York Mystery Plays

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Music of the Mystery Plays


It is our good fortune that the composer of the music for the 1951 recording music 2000 NCEM
revival, James Brown, is local and we have been able to retrieve his important music score for this archive. Writing for chorus and orchestral brass - allowing the musicians to withstand the vagaries of the English summer - James Brown set a high standard for future productions.  An interview with him is in the NCEM archive.  His picture is on this page of the archive.

In 1984, the music was commissioned from Robert Walker and recorded well in advance of the Plays - creating something of a problem when director Toby Robertson cut the script at the last moment, leaving the music 'hanging' in the air after the actors themselves had left the stage. The re-recording was expensive and uncomfortable - clearly live musicians were a much more flexible option!  Some productions have used traditional folk music, eg 'the Seven Joys of Mary' after the  Crucifixion, in the Theatre Royal in 1996.

1984 music scoreThe historic research that accompanied the major revival of the wagon plays in the 1990s encouraged musicologist Richard Rastall to reconstruct various pieces appropriate to the Plays. Richard found one piece by studying a painting of an Angel in the National Gallery in Washington DC. He had to turn the painted music page upside down, transcribe it and then prepare it for performance.

The music for the Millennium Mystery Plays performed in York Minster in 2000 was also based on considerable research, but presented in a much more modern idiom by local educationalist and composer Dr Richard Shephard. The two magnificent anthems that completed each half can still be heard in York Minster at special services. In the Minster production in 2016 Dr Shephard again wrote and conducted the music.

A rich variety of music has contributed to the Mystery Plays' recent heritage. The wagon plays performed by the guilds in recent years, for instance, have often been accompanied by a choir or led in procession by musicians. Below right we see Leeds Waits 2006the Leeds Waits in Museum Gardens during the 2006 Wagon Plays.

Below are the York Waits, pictured performing among the 2010 Wagon Plays.
York Waits 2010




In 2012 the Museum Gardens production, with a dramatic new score by Chris Madin, used a brass band and a 70 strong amateur choir, on right and left of the stage. Below is the choir on the left side.  
Left half of Choir 2012




The attached page has a list of the 2012 Choir and Band.
Below right, animals are brought (in boxes) to load onto Noah's Ark whilst behind the Ark a section of the band plays. (Photo: Alan Fleming)
Band accompanying Ark loading 2012








 Below left : some of the sound equipment for 2012. 
 (Nick Ansell)

equipment 2012


In the photograph at the top of this page music is being recorded in the National Centre for Early Music, an excellent recording studio
No doubt future productions of the Plays will continue to be an outlet for powerful and expressive music making. 
A list of Musical Directors can be found in the Archive.  In 2014 Musical Director Paul Toy arranged for the wagons to be accompanied by ten groups of musicians and Waits: see this page
Attached Pages: