested. By sheer luck a colleague of mine in the BBC Singers (Roger Heath) was also one of the musical directors of the Hitchin Thespians. He and Justin Thomas were the two musical directors for that year. Hitchin Thespians is a very large and enterprising company who perform choral works, musicals and operas to great acclaim in Hertfordshire. I invited the two gentlemen to my London flat and over a few whiskies talked it through. It was decided through an alcoholic haze to go ahead. Justin conducted the premiere with a sure hand and a full heart. It was really moving. The Richard III Society however was able to provide first-class advertising through their Bulletin and we had a sell-out concert.
Like Leicester, there was the task of getting a big choir (of 100 singers) with an orchestra to a venue associated with Richard that really meant something. Fotheringhay was the choice. After a sell-out performance in the Thespians own town of Hitchin, the company agreed to make an assault on Middleham the following year. I cannot tell you how wonderful these people were with their tents and caravans parked all around Middleham for the two performances over two days. They squeezed into meagre space in the Middleham Church and delivered wonderful performances. The Thespians paid for everything otherwise it would not have happened. Justin and some Thespians who sang then were present at the Leicester performance. They wouldn’t have missed it for the world…I had some musical friends present at the premiere who don’t mince their words. Their faces can’t lie. They described themselves as “impressed”. What more could I ask?
Q: Can you tell me the process that you underwent in order to put on the performance on March 26th at St. James Church in Leicester?
My wife was instrumental in the colossal organisation of singers (advertising around the best choirs in Norwich), and the Broadland Youth Choir. I fixed the Orchestra from players in Norwich Pops Orchestra which I founded and conducted for 10 years. My wife also dealt with coaches, rehearsal venue, pick-up points, seating, delivery of scores etc. etc. She even organised tea and biscuits for the rehearsals! I had to retrieve all the scores from my dusty, musty boiler house where they’d gathered dust for 22 years. Some were faded and useless, others had pages missing and some were so heavily marked in ink they were unusable. Some singers who’d agreed to do it then pulled out. Sir Timothy the narrator said he wanted to wear a cassock (I persuaded him to wear a dinner-jacket) and brought his dog to rehearsals. Other people had last-minute crises that prevented their taking part. The conductor of the Children’s choir lost her score. Some people refused to park in Norwich for a whole day and demanded they be picked up somewhere else. At times I felt I was preparing for Bosworth. But all in all it was worth it and we had an exciting performance that peaked just at the right time.
St James the Greater Leicester was a fabulous venue. The people at the church were absolutely, amazingly helpful. The church is a popular city venue and a recognised Leicester concert venue. It had everything the first performances didn’t have – tiered seating, a marvelous organ, splendid lighting, great acoustics, parking facilities and backstage rooms to accommodate everyone.
Q: Understandably, you wrote this piece long before Richard’s remains were discovered in 2012, but would any of the recent archeological information gleaned about Richard have caused you to change anything about your composition? For instance, you cast the role of Richard as a baritone, but the scientists describe his physique as gracile and that perhaps he might have experienced some breathing limitations with his scoliosis. Would you have cast Richard as a tenor, if you had known that when you originally wrote it? Why the choice of Edward IV as a tenor? Would you have addressed the manner of Richard’s death at Bosworth, his burial at Greyfriars, or the discovery of his skeleton, if you were writing the piece today? Why or why not?
The finding of the remains made no difference to my Requiem in any way whatsoever. I made Richard a baritone because I think it gave him a deeper more authoritative gravitas (especially in his oration to his troops) than his flighty and erratic brother Edward who was, to me, more obviously a brash and excitable tenor.
My wife and I by sheer chance bumped into Dominic Smee in a street in Leicester (he was the young lad with the scoliosis similar to Richard’s who made a recent film about Richard’s ability to wield a sword and ride a horse). It struck me he was a gentle baritone, not a tenor. Knowing what I do now I still would not have changed a note. Curiously, a very low, dark, descending phrase sung by the men to “Ah” which follows the letter of grief from the people of York, seemed somehow to evoke perfectly the bleak and secret scene at Richard’s first burial, almost like a De Profundis. It was a section I considered cutting but I’m glad it’s there now!
Q: I understand that there are some projects now underway for setting the life of Richard III into full stage productions, even a rock-and-roll version more suitable for the West End or Broadway. Given the complexity of the Wars of the Roses, and the numerous personalities and back stories, what kinds of challenges or opportunities are presented to a composer like yourself when you’re faced with such a wide canvas of characters and relationships to explore? Could your “Middleham Requiem” be turned into a full stage production?
I believe Richard’s story could be inspirational to many kinds of composers of all kinds of music, but I would hope they would research their subject thoroughly and not make of it a sensational saga of falsehoods for theatrical effect. It is enough to tell his story plainly. The drama and tension is palpable. With reference to all the characters in the story – it’s always best to keep it simple. Don’t confuse people like with a cast list as big as “Gone with the Wind”. Thus I have three characters that speak but all the rest are mentioned in passing. It is enough. Richard was my subject and he filled the bulk of my composition.
Like Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with its characters, dancers, gambling monks, lovers and hedonists, my Requiem, because of its dramatic nature could be fully staged. In recent years there have been some wonderful modern fully-staged productions of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (and his St. John Passion). With appropriate costuming, lighting and movement, it would work here too to great effect, but again money would raise its ugly head! I saw a wonderful production of The Magic Flute at English National Opera recently which used gauzes, and projected film and amazing light effects. You could show film of battles, Middleham and you could have an image of the grave at the Leicester exhibition at the beginning of the piece and another of the gravestone now placed in the cathedral at the end of the Requiem. The possibilities are endless.
Q: Do you have any plans to perform – or record – the Middleham Requiem in the future?
Despite the joy of the latest performance, there are no plans for further outings. I have tried to interest various bodies including the BBC but no-one has bitten yet. Recording companies won’t pay for a recording process. They will happily record it if you pay for it yourself. The performance at Leicester was recorded on a small Sony machine. It is a quite good record of the event but my usual recording engineer was having a hip operation and couldn’t do it. I will make copies available to the Richard III Society so that members may borrow (and not copy!) but I cannot sell the recording because I would have to pay large sums to the soloists, orchestra and narrator first. If I win the lottery I shall hire the Studios at EMI and pay for the best singers and the London Symphony orchestra to take part.
Q: Given all the interest in Richard III, do you have any plans to incorporate “Ricardian” concepts or themes into your future compositional output?
I visited the Society hospitality room in Leicester during the week of the interment. Over a coffee I spoke off the top of my head about doing a memorial service next year. There was a sudden silence as committee members took this in and suddenly realised it was a feasible idea. They are now considering this seriously and I offered to write a short piece for the service. So that will be my next Ricardian composition and hopefully it will come to pass.
Q: What did it mean to you to have the Middleham Requiem performed the same day as the re-interment of Richard?
To have the Requiem performed in such circumstances was what I can only describe as a curious dream. I was somewhat inured to the thrill of it all by the sheer weight of anxiety in order to get it performed well. I was proud and thankful for a good performance and delighted to meet the Duke of Gloucester but most of all I was hopeful that people would understand where I was coming from with the musical presentation of the story of a man who is deserving of further research and who was
wronged by historical commentators.
It was huge thrill afterwards to meet my friends and colleagues who had come long distances to support me. To receive their accolades over a wee drink was pure contentment. For my dear wife too the Requiem was a vast and thrilling epic and for both of us it was an unforgettable week where we both “did our bit” for Richard III’s final farewell.
Mr. Davidson may be contacted at email@example.com for further inquiries regarding the “Middleham Requiem”. The Richard III Society (UK) has a recording of the 1993 Fortheringhay première of the Requiem available for loan to Society members from its audiotape library. Photographs taken from the Richard III Society’s Programme of the 26 March 2015 concert; permission pending.
Readers may listen to a performance of Graham Keitch’s “Ricardus Rex” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBt0EUJG7oc, and read more about it on the Richard III Society webpage at http://www.richardiii.net/8_9_gallery.php.
Judith Bingham blogged about her “Ghostly Grace” composition on the Gramophone music review site. See http://www.gramophone.co.uk and search under the “Blog” tab.
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