The Bard was hardly the world’s first literary giant to dramatize or narrate great historical moments; far from it. But no one was more methodical and systematic about it; none could conceive of such a brilliant and sustained narrative arc as the old Staff-Shaker. It is no wonder, then, that the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) devised The Hollow Crown, a production on a vast scale of his English History plays taking in all the plays from Richard II to Richard III, via the Henriad (namely, Henry IV 1&2, Henry V, Henry VI 1&2). The idea was for character continuity, with those in more than one drama to be played by the same actors (where possible). A triumph of the British and U.S. stage (even features as background to a West Wing episode!). Perhaps inevitably, the concept was then also filmed for a Sam Mendes-led joint BBC/PBS production from 2012.
This could never have worked if the plays were merely of academic historical interest. It’s because they are compelling and brilliant, profoundly resonant for power politics still. That is why the history plays have inspired composers almost as much as the tragedies—as this week’s list will seek to prove.
1. “Non Nobis Domine” (finale from Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 Henry V) Henry V
—Patrick Doyle (1953- , Scottish) Crouch End Festival Chorus, City of Prague Philharmonic
We start with one of the greatest cinematic Shakespeares, the 1989 Henry V played and directed by Kenneth Branagh while still in his 20s! His go-to composer has always been Patrick Doyle (who often has cameo roles as singers and others). The entire soundtrack is thrilling (if you can track it down; it doesn’t seem to be streamable), epic in scale, altogether enhancing the film’s creative vision. Branagh sought to make this much more of a visceral war movie rather than the jingoistic morale booster that was Olivier’s (of which more in a moment). So, he preserved scenes like the play’s early unmasking of the traitors and did not shy away from the mud and gore of mediaeval battle. This track captures both the joy and sheer relief of victory after the Battle of Agincourt on “Feast of Saint Crispian”! But leaving aside the crude assumption that victory automatically rendered a war’s cause just, the mediaeval mind was ever-conscious of God’s presence and providence. Thus, as the king instructs, the whole cast is led into rapturous praise (using Psalm 115:1 and the ancient Christian hymn, the Te Deum):
Henry: Do we all holy rites. Let there be sung Non nobis, and Te Deum, The dead with charity enclosed in clay, And then to Calais, and to England then, Where ne’er from France arrived more happy men —Henry V, Act 4, Scene 8
Incidentally, an old flatmate of mine, Steve, had an American friend studying over here for a while. This chap ended up working quite high up in the G. W. Bush administration, I think, and was as patriotic as they come. But Steve got him to watch Branagh’s film, after which he said, “Now that’s what real patriotism looks like!” At the king’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, he said, “This is making even me feel English!’ A nice irony is that Sir Kenneth (as he now is) never was English in the first place. He’s actually from Belfast in Northern Ireland!
2. Sonnet to Hank Cinq (from Such Sweet Thunder, 1957) Henry IV 1 & 2
—Duke Ellington (1899-1974, American) Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
I can almost guarantee you did not expect jazz to follow. But, in fact, the Duke put out an entire album inspired by a 1957 tour stop in Stratford, Ontario that coincided with their annual Stratford Shakespearean Festival (begun in 1952 because of the city’s English namesake where the Bard was born). He and his collaborator Billy Strayhorn created a 12-part suite, for which they devoured the plays and recent Shakespearean scholarship. It’s fantastic and has gone down as one of the great jazz albums, full of variety and invention.
I love this track’s title. It says it all. Smooth and cool; and the music is too. After all Henry is very young, a cool cat about town when he is crowned. Prince Hal, together with his old partner-in-crime, the disreputable Falstaff, got up to all kinds of tricks (in the Henry IV plays). And Ellington has caught the bachelor prince’s swagger perfectly. But we know the fun and games cannot last. The prince must grow up if he’s to become king; his leadership will have life and death consequences. Which is why, as we learn at the very end of Henry IV, the young monarch must disown the old rogue with a heart-breaking “ I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.” (Henry IV part 2: Act 5, Scene 5).
But as I listen to the piece, this is all far off in the future in Ellington’s mind. For now, the plan is simple: party!
3. Sicut Cervus & “Of Comfort No Man Speak” Richard II
—Paul Englishby (1970- , English) Paul Englishby & RSC; David Tennant
Plenty of music originates in the theatre; previous playlists have included some. But with so much on so many stages the world over, it is impossible to keep up. Most gets performed during a predocution then disappears. So I’m glad that the RSC records much of the original music for their shows. Here is a track from their recent production of Richard II. It is a choral piece, a setting in fact of Psalm 42, “As the deer pants for streams of water…” The king’s right to rule is a divine one and so it is an entirely appropriate accompaniment for one who derives his authority from heaven.
Yet one of Shakespeare’s key concerns here is what makes a reign effective. Richard is too weak and irresolute to manage it. We watch him fatally make an enemy of Bolingbroke (son of the powerful John of Gaunt). As scholars have noted, Bolingbroke seems to have learned from Machiavelli’s The Prince (it first appeared in translation less than a decade before Shakespeare wrote Richard II). Richard is left flailing, losing his mental equilibrium as his power dwindles (David Tennant’s recital of the glorious Hollow Crown speech brings that out superbly). Bolingbroke seizes the throne, crowned Henry IV, prompting a toadying courtier to murder Richard, confined at Pomfret Castle.
Englishby’s setting of Psalm 42 is extraordinary. It is eerie and unsettling, as apparently other-worldly as the rightful king. The (extremely) high soprano leaps and jumps serve to deepen that unease. A lesson perhaps that heavenly devotion rarely results in earthly success or power.
4. Richard III: A Symphonic Poem (Op. 11, JB 1:70) Richard III
—Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884, Czech) Theodore Kuchar (conductor), Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra
Richard is the king everybody loves to hate and every actor loves to play. If you got hooked on House of Cards (whether in the original UK series with Ian Richardson or the U.S. version with Kevin Spacey), you’ll have been transfixed by the times when the lead stares straight into the camera to explain his thinking. Or perhaps to justify himself. It’s known as breaking the fourth wall and done well, it can be incredibly powerful.
But Shakespeare’s villainous ruler is the one who perfected the art. The Crookback Richard frequently takes the audience into his confidence; we thus become complicit. I’ve seen a few Richards over the years, but I’ll never forget Spacey’s in London years ago. I bet it was this that inspired him to get House of Cards made. Here is Richard’s opening speech, while still only Duke of York:
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous, By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams, To set my brother Clarence and the King In deadly hate, the one against the other; And if King Edward be as true and just As I am subtle, false, and treacherous, This day should Clarence closely be mewed up. —Richard III, Act 1, Scene 1
Smetana was a great Czech patriot and nationalist (his Má Vlast/My Fatherland is superb), so he isn’t perhaps the first composer one would expect to write about an English king. But he was clearly greatly taken with Shakespeare, and wrote music inspired by Twelfth Night and Macbeth as well as Richard III. In this single movement piece, we can hear Richard’s stealth and skulduggery from the very start. If Bolingbroke introduced Machiavelli’s wicked pragmatism to the English throne, Richard, Duke of York perfected it.
5. The Death of Cleopatra (Op. 40, 1966) Antony & Cleopatra
—Samuel Barber (1910-1981, American) Christian Badea (conductor), Esther Hinds (soprano) & Jeffrey Wells (bass), Spoleto Festival Orchestra
Shakespeare, of course, was hardly restricted to English history. He was fascinated by Athens and Rome too, and his Antony and Cleopatra came eight years after his Julius Caesar. Both qualify as tragedies, as do Macbeth and Coriolanus despite their historical origins (though Coriolanus is now regarded as legendary). But as so often, great art is impossible to categorise.
Samuel Barber is best known for his ethereal, melancholic Adagio for Strings (sometimes in its choral form, Agnus Dei). But he is by no means a one-hit-wonder! He was commissioned to write an opera for the Met in New York and so his Antony and Cleopatra (with text by none other than the great Franco Zeffirelli) was premiered in 1966. Unfortunately, it was a flop and closed after eight performances. It has subsequently been revised and has found new audiences. I only discovered it while researching for this playlist but was knocked sideways by its climax, the Egyptian Queen’s suicide. This too is eerie and dark, as befitting a story set in an alien and unimaginably remote world.
Henry V Suite (1944) Henry V
—Sir William Walton (1902-1983, English) Sir William Walton (conductor), Philharmonia Orchestra (1963 recording)
And so it’s back to Hank Cinq. The world was at war in 1944. The UK was no longer alone, now that Hitler had turned on his erstwhile ally Stalin, and the U.S. had been propelled into the fight by Pearl Harbor. But England’s morale had been battered and bruised like its Blitz-beaten cities. (Though we should never forget that the Allies would drop as many bombs on German cities in a single night as London suffered during the entire war). Who better to bolster the country’s resolve than the national poet himself, and which better character to turn to than Henry V, the king who sailed across the English Channel—known by the French as La Manche, or The Sleeve, a fact I’ve always found rather impertinent myself, but you can’t have everything—to claim a heroic victory? And who better to portray him than our finest thespian (at least, as far as he was concerned), old Larry Olivier himself? We won’t make too much of the fact that the enemy in question is French, because the Free French were our allies (sadly, the bard didn’t really anticipate a German foe). So as already hinted, the film clearly had propagandistic purposes (hence no traitors’ scene—we don’t really need reminding of that possibility now, do we?). And the fighting scenes are gripping but highly stylised and glory-focused.
Olivier commissioned Walton to compose the soundtrack and he pulled off a masterpiece in its own right. His score wonderfully captures the film’s heroic spirit and few did more than Walton and his contemporary Ralph Vaughan-Williams to evoke what we now assume to be the sound of the late mediaeval and early Tudor periods. As you listen to it, even without seeing the movie, I’d be surprised if you failed to envisage scenes of chivalrous knight jousting and beautiful maids sorting fragrant herbs, spied through a blur of lead-latticed windows. Walton’s score became a kind of Hollywood template for the Middle Ages! The five movements in this suite (devised specifically for concert performances, of which there have since been thousands) are utterly compelling and exciting.
A little teaser as I wrap up. I wonder if you can spot Walton’s musical inspiration for the 4th movement (“Touch her soft lips and part”—depicting the scene where Pistol and his fellow foot soldiers say farewell to his wife to leave for France)? Hint: we have had it in a recent playlist…
Bonus extra: Henry V contains one of my favourite lines about tennis balls in the history of theatre.