Last night saw the premiere of one of the biggest educational projects ever undertaken by Salisbury Cathedral - with over 750 primary and secondary children from across Dorset and Wiltshire taking part, Magna Cantata is both big on ambition and in scale!
Commissioned by Salisbury Cathedral in October 2013, this musical is designed to engage children and explain the continuing importance and relevance of Magna Carta and its legacy to the citizens of the future. Full of puns, alliteration, and experiments with metre, rhyme, and metaphor the work is, like its title, ‘a play on words’. Parody is everywhere, and language celebrated; echoes can be found of Shakespeare, Shaw, Donne, Shelley, Wilde, Rowling, and Monty Python.
The nobility have a tendency to speak in blank verse (William Marshall) or rhyming couplets (The King and Queen), while the monks need a lesson in basic Latin before they can copy the document. The commoners, unsurprisingly, are more concerned about taxes and injustice than language!
Magna Cantata tries to give a balanced portrait of King John too, by concentrating on the affection he undoubtedly retained for close friends such as William Marshall and, in particular, for his wife Isabella, a noble and feisty French girl from Angoulême.
The composer Philip Lawson uses the plainsong Veni, Sancte Spiritus (Come, Holy Spirit), the words of which are attributed to Archbishop Stephen Langton, who along with the extraordinary Elias of Dereham was a major figure in the story of Magna Carta. In the final number this plainsong is combined both with the hymn Thou whose almighty Word and the word ‘Freedom’, a theme that was sung by the peasants at the beginning. The pièce de résistance, however, is the Magna Carta Song itself, in which each of the three groups - nobles, monks, and peasants - explains why Magna Carta should be written in their preferred language, pointedly singing very different melodies. In the final verse these three melodies are combined in a piece of significant symbolism - we all have to work together to bring about political change and the peace and justice that, we hope, will flow from it.
The production was written and composed by a local team. Composer Philip Lawson is a former Salisbury Cathedral Choir lay clerk and Director of Music at Chafyn Grove School. He collaborated with fellow lay clerk Andrew Mackay on the production, who studied Classics. Andrew was particularly delighted to have been asked to write Magna Cantata since the project perfectly links his interests in Latin, in poetry, in the theatre and in choral music.
Magna Cantata is the fourth collaboration between Andrew and Philip Lawson; their three previous shows were all runaway successes and one of them, Biggles Saves the Spire, enjoyed a second run in Salisbury Playhouse under the direction of Jeremy James Taylor OBE, founder and director of the National Youth Music Theatre.
Sarah Rickett, Director of Learning and Outreach at Salisbury Cathedral said: “So much hard work has gone into this production with a great team in place. I am incredibly proud of all the children and young people and all their staff who have devoted so much time and energy into making this project work – and grateful to all the staff and volunteers who have also helped to make this happen.”
Artistic Director, Ben Occhipiti said: “The talents and the commitment shown by the children and their teachers is remarkable. It’s very exciting for Philip, Andrew, Ian Wicks (Magna Cantata musical director) and myself to see it all come together and to witness the children engaging musically to the extent that they have!”
Magna Cantata takes place every evening until Friday 10 July - over 1600 parents and family members are expected to attend. Tickets are available via the Salisbury Cathedral website.
The production was made possible thanks to a generous grant from the Magna Carta Trust’s 800th Anniversary Commemoration Committee.