Judgement Day: Richard III The Musical?

by:  Jon Trenchard at 11/16/2010

The actors of Propeller Theatre Company all do double duty, playing characters in both Richard III and The Comedy of Errors, the two plays that will be performed in repertory when Propeller visits the Huntington in the spring. Jon Trenchard does triple duty; in addition to playing Lady Anne/Mayor in Richard III and Dromio of Ephesus in The Comedy of Errors, he is also responsible for arranging the music for the plays. Below, he writes about the music of Richard III.

Judgement Day is nigh! We have just a day and a half left of technical rehearsal before our first preview in Coventry on Thursday. We still have lots of ideas for the play, and lots could change even now. For example, the soundscape of the show will become quite different now that we are rehearsing in a theatre: our new sound designer, David, can now add not only reverb effects to our voices, but also other recorded sounds — a feature that would controversially break from Propeller's tradition of producing all sound effects live from the stage! I think recorded sounds could be really effective for the eerie ghost scene in the second half... But the jury is still out on all these ideas, so good luck to Ed [Hall, Propeller’s artistic director] and the creative team who will be making final decisions this week to sort the wheat from the chaff!

Live music fans shouldn't be disappointed though: at present, we have about 40 sung musical cues in the production, involving 11 different tunes and multiple arrangements. Some of the actors have jokingly named the production Richard III The Musical! Given that the music is playing such a large part in this production, I thought I'd try writing some program notes about some of the tunes we have included so far...

In Propeller rehearsals, the music is either written by the company or sourced from music we know. We play or sing our suggestions to Ed, and he has the final say about what will make it into the production, and at which point in the play. Much of the music in Richard III has been chosen because the lyrics seem appropriate to the play, but with the songs I have suggested and arranged I have tried to keep two musical themes running throughout the play: descending scales and semi-tone intervals.

I remember Ed saying to me before rehearsals began that this production might track Richard's descent into hell, and a number of the songs we have chosen reflect this idea through repeated descending scales: Down Among the Dead Men, an 18th century British folk tune, has become our tune for the murderers in the Tower and repeats the word 'Down' as the pitch descends; a descending chromatic scale forms the bass line of Irreprehensibilis est (“It is beyond reproach”), part of a 19th century motet by Bruckner called Locus Iste, with which we are underscoring various deaths in the first half the play; and our arrangement of Dies Irae at Buckingham's death (the climax of Richard's killings) employs the same descending chromatic scale but in higher vocal lines.

This theme of chromaticism is continued in the modern close-harmony arrangements we sing which explore the relationship between two notes a semi-tone apart (ie. notes that are very close in pitch). When I was growing up, my brother and I (both choir boys) used to play out our sibling rivalry by one of us singing a note, and the other singing the semi-tone next to it: the resultant discord forced one of us to change our note to achieve harmony. So I thought that the juxtaposition of discordant semi-tones, which is a feature of modern harmony, could reflect the civil discord caused by Richard and Richmond's rivalry for the crown.

As a theme for Richmond the 'Welshman,' we are using a traditional Welsh hymn tune called Rhuddlan, (Judge Eternal, Throned in Splendour), complete with 19th century lyrics about 'purging the realm' and 'cleansing the nation.' These words have a disturbing resonance for us in the modern world, so I wanted to write a modern arrangement with lots of semi-tones clashing and resolving to compliment Richmond's ambiguous character — beautifully persuasive, yet deeply unsettling. The older songs we sing too, Now is the Month of Maying (a 15th century madrigal by Thomas Morley) and theCoventry Carol (traditionally sung in 16th century mystery plays depicting King Herod ordering the massacre of innocent children) both oscillate between major and minor keys, hinging around a semi-tone difference in harmony, with the result that the listener feels constantly surprised and ill at ease.

And what about my initial idea of a Requiem Mass? Well, the first port of call for any Mass for the Dead is the Dies Irae, a 13th century medieval poem that used to be recited at Catholic funerals. This dramatic text about the Day of Judgement has been set to music by many classical composers, and at one point in rehearsals I suggested using Mozart's version of Rex Tremendae Majestatis for Richard's coronation. In the end, that idea was shelved (after all, we don't have a full orchestra to do it justice!), and we have stuck to the first three lines of the Latin poem and the original plainsong tune — “Dies irae, dies illa, solvet Saeculum in favilla, teste David cum Sibylla / A Day of Wrath that Day will be, when the Age will dissolve into dust, as David and the Sibyl foretold.” Our various arrangements of this text develop in complexity through the course of the play and underscore various curses and deaths. We are also using a modern close-harmony arrangement of the final words of the Dies Irae poem to book-end the production, “O Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem aeternam / O blessed Lord Jesus, grant them eternal rest.”

So when you come to see Propeller's Richard III, you won't hear an entire Requiem Mass as I ambitiously intended before rehearsals started. But you will hear, if not too much changes in the next few days, the beginning and end of the Mass for the Dead, with a whole range of music from all ages in between, marking Richard's discordant descent into hell.


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Lisa Timmel,  Bevin O'Gara, and Charles Haugland share their thoughts on New Plays, Dramatury, and their experience sharing nightly conversations with the audiences that come to see our shows. Get the inside scoop of new scripts and play development!


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