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The Durham Hymns was a World War One commemorative project delivered by The Northern Regional Brass Band Trust in partnership with Durham County Council.

The hymns were specially commissioned from the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy and composers Jessica Curry and Orlando Gough. We further commissioned Jonathan Bates to write a piece solely for brass band - A Prelude to George Butterworth. The premiere marked the centenary of the mid-point of the First World War, offering an opportunity to share and reflect on the historical and contemporary significance of the commemorations.

The performers at the premiere in Durham Cathedral on Saturday 16 July 2016, were:

The Centenary Brass Band, comprising Bearpark and Esh Brass Band and Durham Miners Association Brass Band plus members of the Reg Vardy Band

Conductor, Alan Fernie

The Centenary Choir. drawn from amateur singers from across the county

Voices Of Hope, the acclaimed chamber choir led by Simon Fidler

Narrators. Charlie Hardwick and Phil Corbitt

 “This was a performance of distinction, beautifully rehearsed, superbly conducted and magnificently played”                                  Roderic Dunnet, The Church Times

The hymns drew directly on the county's deep cultural roots in brass and choral music. The content and inspiration for them came predominantly from research material compiled with the support of the Durham County Record Office. This included personal letters, diaries, press reports and court records of the time, plus experiences recounted in personal memoirs written later and passed town to family.

The hymns reflect aspects of the war effort from both the home and battlefronts, using the stories of individuals and communities. Carol Ann Duffy chose a broad range of stories to tell, both in lyrics and in the narration, offering different perspectives that invited reflection on our understanding of the circumstances of war and our ideas of collective and individual freedoms.

The hymns remind us not only of those who have died, that the wartime experience of the survivors was both shattering and heroic, but lead us into the everyday experiences of those left behind, their stoicism, courage and resilience. They illuminate and demonstrate the very richness and complexity of our shared history and make us consider the impact of the war on subsequent generations.

As I sat looking out on the village green, I saw a lovely sight which sent me back into the past again. A bunch of men were playing at quoits, a game I have never witnessed since before the First World War. Such peaceful scenes restore one’s hopes again. I pray night and day there will be no more wars, but my faith is shattered when I hear the news. Men are growing so wise in so many ways, yet never wise enough to prevent wars. They will never learn.

From the memoirs of Adeline Hodges, Seaham




Impressive though it was, the premiere performance at Durham Cathedral was just a small part of the Durham Hymns project. Further performances took place across the region:

Saturday 24 September 2016, 7.30pm Ushaw College, Durham with Bearpark and Esh Brass Band, Voices of Hope and the Centenary Choir

Friday 23 February 2017, 7.30pm, St Josephs RC Church, Gateshead with Dunston Silver Band, Voices of Hope and the Centenary Choir

Saturday 18 March, 2017, 7.30pm, Sunderland Minster, Durham Miners Association Brass Band with Voices of Hope and The Centenary Choir

Saturday 29 April 2017, 7.30pm, Ushaw College, Reg Vardy Band, Voices of Hope and the Centenary Choir

Mark Edwards was the conductor at each performance and the narrators were Phillippa Wilson and Chris Connel

There were also two performances of the hymns cycle by Voices of Hope without musical accompaniment other than Alison Gill on piano. These were at :

Bishop Auckland Town Hall at 7.30pm on Friday 10 March 2017

St James and St Basil Church, Fenham 1pm on Saturday 25 March 2017

As part of the overall project the NRBBT was also able to offer grants to bands wanting to commission new material for their own WW1 commemorative events. Grants were given to:

Lanchester Brass Band,

Spennymoor Town Band, for Ben Hollings, for a work inspired by Kate Maxey, a First World War Nurse who came from Spennymoor

Consett Brass Band, for a piece in memory of John Edgar a 21 year old soldier killed in the First World War, an “ordinary” Consett person who made the supreme sacrifice.

Dunston Silver Youth Band for a new piece of music by local music teacher, composer and performer, Will Roberts. The piece was  inspired by the bravery of local lad Private Thomas Young (VC) from High Spen.

NASUWT Riverside Band for a new work to be played each year at the Remembrance Day service at Pelton Fell

Our ambition is to embed the hymns within the culture of County Durham and beyond; to extend and expand the repertoire of the county’s various music ensembles with the hymns being performed either individually or as a suite in contest, concerts and in other fitting occasions. We are asking bands, choirs, churches, community venues and community organisations to consider performing hymns that they find particularly moving, or that have particular relevance for them, in appropriate concerts and events.

An offshoot of The Durham Hymns project, Songs of War was a highly successful workshop programme with men in Frankland high security prison.

The men at Frankland prison were given access to the same material that inspired Carol Ann Duffy’s lyrics for The Durham Hymns followed by a workshop session with Gill Parkes of Durham Record Office to put the material in context. They then worked with four outstanding singer-songwriters in turn, Barry Hyde, Elizabeth Corney, Lindsay Hannon and Bethany Coyle, to create the lyrics and music for four new songs.

Composer Steve Robson took the material and arranged each of the new works for brass. On the 25 February Songs of War was premiered at St Brandon’s Church Brancepeth with the four musicians backed by Durham Miners Brass Ensemble and conducted by Steve.

At all stages the work produced was a collaborative effort with a free exchange of ideas from prisoners, support staff, composers, arranger and the twelve brass musicians.

I was very impressed at the immense amount of thought that every stage of the song had; there was nothing throwaway about any of the ideas, each had a strong meaning behind it and always a well thought out intelligent reason for each aspect of the song and the lyric.         Lindsay Hannon

I was hugely impressed by the knowledge of the subject matter that the group had and how well they worked together – it can be hard to create something as a group, as everyone has different ideas, but they were able to navigate those challenges and create some really beautiful melodies and lyrics.      Elizabeth Corney

Songs of War was a County Durham Libraries project supported by: Arts Council England, Durham Prison Service and the Northern Regional Brass Band Trust


ARTISTS participating in The Durham Hymns

The Durham Hymns

Carol Ann Duffy is a Scottish poet and playwright. She is Professor of Contemporary Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University and was appointed Poet Laureate in May 2009. She is the first woman, the first Scot, and the first openly gay person to hold the position.

Carol Ann wrote the lyrics of the Durham Hymns. Moving and perceptive, they invite reflection on our understanding of the circumstances of war.

Her collections including Standing Female Nude (1985), winner of a Scottish Arts Council Award; Selling Manhattan (1987), which won a Somerset Maughan Award; Mean Time (1993), which won the Whitbread Poetry Award; and Rapture (2005), winner of the TS Eliot Prize. Her powers address issues such as oppression, gender, and violence, in an accessible language.

Carol Ann is also a playwright, with plays performed at the Liverpool Playhouse and the Almeida Theatre in London. Her plays include Take My Husband (1982); Cavern of Dreams (1984); Little Women, Big Boys (1986); Loss (1987); Casanova (2007). Her radio credits include an adaptation of Rapture. Her children's collections include Meeting Midnight (1999) and The Oldest Girl in the World (2000). She has also collaborated with the Manchester composer Sasha Johnson Manning, on The Manchester Carols, a series of Christmas songs that premiered in Manchester Cathedral in 2007. She participated in the Bush Theatre's 2011 project Sixty Six, for which she wrote a piece based upon a chapter of the King James Bible.

Orlando Gough  writes music mostly for the theatre - operas, plays, dance pieces, music-theatre, directs The Shout, and devises and directs large-scale site-specific choral pieces.

Recent work includes The Singing River for 12 choirs, 18 boats, two cranes and a locomotive; an oratorio 'The Most Beautiful Man From The Sea' (Welsh National Opera); We Turned On The Light (Proms); Swarm for marauding chorus (Barbican); a music-theatre piece 'Critical Mass'; and Open Port - the closing event of Stavanger 2008 European Capital of Culture, for 800 singers, brass band, wooden trumpets, as well as Raketensymphonie, the opening event of Linz09 European Capital of Culture, for voices and fireworks.

He has written a piece for childrin, On The Rim Of The World, commissioned by all the major opera houses in the UK and a dance piece, Just Ask Water?, with the choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh.

Jessica Curry is a sound artist and composer whose talent has spanned everything from live performances to audio-based installations, to soundtracks. From the bleak, yet hopeful Perpetual Light, a choral pieces about Robert Oppenheimer, the 'father' of the atomic bomb, the victims of his creation and the human will to persevere, to The Second Death of Caspar Helendale, a live performance piece of a virtual funeral in Second Life.

In the game world she is most known for her work on Dear Esther, the acclaimed mod-turned-standalone that challenged players to rethink what they know about interactive digital experiences, and the music that ties it all together.

Jessica is co-founder of The Chinese Room, a game studio known for its early source engine modes like Morsakovia, its most recent work on Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs and their recent highly acclaimed and award-winning project, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture.

Johnny Bates wrote the musical prelude to The Hymns written solely for brass band. This will be a response to George Butterworth's The Banks of Green Willow. Butterworth was a liutenant in the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) and was killed in action during the Somme offensive, on the 6th August 1916. The Banks of Green Willow is his most famous work and has become synonymous with the sacrifice of his generation and has been seen by some as an anthem for all 'Unknown Soldiers'.

Alan Fernie conducted the premiere performance of The Durham Hymns in Durham Cathedral on Saturday 16th July. He worked as a orchestral musician before moving into education and spent over twenty years teaching brass in schools in East Scotland. This provided the opportunity to develop his conducting and he has since directed bands of all levels, picking up many awards and trophies on the way. He has been a member of the National Association of Brass Band Conductors since 2003. His compositions for brass bands are performed and recorded by bands the world over.

Alan also works as a freelance musician composing, teaching, conducting, adjudicating, and performing. His more recent ventures include a trip to Kampala to work with the charity Brass for Africa. During his time in Uganda he guided students through their Associated Board exams and conducted the M'Lisada Brass Band through a CD recording.

Phil Corbitt, narrator, from Cullercoats, has worked as an actor since 1988 and has appeared in most long-running TV series from Coronation Street and Emmerdale to Vera. The last time he played Durham was as Sebastian in Northern Broadsides' The Tempest at the Gala Theatre in 2007. Prior to that he toured to the Castle as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing in 1996.

Theatre has taken him all over the world, memorably playing Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire, which was the first English language production ever in Ogaki, Japan and including The Tempest in China, The Norman Conquests in Malaysia and Sweet Charity in Frankfurt.

Phil was particularly proud to be part of the premiere at Durham Cathedral. His great grandfather, a shoemaker from North Shields, survived gassing at the Somme and was given a full military pension, something only awarded to those who weren't expected to last that much longer. He lived another thirty years, often short of breath but with a few bob in his pocket.

Simon Fidler, is the music director of both the Centenary Choir and and founder of Voices of Hope, the award winning chamber choir.  With premiere performances of new works by Agustin Fernandez, Ian Stephenson, Kathryn Tickell and John Kefala Kerr, and collaborations with Sage Gateshead, Northern Chords and the University of Newcastle upon Tyne the choir has become one of the most sought after in the UK. Simon is also the music director of several other choirs including Leeds College of Music Choral Society, Philharmonic Voices, Project: Singing, Old Town Voices, Femme Chorale and two choirs for Sage Gateshead’s Silver programme. He also directs Sunderland University Choir, Streetwise NE Opera Chorus and the Music in the Minster Chorus.

He is a regular guest conductor with the University of Newcastle Symphony Orchestra and All Saints Choir, Gosforth.  He has also directed Lemington Male Voice Choir and the university choirs of Northumbria and Newcastle.  Simon has conducted Royal Northern Sinfonia and Northern Sinfonia Chorus, including an annual Join in and Sing event at Sage Gateshead that regularly attracts up to 800 singers. Simon is one of four British musicians involved in Singing Cities, and has travelled to Namsos, Brussels and Berlin to work with other conductors, performers and composers on schemes to make singing accessible to all. 

Charlie Hardwick, narrator, is an experienced actor and presenter on stage and screen Charlie is possibly with best known for playing Val Pollard in the ITV soap-opera Emmerdale, for which she was nominated six times at the British Soap Awards winning in 2006 for Best Comedy Performance. She starred as Sian in Byker Grove in Mrs Castellino in the BBC Radio 4’s The Little World of Don Camillo and Our Mam in My Uncle Freddie. She has been an occasional contributor on Grumpy Old Women. Charlie also starred in the films Purely Belter, Billy Elliot  and The Scar, Amber Films' production about a County Durham  pit community in crisis, for which she won best actress award at the Monte Carlo International Film Festival 1998.

Her numerous stage productions, both in the north-east and nationally, include Cooking with Elvis alongside Frank Skinner at Live Theatre, Newcastle and Whitehall Theatre, London; A Passionate Woman for York Theatre Royal; Double Lives for Live Theatre and Making Waves For The Stephen Joseph Theatre.

Voices of Hope is an award winning chamber choir based in the north-east that most recently won the BBC's Choir of The Year. The choir has been performing since 2011 when its members assembled for a one off memorial concert in Newcastle upon Tyne.  On that evening the choir raised money for the British Heart Foundation, a charity that calls donations Gifts of Hope.  Each year the choir performs at least one concert in aid of the BHF, and the choir’s name has remained since that first performance.

In October last year the choir premiered Agustin Fernandez’ new work Notes from Underground (broadcast on BBC radio 3) with Royal Northern Sinfonia and BBC New Generation artist - baritone Benjamin Appl. The choir enjoys a close relationship with Bolivian born composer, Fernandez, having premiered his Prison Letters in 2013.  In November the choir made its second live appearance from the BBC’s Free Thinking Festival, this time on the Words and Music programme, singing works by Gesualdo, Byrd, Cage and Berio.

Voices of Hope has quickly established itself as one of the most sought after singing ensembles in the north, having become artists in residence at the University of Newcastle and performed new works at the Create Choral and Body of Song festivals, by Dai Fujikura, Judit Varga, Agustin Fernandez, Ian Stephenson, Kathryn Tickell and John Kefala Kerr. Other recent projects include tours to Berlin and Cambridge; Steamsong by John Kefala Kerr at Shildon Railway Museum and Gala Theatre, Durham; Godspell, a touring west end production at Sage Gateshead; Choir of the Year at Sage Gateshead; Blake, the Brit award-winning tenor trio in Blyth.


Songs of War

Elizabeth Corney has worked in both the community and music education sector, in a variety of roles – choir leader, vocal practitioner, workshop leader, composer and mentor. As a vocalist and a keyboard player she performs with pop-trio Iceni and jazz-fusion ensemble Hans Prya and is one of the four-part harmony group the Cornshed Sisters.

Bethany Coyle is a singer and composer and an experienced community arts practitioner. She is the founder and musical director of the North East Socialist Singers, an independent, community choir of conscience, campaigning for social justice, political reform and positive change'. She has a penchant for political and protest song.

Lindsay Hannon plays bass, composes and sings with Iceni and Lindsay Hannon Plus. She is part of the Singing Cities project, has extensive experience leading songwriting and singing workshops including writing and arranging music for The Big Sing, at Sage Gateshead.

Barry Hyde is founder of The Futureheads, a four-piece guitar band variously described as combining ‘art-school weird with rent-paying big tunes” and wedding “Mersey-beat harmonies and dance-punk from a new-wave perspective”. The band had history of inspired close harmony work that is reflected in Hyde solo tracks.

Steve Robson is a highly respected brass musician, conductor and composer. He has an extensive understanding of the brass traditions of the region and the capabilities and approaches of regional ensembles and brass bands.

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