Report: The Life of St Cuthbert world premiere, Durham Cathedral

Review: Life of St Cuthbert

Durham vocal Festival hosts the World Premiere of the new sung drama titled the Life of Cuthbert on Friday 8 February in Durham Cathedral.

The Life of Cuthbert was first developed in 2016, following an Arts and Humanities Research Council-sponsored Cultural Engagement project between the Durham Department of History and the not-for-profit opera ensemble, Cantata Dramatica ( Drawing on sources for medieval Durham still preserved in the Cathedral and University libraries, History Department staff Dr Charlie Rozier and Dr Giles Gasper helped to develop the concept and content of the new commission. The words were written by Dr Rozier and Nick Pitts-Tucker, of Cantata Dramatica during 2016, while the music was composed by Solfa Carlisle.

We were thrilled to see an audience of around 200 spectators fill the nave of Durham’s fabulous Anglo-Norman cathedral. David Stancliffe, Bishop of Salisbury from 1993 to 2010, read the part of narrator, Symeon of Durham (below) standing not far from where Symeon himself is probably buried off the monastic complex.

The show was reviewed by Durham University Music Society, and can be read here:

The reviewer seemed particularly fond of our ending, as were lots of spectators:

The final scene was my personal highlight of the evening. The chordal motif first heard in the opening scene was reprised in a particularly effective manner, incorporating all the musicians on stage. The work rounded off with a final solo passage for baritone Tate, which served as a bittersweet end to the piece as Cuthbert found his final resting place in Durham. The stillness which followed, with the dimming of the lights to a complete black out and a silence before rapturous applause, made the moment all the more poignant as the audience sat and digested the work.

Overall, a thoroughly successful first performance. All participants, including composer, musicians, singers and audience, agreed that small tweaks could be made to further improve the work, but as Julia from Cantata Dramatica noted, ‘this is exactly what a premiere is for’! Thanks are due to all involved, with too many to mention here – see the review for a longer list of contributors.

Charlie (Durham History) and Julia (Cantata Dramatica) have agreed that we must try to maximise the long-term impact of our collaboration. From humble beginnings around a table in March 2016 we have managed to collaborate from the Durham University History Department and Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies outwards to a range of organisations including Cantata Dramatica, Durham Cathedral, Durham Music Service, Durham University Chamber Choir, Durham University Music Society, four primary schools in the north-east, and a number of individuals, not least our composer, Solfa, and conductor, James Burton. Now we begin drafting ideas on how we might extend our schools outreach, and offer a repeat performance of the cantata further into 2020 and beyond. Watch this space!

Singing the Past Primary Schools Outreach

On Tuesday 5 and Wednesday 6 February, almost the entire cast of the List of St Cuthbert made their way around four primary schools to share our work and arouse new enthusiasm for our music and words.

The visits were arranged in collaboration with the Durham County Music Service, who fixed us up with schools in Durham and Northumberland, at Seahouses, Ponteland, Chester-le-Street and Seaham. In each school, we gave a short Q&A on what the children knew about St Cuthbert (we were happy to learn that all knew quite a lot!) before Daniel Tate (who plays Cuthbert) gave a short singing masterclass. Then we performed three scenes from the finished performance, and the children joined in with the sections taught to them by Daniel.

This was a transformative experience for both singers and audience. We reached out to over 500 students across the four schools, and one teacher commented:

‘We have never had an experience like this in a primary school before’.

Some of the schools expressed their hope that we might return with more material in the future, and the Singing the Past team are exploring options for developing more detailed singing, music and history workshops for 2020, to coincide with the Feast of St Cuthbert in March.

Don’t forget that you can still get your tickets for the world premiere of the Life of St Cuthbert, which takes place in Durham Cathedral at 19:30 on Friday 8 February.

Tickets are priced at £15, £8 for concessions and £5 children, and are available on the door and online through the following link:

Life of St Cuthbert Preview at Bamburgh, 2 February

Last week, our team made the journey to St Aidan’s church in Bamburgh on a wintry Saturday morning, for a special preview of the Life of Cuthbert.

The performance consisted of a slimmed-down version of our main piece, covering around half of the material to be premiered in Durham Cathedral on Friday 8 February at 19:30. Charlie Rozier was pleased to read the part of the narrator, Symeon of Durham, on whom he has conducted significant parts of his academic research and whose voice underpins much of our final piece.

All agreed that the singers and musicians sounded superb. We were pleased that so many members of the local public could make the showing in what were very difficult weather conditions, but all who attended said that they had enjoyed hearing what we had to offer. We were glad of the chance to extend the reach of Durham Vocal Festival 2019 and develop new partnerships on behalf of Cantata Dramatica in the north-east.

We are now more excited than ever for our big performance on Friday!

Life of St. Cuthbert World Premiere

Durham vocal Festival hosts the World Premiere of the new operatic drama titled the Life of Cuthbert on Friday 8 February in Durham Cathedral. Join us from 19:30, for a two-hour journey through Cuthbert’s life, miracle-working and translation to Durham, and learn more about Durham’s most famous saint through the medium of classical music and song.

The Life of Cuthbert was first developed in 2016, following an Arts and Humanities Research Council-sponsored Cultural Engagement project between the Durham Department of History and the not-for-profit opera ensemble, Cantata Dramatica ( Drawing on sources for medieval Durham still preserved in the Cathedral and University libraries, History Department staff Dr Charlie Rozier and Dr Giles Gasper helped to develop the concept and content of the new commission. The words were written by Dr Rozier and Nick Pitts-Tucker, of Cantata Dramatica during 2016, while the music was composed by Solfa Carlisle.

Dr Rozier explains his motivations:

I’ve been researching and writing about Durham’s medieval past for my whole career. Taking part in this project gave me the opportunity to share my academic work with a wider audience and in a new genre (in this case, operatic music).

Cantata Dramatica have been producing some really excellent pieces of new sung drama over the past few years, giving opportunities to talented young writers, composers, conductors, singers and musicians. I first provided historical research for them on a piece about medieval Ely, which we performed in Ely Cathedral during 2016. When we first suggested collaborating on Durham and St Cuthbert, I leapt at the chance.

I hope that audiences will enjoy what we have made. St Cuthbert is our key protagonist, and our story shows something of his life as a young man, a monk and eventually also a saint. Local audiences might be familiar with the character of St Cuthbert, but we hope to show them some new insights into his world, and something of his personality in the tumultuous world of early Anglo-Saxon Northumbria.

Several original medieval sources which are still kept in Durham archives have shaped our work. The most important of these is a twelfth-century chronicle written by Symeon of Durham. Although people might not know him, Symeon’s influence is central to our understanding of Durham’s early history. We used Symeon as the narrator character in our work, and because Symeon drew heavily on Bede, this relationship is reflected in our dialogue between the two at the opening of Scene III.

As part of our performance, we will also be taking our music to the people of the region. A special preview performance will be given at St Aidan’s Church in Bamburgh on Saturday 2 February at 1pm. In addition, our singers will be giving workshops for schoolchildren in Northumbria and County Durham on Tuesday 5 and Wednesday 6 February. The participants will have the chance to hear some of the music, and to take part in singing some of the Life of Cuthbert. We hope that this will transform their understanding of and relationship with St Cuthbert.

In addition, three public lectures will be given by research staff at Durham University, which summarise the development of the project and showcase new research on the community of St Cuthbert during the Middle Ages. Attendance at the talks is free, and no prior booking is necessary. Talks begin at 17:00 on Friday 8 February and will last until 18:30. (Venue: Durham University Palace Green buildings, room 28: located next to the Palace Green University police office and the Café on the Green restaurant).

  • Dr Charlie Rozier: ‘Writing History in Durham, c.1000-1130’.
  • Dr David Petts: ‘Summary of Archaeological Excavations at Lindisfarne Priory’.
  • Dr Giles Gasper: ‘What does it mean to be in the north?: Durham and its wider context in the early twelfth century’.

It has been a privilege to work alongside everyone at the Durham County Music Service, Durham Vocal Fest, Cantata Dramatica and Durham University, who have worked so hard to put their performance together. We hope that everyone who comes will enjoy what we have to offer, and we hope that the piece will help to spark new relationships with Durham’s medieval past and the music of the future!

The premiere of the Life of Cuthbert takes place at 19:30-21:30 at Durham Cathedral, conducted by James Burton, performed by Durham University Chamber Choir and Durham and Northumberland Music Service Players. Tickets (£15.00 and £8.00 concession rate) are available to buy online:

End of AHRC funding cycle report

So, August ends and so does Charlie’s funding from the AHRC for the Singing the Past project. e have been busy submitting reports and documents for this, and would like to include some material from these here, so let you know what we have done, and what more we hope to do with the project as it continues in the coming months.

Overall, we feel that the project has progressed according to plan. To begin the collaborative elements of the project, Charlie and Giles hosted a collaborative seminar on the project (2 March 2016) attended by members of Cantata Dramatica’s management board, alongside research students and staff from Durham University’s Institute for Medieval and Early Modern Studies and Departments of History and Music. Charlie chaired this day-long forum, during which we shared ideas for the character and content of the new composition on St Cuthbert, and potential cultural engagement activities related to the project. Most notable among the latter, was the ambition to work with a local choir in order to test-run sections of the new composition, and to provide the chorus for the eventual main performance during 2018. Giles made contact with Durham Cathedral to arrange for a partnership with respect to the performance in 2018, which will have a liturgical and well as concert version. The responses to these approaches was positive.

In April, Charlie shared the project during a session for the Durham University IMEMS community engagement course, ‘Drama, Ritual, Storytelling and People’, which is offered to non-specialist lifelong learners through collaboration with New College, Durham and co-taught with recent Durham doctoral graduate, Dr Gemma Wain (Twitter: @Gemmawain). The session, titled ‘Medieval Saints and Modern Operas’ introduced participants to the study of medieval saints and the role of saints in medieval society using sources composed and circulated in medieval Durham, and asked them to share their views on how far these saints (and in particular St Cuthbert) might be considered as being relevant to the life of the Durham region. We ended by giving participants the opportunity to sing two scenes from Cantata Dramatica’s Cantata Eliensis, and this was very popular indeed, and a welcome relief to Charlie.

Gemma saints

In early June, Charlie hosted a public Consultation Workshop in the Durham World Heritage Site visitor centre. This featured a PowerPoint loop with information on the project and a loop of recorded audio extracts from Cantata Eliensis, distribution of flyers and promotional materials for the forthcoming weekend of Cantata Dramatica and Singing the Past activities in Ely, and gave visitors the chance to fill out a short survey on their thoughts about the project and our developing new composition on the life and cult of St Cuthbert. Some qualitative data was gathered, but Charlie found that the majority of visitors were from overseas or from outside the local region, and so did not have many ideas about St Cuthbert. Those who were willing to contribute were very keen to learn more, and said that they would follow the progress of the project as it develops.

On Sunday 26 June, Charlie assisted in organising a major public event, when Cantata Dramatica performed Cantata Eliensis at Ely Cathedral to an audience of over 100, as part of the St Etheldreda’s festival weekend. Charlie curated an afternoon of public lectures by academics from Durham university and the University of Cambridge, which discussed the medieval history of Ely and the ‘Book of Ely’, on which the cantata is based. These lectures were attended by over 60 members of the public, many of whom also came to the evening performance of the cantata. ‘Singing the Past’ was also further publicised by distributing flyers (designed by Charlie and Cantata Dramatica) around shops and cafes in Ely, and on the main visitors’ reception desk of the cathedral.

CE full choir

From April onwards, Charlie worked to produce a draft of the Cuthbert Libretto, alongside nick Pitts-Tucker, librettist of Cantata Eliensis and director of Cantata Dramatica. This marked Charlie’s first major experience in creative writing, and provided a valuable opportunity to develop some of the themes explored in his postdoctoral research on Anglo-Norman Durham, in a new forum. Charlie developed the character of the cantor, Symeon of Durham, who acts as the narrator of the piece, and whose historical works provide the most detailed picture of Anglo-Norman Durham for academic researchers. Charlie added text to the libretto derived from a number of medieval sources, including Symeon’s History of the Durham church, Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert, and the Anglo-Saxon poem Durham, and by doing so was able to apply his academic research towards the composition a piece for public performance. Nick tutored Charlie in this creative writing process, and their collaboration allowed both co-authors to think deeply about the tensions between storytelling and historical accuracy, which were then incorporated into the libretto, through a scene in which the character of Bede challenged Symeon of Durham on the accuracy of his story, as featured in the libretto.

The end of our AHRC funding is by no means the end of work on the project. Charlie, along with the project supervisor, Giles Gasper, will continue to work alongside Cantata Dramatica in the development of the new composition on St Cuthbert, which is expected to be performed in full in Durham Cathedral during March 2018. During 2017, both Charlie and Giles will attend a preliminary workshop at a venue in Durham, during which the piece will be performed with orchestra, choir, soloists and composer. To coincide with the performance in 2018, Charlie and Giles aim to provide an accompanying academic conference, which will explore aspects of St Cuthbert’s community in Anglo-Norman Durham, with international, national and local speakers.

Charlie will continue updating this project blog, with news of progress and upcoming events, and will continue to publicise the blog and other events through his Twitter account (@rozierhistorian).

Charlie has worked alongside Cantata Dramatica since 2012, providing consultancy on historical compositions (Cantata Eliensis, Beowulf, and others) and will continue to do so on an ad-hoc basis when required, as the organisation expands and develops new works.

The future looks bright for this collaboration, and we hope that you continue to follow our activities as we work towards that first triumphant performance of the new Cuthbert composition in 2018. It promises to be an occasion to remember!


Public Lecture: The Cult of St Cuthbert and the Story of Durham, c.995-1130

On Saturday, Charlie was very pleased to give a lecture titled ‘The Cult of St Cuthbert and the Story of Durham, c.995-1130’ to the Durham County Local History Society, hosted at the Durham City Theatre.

The Society is a registered charity (no. 235597), and was formed in 1964 to encourage and promote interest in the study of the history of County Durham. One of their principal aims is to preserve records of Durham’s famous industrial past, but there is a marked interest in all periods of local history among the members. (The society is always looking to recruit new speakers and members, so do check their website if you are interested in participating).

Having outlined the Singing the Past project, Charlie then gave a 45-minute lecture which summarised his research on the twelfth-century author, Symeon of Durham, and his role in passing on the spiritual and intellectual legacies of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria to new Norman audiences, after his arrival at Durham in c.1091.

Charlie was very pleased to see that there was a good appetite for learning about Durham’s medieval past among the local resident, and it was particularly interesting to hear some opinions and questions from the audience (such as: ‘Did anyone question the story of Cuthbert’s corpse in the Middle Ages?’; ‘What is the truth behind the story that Cuthbert’s coffin became too heavy to move in the mud outside Durham?’- showing a healthy level of scepticism required by any good historian!)

More news and a summary of our Cuthbert composition coming soon!


Singing the Past at the Festival of St Etheldreda, Ely

Sunday 26th June saw our biggest event of the summer as Singing the Past came to the festival of St Etheldreda in Ely, with a series of public history talks, promotion of the project in and around the cathedral, and the performance of Cantata Dramatica‘s Cantata Eliensis in the Lady Chapel of the cathedral on Sunday evening.

leaflets nave
Promotional materials for Singing the Past and Cantata Eliensis at the entrance desk of Ely Cathedral

Aethelfryth, daughter of King Anna of East Anglia (also known as Etheldreda) founded an abbey at Ely in AD 673. The buildings and community were survived the Viking invasions of the late ninth century, but were greatly diminished until re-founded as a Benedictine monastery  in 970, under the reform programme of Bishop Ethelwold of Winchester. After the Norman Conquest, Ely provided a refuge for a resistance movement, but was eventually worn down by King William who imposed severe financial conditions on the monastic community for their part in harbouring the opposition. A new cathedral was begun in 1083. The libretto of Cantata Eliensis, written by Nick Pitts-Tucker, tells this story of Ely’s foundation and the Norman rebuilding of the cathedral through the media of music and singing.


On Saturday, I spent the day handing out leaflets in Ely for Sunday’s events, and scouting around the historic parts of the old town with Daisy the Beagle (one of the most historically-informed dogs in the country).daisy ely

On Sunday, we were joined by De Helen Foxhall-Forbes (Durham), Dr Rosalind Love (Cambridge) and Janet Fairwether (Cambridge, and resident of Ely) for a series of public lectures on the Anglo-Saxon and Norman history of Ely. Helen gave a fascinating insight into Ely’s relationship with a guild of thegns from Cambridge, before Rosalind explored the role of Ethelfrith’s sister, the little-known Queen and Abbess Seaxburgh. Janet rounded things off with an introduction to the Liber Eliensis (the ‘book of Ely’) which is a twelfth-century account of the  Ely community and its saints, on which Nick’s libretto was largely based. The lectures were well attended by a selection of local residents, visitors and history enthusiasts, and there were plenty of questions for the speakers and lively discussions from all present. We were pleased to see that many also came to the evening performance in the cathedral, especially since we planned the lectures and performance of two parts to the same programme.

Later in the evening came the set-piece performance of Cantata Eliensis, and our chance to really sing the past to life. I had heard sections of the piece before through recordings, but I was quite blown away by this full-scale performance. I was particularly struck by the power of Nick’s Queens (Seaxburgh by Rebecca Ramsey; Werburh by Lucy Cox; Eormenhild by Elaine Bishop; William I’s wife Matilda by Becca Marriott and of course Ethelfrith by Katie Slater) and especially the beginning of Act Two where all four Anglo-Saxon queens take turns to ask ‘Who am I?’ before explaining how important and powerful they are.

My next favourite section is the building section in Act Three, where the quarrymen labour to dig out the stones before the builders and carpenters bring in a flurry of activity. This section in particular really brings to life what must have been a long and arduous process, and is well worth a listen on the Cantata Dramatica website.

CE full choir

Overall, a very successful weekend of cultural engagement activities, and Singing the Past to Life. I’m personally grateful to Cantata Drmatica directors, Julia Stutfield and Nick Pitts-Tucker for inviting me to take part in a really enjoyable weekend of activities. If Cantata Eliensis serves as a useful guide to what we might hope to achieve with our new composition on St Cuthbert, then this weekend of public performances and lectures shows what we can achieve in Durham when we’re finally ready to show off what we’ve done on this project. More on the Cuthbert piece in the next blog!


Singing the Past at Ely, Sunday 26 June

All steam ahead for one of our biggest Singing the Past events of the summer, at the festival of St Etheldreda, Ely, on Sunday 26 June.

As reported in one of my blogs earlier in the year, Singing the Past will be making several important contributions to the festival weekend.

BW Ely

Julia (Cantata Dramatica) has been putting the finishing touches to an exciting new performance of Cantata Eliensis (the building of Ely). This performance takes place at 6:30 pm in the magnificent setting of the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral (seen to the right of the picture, above: behind the wintry-looking tree!). The story begins in the seventh century, with the founding of an abbey by St Etheldreda and her sister Seaxburh. Act One, with music by Anna Krause, is contemplative and in complete contrast to the violent scenes in Toby Young’s Act Two where William the Conqueror threatens to destroy the abbey but is dissuaded by his thoughtful wife Matilda. The monks and nuns then have to survive the depredations of the king’s henchmen – with the aid of St Etheldreda, of course. The final act, composed by Louis Mander, features the townsfolk involved with the building of the Cathedral under the guidance of Richard of Bec, and its blessing by St Werburh. The performance lasts about one and a half hours including a short break between each of the three acts. [Tickets are £15 and £10 (students and under-18s £5) and will be available on the door, but all seats are reserved so pre-booking is advised from Ely Cathedral Box Office: 01353 660349 (Mon-Sat 9.30am- 4.30pm) or the online booking service].

We celebrate the performance of Cantata Eliensis with an afternoon of illustrated public lectures by leading academic researchers from the universities of Durham and Cambridge. Join us as we explore the early history of Ely during the Anglo-Saxon and Norman periods, and learn more about some of the latest research into the rich and complex history of these tumultuous centuries. Attendance is free, and all are welcome, although please note that this is a non-ticketed event with unreserved seating.


12:30–14:00: session one

  • ‘Thegns at Cambridge and Ely in late Anglo-Saxon England’, Dr Helen Foxhall-Forbes (Durham University)
  • ‘Seaxburh: King Anna’s other daughter’, Dr Rosalind Love (University of Cambridge)

14:15–15:45: session two

  • ‘The Liber Eliensis: a celebration of five hundred years of Ely’s history’, Janet Fairweather (University of Cambridge)

This promises to be a brilliant day of cultural engagement activities, and we look forward to seeing as many people as possible at either or both events.


Durham Public Consultation Workshop

Charlie had the chance to share news about Singing the Past at an open public consultation workshop on Saturday in the Durham World Heritage Site visitor centre. We set up a display in the corner of the room featuring a powerpoint loop with information on the project and a loop of recorded extracts from Cantata Eliensis, gave out flyers and promotional materials for the forthcoming weekend of Cantata Dramatica and Singing the Past activities in Ely, and gave visitors the chance to fill out a short survey on their thoughts about the project and our developing new composition on the life and cult of St Cuthbert (see below for copies of the questionnaire and powerpoint)


What a day! A footfall counter on the door of the centre recorded over 300 people coming into the centre and seeing our display on the project. Charlie had some very interesting conversations with a whole range of visitors younger and older, hailing from close by and further afield, including local towns like Crook and Lanchester but also Belgium, France, the US, Australia and New Zealand.

Visitors from the local area seemed particularly keen to share ideas on what they knew and thought about St Cuthbert, and about the importance of his cult in present-day Durham. One visitor even shared a story of how she believed Cuthbert had healed a broken arm, after praying at his shrine in the cathedral. This was very interesting for a medieval historian to hear and shows that belief in St Cuthbert is still strong among certain members of the local community.

The results of the short questionnaire will be explored in the next few weeks, and should feed into our future plans for the Cuthbert composition and eventual performances in Durham during 2017 and 2018.

Overall, a successful event in helping to spread knowledge of the project among visitors to Durham, and it was particularly notable to see how many surveys responded positively to the question: ‘Will you be telling other people about the Singing the Past project?’ We look forward to hearing more from future audiences, and sharing our music and history with them as the project develops over the coming weeks.


PPT loop