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

Medieval Saints and Modern Operas: Durham University Medieval and Early Modern Student Association Community Engagement Course

Do medieval saints matter to modern audiences? Gemma and I were given the opportunity to ask this and lots of other interesting questions in a seminar delivered to the Durham University Medieval and Early Modern Student Association Community Engagement Course. Planned by Jamie Beckett, a doctoral researcher in the Durham Department of English Studies, this year’s course is titled ‘Drama, Ritual, Storytelling and People’. The aim of this course is to provide members of the public with the chance to engage with some of the research being carried out by our young researchers at Durham, and to learn more about Durham’s past.

Gemma and I used our session to think about the purpose of the Singing the Past project, and especially the gather feedback on the ways in which we could present St Cuthbert in our forthcoming new composition. Gemma had a lot of fun introducing the rich and varied world of medieval saints and their worship (see below) and we also introduced the participants to some of the main medieval sources for St Cuthbert, including Bede’s Life, and Symeon’s twelfth-century history of the Durham church, the Libellus de exordio.

Gemma saints

Together, we had some really interesting discussions on the importance of saints in Durham’s medieval past. We thought about how modern audiences engage with medieval saints, which led into a discussion about how we present the ‘truth’ of medieval saints’ lives in modern history and drama. After this, we heard (and some sang along with!) some material from Cantata Dramatica’s Cantata Eliensis (‘The Building of Ely’) which will be performed in Ely Cathedral on 26 June.

Following the session, we have distributed a feedback survey to the participants, which asks for opinions on the extracts from Cantata Eliensis, and invites suggestions about what we might like to include in our forthcoming piece on St Cuthbert. The results of this will feed in to our future work, and hopefully a follow-up blog in the next week.

Gemma and I were hugely grateful to the participants for really engaging with the material and throwing themselves into a detailed discussion about some themes which can be quite distanced from modern audiences, but which, as we all agreed, have been crucial to Durham’s history for over a thousand years.