I've made no attempt to hide my admiration for Richard II. One reason I find it so compelling is for how its musical imagery helps tell the story.
In his essay Music of the Elizabethan Stage, John Stevens notes “an increasing subtlety in the use of music to ... reinforce the weakness, the inner collapse of Richard” (p. 17). At the start of the play, Richard, as king, wields authority – both political and musical. “The trumpets sound” for “his Majesty's approach” in 1.3. And just as Bullingbrook and Mowbray are about to battle, “A charge sound[s]” as “the King hath thrown his warder down” (line 18). “Let the trumpets sound”, Richard orders, “While we return these dukes what we decree”, followed by “A long flourish” (121-2). When he returns, he speaks of “boist'rous untun'd drums, / With harsh-resounding trumpets' dreadful bray” before banishing both combatants (134-5). The musical symbolism of Richard's jurisdiction is furthered by Mowbray, who protests,
now my tongue's use is to me no more
Than an unstringed viol or a harp,
Or like a cunning instrument cas'd up,
Or being open, put into his hands
That knows no touch to tune the harmony (161-5).
In each of these instances, Richard imposes his will – and his music – on others.
But by the end of the play, when Richard has lost all power, this musical symbolism is reversed. Shortly before his murder in 5.5, Richard laments, “Music do I hear? / Ha, ha, keep time! How sour sweet music is / When time is broke, and no proportion kept” (41-3). One of music's fundamental components, rhythm refers to the duration of sounds and the proportional relationships between them. When those proportions aren't properly maintained, rhythmic chaos reigns. The most interesting part about this scene, however, is questioning if this “sour music” is real: Is Richard actually hearing poorly performed music, or is the music perfectly played and thus its distortion is only in his mind? (This has obvious parallels to the ghost in Hamlet.) If the former, then Richard's (and Hamlet's) grasp on reality is still strong; if the latter, it implies Richard's (and Hamlet's) descent into insanity. The handling of this scene and is one of the important musical choices a director must make.
Three of the six productions I've found have employed music that does keep time properly. I have not been able to find a single production in which the “sour music” is actually sour (meaning clearly rhythmically problematic), though two of the six (described momentarily) are rhythmically ambiguous.
In the YouTube video below (Brussels Shakespeare Society, 2012, directed by Charles Bouchard, composer unknown), solo guitar music is heard at 2:13:22, and is well-performed (clearly with correct and well-proportioned rhythm).
In this second YouTube video (a 1960 audio drama, neither director not composer specified), the music starts about 2:24:31, and is also well-performed.
In The Hollow Crown (2012, directed by Rupert Goold, with music by Dan Jones), the music commences at 2:16:10, and is likewise well-performed.
Curiously, Deborah Warner's 2016 direction, starring Fiona Shaw as the title character, does not include any music during this scene (seen at 2:03:44), perhaps implying that everything is in Richard's mind.
Lastly, two productions employ a solo monophonic instrument: The Royal Shakespeare Company's 2014 production uses a recorder at 2:26:06; and the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre's audio recording a bassoon at 2:40:38. In both, the rhythms and meters are ambiguous – only the performer knows for sure how s/he is counting it mentally, but no obvious metric pattern is discernible to the audience.
Richard's perception (real or imagined) of this disproportioned music inspires his ruminations on a connection between music and life:
So is it in the music of men's lives.
And here have I the daintiness of ear
To check time broke in a disordered string;
But for the concord of my state and time
Had not an ear to hear my true time broke.
I wasted time, and now doth time waste me (44-49).
Richard sees the music as symbolic of his political mishandlings, which led to his deposition and current imprisonment. But, in true tragic form, it's too late – Richard, like the Marley brothers in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, recognizes his mistakes only when their rectification is beyond his grasp.
Just as Richard destroyed a mirror that accurately allowed him to see himself in 4.1, he likewise calls for the music, which also provides genuine insight into his problematic self, to cease.
This music mads me, let it sound no more,
For though it have holp mad men to their wits,
In me it seems it will make wise men mad (61-3).
But music, being immaterial, cannot be as easily shattered as a tangible mirror. Moreover, even if music could be shattered, Richard no longer posses the authority to command it. “Whereas as king he had power over his trumpets, and made them express his royal will,” continues Stevens, “now another man's wish imposes this unroyal music on him and puts him into its power” (p. 18). Though Shakespeare specifies exactly where “The music plays” (line 41), he does not specify where the music stops. It seems unlikely that the music, which began with no input from Richard, would conclude upon his command, yet the script offers no explicit commentary to either support or deny that notion.
The turning point for Richard's musical command – and the turning point for his power in general – comes when his uncle, John Gaunt, dies in 2.1. Prior to Richard's entrance, Gaunt comments how
the tongues of dying men
Enforce attention like deep harmony. …
More are men's ends mark'd than their lives before.
The setting sun, and music at the close
As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last (5-6 & 11-3).
In other words, that which occurs at the end of something often receives more attention than that which occurs at its beginning. In this context, Gaunt means that his criticisms at the end of his life should receive more weight than any previously mentioned. But this “sweetest last” idea applies to music, too. Though not yet true in Shakespeare's day (he died in 1616), this is an accurate summary of common practice functional harmony (ca. 1650-1900). Indeed, the entire discipline of Schenkerian analysis is predicated on an elaborate prolongation of tonic that ultimately leads to a predominant-dominant-tonic cadence. The ending is where the harmonic action is – that which comes before the cadence is often of significantly less harmonic interest.
After Richard's entrance, Gaunt savagely berates the king. “Thy death-bed is no lesser than thy land, / Wherein thou liest in reputation sick,” he cautions. “A thousand flatterers sit within thy crown … Which art possess'd now to depose thyself.” (95-6, 100, 108) “This scene might prove a new beginning or Richard,” writes Ted Tregear in his 2019 essay Music at the Close, “however dissolute his career so far” (p. 697). But the self-centered Richard, offended that anybody would dare criticize him, instead rejects Gaunt as “A lunatic lean-witten fool / Presuming on an ague's privilege” and proceeds to intercept Gaunt's inheritance (115-6). Failing to heed Gaunt's warning proves to be the point of no return for Richard. From then on, he suffers one breakdown after another, until he winds up imprisoned and murdered in the final act.
Richard II is the story of a king's gradual loss of jurisdiction. And along the way, musical imagery is constantly present to help tell it.
And here's all the boring (but important) statistical stuff. Music in Shakespeare's plays assumes three distinct roles: (1) stage directions, (2) lyrics, and (3) dialog. I've found 26 explicit musical references in the script of Richard II. Of those, exactly half are stage directions.
None of the 26 are lyrics.
That leaves 13 musical references in the dialog (many of which were considered above).
Lastly, what composers throughout history have written music for Richard II, as a music drama, as incidental music to accompany a performance, or as concert works inspired by it?
There is a somewhat surprising dearth of music for Richard II. I have not been able to find any operas or musicals (or even references to them) whatsoever, though that doesn't mean none exist.
Perhaps the most historically important composer to write music for RII was Englishman Henry Purcell (1659-95), who, according to Charles Cudworth in his essay Song and Part-Song Setting of Shakespeare's Lyrics, 1660-1960, composed “Retired from any mortal's sight” for Nahum Tate's 1681 Bowdlerized adaptation of Richard II re-titled The Sicilian Usurper, even though it contains “not a line by Shakespeare” (p. 56).
I also stumbled upon a 2019 article from The Guardian describing the premiere recording of Ralph Vaughan-Williams' score for a radio production of RII, though I've not been able to actually hear it.
The only other composer of note I've been able to connect with RII (ever so tangentially) is Aaron Copland, who collaborated with Orson Welles in 1939 on The Five Kings, an adaptation of several of Shakespeare's history plays. According to aaroncopland.com, however, the manuscript remains unpublished.
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