How I wrote the music for the reinterment of King Richard III

Judith BinghamWed 18th March 2015

This is surely the most unusual commission of my life so far...

I would expect to be strung up for suggesting that next week’s reinterment of Richard III is ‘very unique’, but never have I been more tempted: it’s hard for me to think of any commission in my life so far that has been so unusual and unrepeatable as an anthem for the reburial of a medieval king. It was surprisingly nerve-wracking to write and I don’t doubt that I’ll be very nervous at the actual event on March 26

An interest in Richard III has remained strong throughout most of my life, from the first time I saw Olivier’s film of the Shakespeare when I was about 12. Richard III is one of those historical figures whose character and complex psychology changes with your own life, and so I have seen him as a martyr, a murderer, and most shades in-between. Whether we, in the 21st century, can really imagine a leader who is a scholar and a warlord, pious and profoundly pragmatic, and appreciated for those characteristics - we would surely need to look to the Middle East for an example. Judging him and his deeds with our own standards is fruitless.

I went to see Richard III’s books in the British Library. It was exceptionally memorable! I wanted to see a book called The Book of Ghostly Grace, by a 13th-century German saint called St Mechtilde. (Ghostly Grace quickly became the title of the piece). Her book was a best seller, being read by Dante and Boccaccio amongst others. It was translated into different languages and Richard III was given an English copy by his mother when he was the Duke of Gloucester. The copy that was brought out for me had two spidery signatures in the front in brown ink: R Gloucestre, and Anne Warrewyk - the latter was to become his Queen. To inhabit the space in front of the book and feel their presence, writing their names in this gift was a really amazing experience and I suddenly connected with them as real people rather than as characters in a history book. 

I really wanted to include something from this book as St Mechtilde was much admired as a musician, and it’s entirely possible that she wrote music in the same way that Hildegarde of Bingen did 100 years earlier. In the end I took a single line: ‘And lo! An exceeding fair rose, went forth from God’s heart and covered all his breast.’ An image of a rose, Richard’s own symbol, was obviously apt, but I also liked the idea of a mystic rose as symbolising God’s mercy and redemption. In other lines by a contemporary of Richard III’s the text says ‘And now he abydeth God’s mercy and hath no other socure, for, as ye see hym here, he lieth under this stone.’ The anthem comes at a part of the service where the coffin is carried to the tomb, and I hope that this last line will be sung as they arrive at the newly created monument, with it’s huge capstone waiting to be lowered.

The service of reinterment of the remains of King Richard III will take place at 11.30am on March 26 at Leicester Cathedral. The service will be led by the Most Rt Revd Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, and will include Judith Bingham's new anthem. For further information visit: kingrichardinleicester.com.

Judith Bingham

Born in Nottingham in 1952, and raised in Mansfield and Sheffield, Judith Bingham began composing as a small child, and then studied composing and singing at the Royal Academy of Music in London. She was a member of the BBC Singers for many years, and between 2004 and 2009 she was their Composer in Association. A recording of Bingham's choral works by Wells Cathedral Choir and Matthew Owens (Hyperion CDA67909) was a Gramophone Editor's Choice in the 2013 Awards issue.

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