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
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