Aiming High: The Richard III Requiem Mass

by:  Jon Trenchard at 11/07/2010

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.

When Ed offered me Lady Anne in Richard III a few months ago, my first response was to stifle a rathergirly "whoop" of excitement: it's a role I've always thought was really hard to play, and therefore a brilliant challenge for me! However, my next reaction was more down to business: what musical ideas did Ed have for the play? You see, for the last tour of The Merchant of Venice, I spent a significant proportion of the rehearsal process arranging music for the production when I really should have been learning lines, so this time around I wanted to get a musical head start...

Ed said he'd like to keep a similar musical landscape to Rose Rage (Propeller's version of the Henry VI plays which precede Richard III chronologically): choral music, especially madrigals and ecclesiastical music, and anything traditionally English. I never saw Rose Rage, but Tony Bell managed to dig out an old recording of the music for me, and as we listened to the old Propeller boys singing Kyrie and Sanctus (music originally intended for church masses), we were struck by the idea that for Richard III we could write a whole Requiem Mass, to highlight the play's themes of conscience, repentance, vengeance, and the Day of Judgement. I have always loved Benjamin Britten's War Requiem and started listening to it again for inspiration, and this got me excited about giving Richard III a more modern, discordant soundscape than Propeller had previously attempted to date, which could compliment the company's "modern aesthetic". I started getting carried away, imagining complex atonal harmonies and Britten-esqueorchestrations for bugles and timpani!

The trouble with all these ambitious ideas of mine was that it would require all the cast to be pretty skilled singers and musicians, but at that stage we didn't know who was going to be in the company. Before rehearsals began I started arranging some potential pieces that Tony and I had found — converting five part English madrigals to four parts, rearranging mixed choir choral harmonies to suit just male singers, finding modern religious pieces that could be adapted and shortened for scene changes — and trying all the time to make everything as simple as possible to learn.

As it turns out, I needn't have worried: I reckon that any professional choir would be happy to boast the singers we now have in Propeller! The cast'sexperience ranges from West End musicals to cathedral choirs and classical boy bands, with a fine Welsh tenor thrown in for good measure, and the sound they are making in the rehearsal room has brought one local neighbour in from the street to ask what concert the 'wonderful choir' are practicing for. There can surely be few aspiring composers like myself, who have the opportunity and huge privilege of being able to arrange a hymn overnight and then hear it sung beautifully the next day by a talented male voice choir. And the company has proved perfectly capable of arranging music without me too, taking the tune of a Schubert lullaby and harmonizing it as a kind of vocal music box in little more than half an hour! It is yet another reason why I love working with Propeller, and find it such an exciting ensemble.

So a lot of my ambitious ideas for complicated modern choral harmonies are proving to be not so far-fetched after all. But what about the timpani? Well, owing to the cost and impracticality of transporting them across the world on tour, not to mention the time to retune them in each venue, the timps are sadly a no-go. The rhythm of the show will probably have to be done the old-fashioned Propeller way — djembes, bodhrans, and hitting the set. But there is hope yet! On this production for the first time, we are fortunate to have a sound designer, David Gregory, touring with us a part of the company, and he seems to be a bit of a genus. So you never know, with his reverb wizardry, I'm hoping you might see someone playing a bodhran on stage but imagine you can hear the deep the deep rumbling of timpani, just as in Britten's War Requiem. With Propeller, even at this stage of rehearsals only a week before we open in Coventry, anything is possible...


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