In August 2012, what was believed to be the skeleton of King Richard III of England was discovered under a car park in Leicester. After initial excitement among historians, followed by questions around the authenticity of the bones and much media attention, the remains have been confirmed as the late king’s and are being returned to Leicester Cathedral for reburial on Sunday 22 March. We talk to British composers Judith Weir and Judith Bingham about being asked to write music for this historic event.
As a composer, how do you prepare yourself to write music for an event like this?
Judith Bingham (JB): I’ve written a lot of church music, but this commission gives the word ‘unique’ a whole new meaning. There have been no reinterments of a Medieval monarchs before, so a whole new service has been created – the music really has to fit with that. It’s an extraordinary event with a lot of people invested in it, which adds a bit of pressure. I felt it was important to evoke two moods: solemnity, because the piece is going to be played as Richard III’s coffin is carried to the tomb, and a heartbroken quality to reflect how he was killed and how his contemporaries would have grieved over his death.
What style have you composed the music in?
JB: I didn’t want to write a Medieval pastiche so the work feels very contemporary. I’m writing a choral piece and have tried to pick texts that get to the heart of how Richard III thought and felt. When I was talking to Chris Johns, the director of music at Leicester Cathedral, one of the things we felt the service should reflect is both similarities and differences between now and the 15th century. An obvious difference is the inclusion of music written by female composers – that’s a very 21st-century thing. At the same time, Richard III is known to have had books written by female saints and mystics so there was a link with women at that time. I came across a 13th-century book by a German saint called The Book of Ghostly Grace, which was a best-seller at the time – everybody had it in different translations – and I took an extract from that. I also took text from a psalm about bones being broken to reference the fact that there are just these few bones left, as well as an epitaph of a knight who was actually at Bosworth.
Judith Weir (JW): I’ve been asked to write a short fanfare that’ll lead into the National Anthem. My biggest consideration was how to write something that leads into an 18th-century anthem – I would have been really interested to write a piece that borrowed from the 15th-century but that woudn’t have made a good transition. So I would say my fanfare is not period specific. They originally offered me military trumpets but I thought horns had a suitably melancholy, noble tinge. My contribution is tiny really – it could almost not be called a composition!
What have you learned about the history surrounding Richard III through this commission?
JW: I am ashamed to say my knowledge is still so minimal. I always found the Wars of the Roses a bit confusing when I was at school and it hasn’t got any better. I think what I most enjoyed was visiting Leicester, which is a city I have worked in occasionally before. Seeing what this event might mean for the city is wonderful – it’s allowed them to do some fantastic work on the cathedral.
JB: Like Judith says, it’s a huge thing for Leicester Cathedral. The good thing about the funeral not going to York Minster is that it’s such a massive place and the tomb would have been swallowed up there, where as at Leicester it has been given a really prominent place. I think it’s going to bring a lot of visitors to the city.
Why do you think the story of Richard III – including the latest chapter in which his bones were found – has captured the public imagination so vivdly?
JW: That’s a good question. It really has. Of course, there is the famous Shakespeare play and Leicester is just a real stand out historical place. I think that has added to the legend we all know. Apart from that, it does become absolutely about the culmination of the Wars of the Roses and how after that things were quite different leading into the Tudor period. This event puts that whole era to bed in a very spectacular way.
The reinterment of Richard III’s bones at Leicester Cathedral takes place on Sunday 22 March. Visit www.kingrichardinleicester.com to find out more