CLASSICAL MUSIC / Collaborations: Creation myths resound again: John Hopkins and Clive Wilmer talk to Kevin Jackson about the making of a new cantata

WRITER'S block is an unpromising subject for either poetry or prose. Faced with the task of recollecting the infernal miseries of artistic paralysis - or 'page fright', as the condition is known in the trade - most authors would sooner lose themselves in nostalgic reveries about the last time they had root canal work without anaesthetic. Yet the text for John Hopkins's Cantata, which has its premiere on Radio 3 tomorrow, has taken its paradoxical inspiration precisely from this dreaded malaise - indeed, from the first recorded instance of writer's block in English literature: the story of Caedmon, as told in Bede's History of the English Church and People.

Caedmon, Bede relates, was a lay brother in the monastery at Whitby who showed no gift for poetry until late in life. When he saw the harp coming his way at feasts he would always make an excuse and leave. One night in AD 680 or thereabouts, though, when he had sidled out in his usual way and gone to sleep in the stables, an angel visited him and told him to sing about the creation of the universe. And so he began: 'Nu scylun hergan / hefanricaes Uard . . .' ('Now should we hail / heaven's guardian . . .'). Caedmon's writer's block had been lifted, and he wrote and sang fluently for the rest of his days.

The poet Clive Wilmer, who adapted Bede's history for Cantata's arias and recitative, has long been interested in the tale of Caedmon and his Hymn, which, he notes, 'is generally regarded as the earliest poem by a known author in any dialect of English', and his recent collection Of Earthly Paradise contains several poems that allude to it.

'The story seemed a good basis for our collaboration on Cantata, since it's about song, which is the middle ground between poetry and music. But we'd also been talking about the idea of muses - about the fact that both poetry and music seem to come from somewhere else, and that you don't really make choices in writing or composing, but that things seem to be given to you and you have to accept them. And one of the conditions of that process is the possibility of writer's block.' Having made the decision to adapt Bede, Wilmer duly fitted inaction to word and suffered more than a year of acute page fright.

When the dry spell finally ended, he soon wrote a short text in seven parts. Hopkins noticed the symmetry of its structure - Caedmon's hymn (in Anglo-Saxon), recitative, aria, dialogue, aria, recitative, hymn (in modern English) - and then emphasised the way in which its drama turns around that central dialogue by adding instrumental sections at beginning and end. 'The main interest I had in musical terms was the more ritual plans of a composer who's very important to me, Stravinsky, and particularly Canticum Sacrum - another symmetrically planned piece, and also a very ritualised piece. I deliberately echoed Stravinsky in the way in which I planned out things like the recitatives.'

Though Hopkins has previously set lines by Robert Lowell and Philip Larkin (a less controversial figure then), Cantata was his first real collaboration with a poet. It has proved rewarding enough for both parties to be tentatively discussing another joint project, and Hopkins says that he demanded only one change from Wilmer: Bede's angel, orginally male, 'had to become female' for reasons both musical and Muse-ical. Purists might perhaps object that this notion of poetic fertility coming from a meeting between the sexes is not faithful to the letter of Bede, yet it is surely quite true to his spirit. Cantata, in displaying the genesis of Caedmon's beautiful Hymn, tells both the story of the Creation and a story about creation.

Music in Our Time: Radio 3, 11.20pm Sunday

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas