Primary pupils in York have helped bring to life a turbulent time in Britain's past. Harvey McGavin finds out more about a lyrical history lesson in a 12th-century church
Dedicated in the 12th century, damaged during the English civil war, rebuilt by the Victorians then neglected and declared redundant in the 1970s; St Margaret's church in York has seen a few things in its time.
Three years ago, it was restored with help from National Lottery funding and became a fitting home for the National Centre for Early Music. Now its ancient walls echo once again to the sound of plainsong and chamber music, enhanced by all the 21st-century technology housed in the adjacent extension.
Medieval and modern meet at the city's Festival of Early Music, in a production last month quite unlike anything St Margaret's has seen in its 900-year history. The festival opens with Counterpoint, a musical drama starring the children of nearby Heworth C of E primary school. Set in 1567, it recreates one of the most turbulent times in British history, the aftermath of the dissolution of the monasteries, and centres around an imaginary encounter between two figures from the 16th century, William Harrys and Robert Burland. Counterpoint was written by Cathy Dew, the centre's education officer and expert on medieval music, and dramatised by Paul Birch, the actor who plays Robert Burland.
Ms Dew pieced the story together from historical records in York Minster's library and archive. Although there is no evidence the two met or were friends, they would have been boy choristers at The Minster around the same time, so Ms Dew and Mr Birch simply used a bit of dramatic licence to fill in the historical blanks. "The intention was to make early music interesting and accessible to young people while keeping true to its historical context," says Ms Dew. "It brings out the tensions that existed in the ecclesiastical community at the time."
The production pays close attention to period detail. Its cast are dressed in convincing Tudor costume, the script is couched in the archaic, yet easy-on-the-ear language of the day, and the action is accompanied by the slow, graceful tones of Tudor music. The score is derived from the work of John Thorne, the noted Tudor composer who was organist at York Minster between 1543 and 1573, and includes his choral piece "Stella Coeli".
While there's nothing new about primary schools putting on historical dramas, the authentic origins, attention to detail and Grade I listed church setting make Counterpoint a cut above the rest. As a history lesson, it lives in the memory much longer than a 45-minute lesson spent sitting behind a desk. The story is peppered with references to the turbulent politics of that time, evoking the disagreements between church and state, Protestants and Catholics and, in this case, two childhood friends unable to breach their adult prejudices. When the main characters discuss whether the plagues and sweating sicknesses that ravaged the local population in 1549 and 1552 were punishments from God, it's a reminder of the paucity of medical knowledge, the fervent religious beliefs and the ongoing fear of a grisly death that typified the times.
With the windows blacked out and lights down low, the overall effect is an eerily realistic impression of life 500 years ago. When the performance is over, it's a surprise to walk into the bright, modern annexe and back into the present day. For the 19 children from Heworth primary - who play choristers under the tutelage of Harrys and Burland - the journey in time from Year 6 back to the Middle Ages has been an education in itself.
Children lucky enough to have had a church education - virtually the only kind available in those days - had a very different experience to today's pupils. They were expected to commit to memory an entire chapter of the gospel each week. The Heworth pupils had three weeks of rehearsals after they finished their Sats, but even in that time they struggled to learn four verses.
"One of the most striking aspects for the children is the amount Tudor children had to commit to memory," says Ms Dew. "They had a slate, if they were lucky, and that had to be wiped clean every day. So everything was in their heads. We have found it a struggle to remember things. And the children realise how different it is today now we have everything written in books or on computers."
Tudor times are a major component of key stage 2 history and even in a place as replete with examples of those times as York, there has rarely been such a vivid recreation of what life was like then. History can seem a faraway place, but acting the careful recreations of the plot and playing the role of their contemporaries from those times have brought it much closer for the children.
"What they have most liked is learning what it was like to be a child in those days. They can read about it in books and learn it in school, but a project like this brings it alive," says Ms Dew.
The play charts a chance meeting between Harrys and Burland, whose childhood friendship is tested by the manner in which their lives divert - Harrys becomes a "singing man", a professional whose existence threatens the livelihood of Burland, a vicar choral. The two main characters are played by professional actors and the musicians are led by undergraduates from the University of York, but the younger members of the cast are no slouches when it comes to the finer points of medieval music making. "They have enjoyed it and found it challenging - singing plainsong was a new experience for them," says Ms Dew.
The children give a convincing rendition of the tonal subtleties of plainsong and ably accompany the violin and organ players with percussive instruments and - in a slight concession to modern times - a saxophone.
During the final rehearsal, while a few members of the choir are still struggling to remember the middle verse of the final song, the musicians, seated in the corner of the church, beat out a steady rhythm on their tone chimes and bass bars. "We have a strong tradition of music in the school," says Keith Schooling, Heworth's head. "A lot of children learn instruments and this gives them a chance to put those skills into practice and give them meaning and enjoyment."
The children of Heworth are also used to delving into York's rich history - their most recent project was a reconstruction of the city's siege during the Civil War, and the school puts a premium on creative projects such as this one, says Mr Schooling. "Schools are under pressure because of Sats all the time and we have managed to avoid the danger of these things being squeezed out. We have put everything else aside for three weeks. The discipline they have had to put into this is an experience they won't have had in the past."
As the rest of Heworth's 135 pupils arrive for the performance and eagerly take up their front-row seats, Mr Schooling predicts that this unique historical reconstruction may live in the memory for some time. "They will look back on this for years - it's the kind of thing primary school should really be about. It rounds off the year on a high note."
HOW TO MAKE IT HAPPEN
Counterpoint, which featured 19 pupils from Heworth primary, professional actors, undergraduate musicians and staff from the National Centre for Early Music, was the opening event of the York Early Music Festival, which runs for 10 days every July.
The play is the second of a three-year project at the NCEM funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, following an oral history project centred on the memories of those who took part in the revival of the York mystery plays in 1951.
The NCEM is based in St Margaret's church, off Walmgate in York. It offers an ongoing programme of educational projects including ConsortEM - a digital technology project enabling children with special needs to make music.
The third year of the project will explore the musical instrument collection at York's Castle Museum and the heritage of instrument-making in the city. A CD-Rom with teaching resources, script and music from Counterpoint will be available from the NCEM in December. Contact: National Centre for Early Music: www.ncem.co.uk.Cathy Dew, tel: 01904 632220.Early Music network: www.earlymusic.net Heworth primary school, tel: 01904 424742.