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New Musical Commission to Mark Our Reopening

June 2021

Newcastle Cathedral’s Canon for Music and Liturgy, The Revd Canon Clare MacLaren, writes:

About 1,300 years ago, when the Kingdom of Northumbria stretched from the River Forth in present-day Scotland, as far south as the Humber and the Mersey, legend has it that an illiterate animal herd, by the name of Caedmon (kad-mon), worked at St Hilda’s great monastery at Whitby. Embarrassed by his lack of musical skill, he would always “pass” when folk took it in turns to sing or play around the hearth – or leave the room to avoid his sense of shame. The story goes that one night, Caedmon had a dream in which a divine presence commanded that he sing “of the beginning of creation”. At first, in terror, he refused – but then, miraculously, he gave voice to a song in completeness – a hymn of praise to God, the Creator of the World.

The words of Caedmon’s Hymn – and his story – were recorded in Latin by the famous monk of Jarrow, the Venerable Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

In a number of surviving manuscripts, Bede’s contemporaries have pencilled notes into the margin, copying down the text, not in Latin but in either West Saxon or Old Northumbrian – the languages of the common people of the time. With the encouragement of St Hilda, Caedmon is said to have produced many other poems and songs. This hymn, however, is the only one to survive. It is the oldest example that we have of poetry in Old English and the oldest example of poetry in the Germanic alliterative style in which similar word sounds repeat and repeat, tumbling over one another to create a very distinctive rhythm and tone.

The Revd Canon Clare MacLaren

Back to 2021. And to mark the completion of the refurbishment and transformation of the Cathedral after its redevelopment, our Director of Music, Ian Roberts, and I thought it would be wonderful to commission a short piece of music for the occasion, to be sung by the gifted Newcastle Cathedral Choir. Keen to use local talent, we approached a Northumbrian composer, John Casken, based near Wooler. John is a gifted and versatile composer who has written for choirs, orchestras, opera and ensemble instruments. He describes his musical “style” as “windswept, dreamy, turbulent, melancholic and painterly” – inspired by the landscape in which he lives. We were delighted when he agreed to take on the commission, and I set about identifying a text for him to set.

It wasn’t long before I settled on Caedmon’s Hymn – a truly Northumbrian piece which has not, to our knowledge, been professionally set to music before – and a wonderful reminder of God’s ongoing providence and creativity, to mark the “new creation” that will be our beautiful new building! I decided to translate what is probably the oldest version of the text – in Old Northumbrian of the 8th Century – and then try to render it in poetic form. A creative collaboration with the composer followed, as the English translation gradually took shape.

Below is the finished text:

Caedmon’s Hymn
Nu uue sciulun herga
hefunricaes uueard,
metudaes mechti,
and his modgedanc,
uuerc uuldurfadur –
suae he uundra gihuaes,
eci drichtin,
or astalde.

He aerist scoop
eordu bearnum
hefen to hrofe,
halig sceppend;
tha middungeard,
moncinnes uard,
eci drichtin,
aefter tiade
firum on foldu,
frea allmechtig.
Now must we praise
protector of heavenrealm:
the measurer’s might
and method of mind;
works of wonder-father
wrought beyond number –
aeons’ weaver
origins’ author.
First did sacred shaper,
craft heav’n-raftered roof
as earth-bairns’ bourn.
Then did soul shepherd mould
field, farm and fold
the middle earth
for fowk to tend
and fend and hold:
Lord, loaf-ward*,
all might untold.
*  loaf-keeper (hlaf-weard) = Lord
Caedmon’s Hymn

Two members of the Cathedral Chapter have very generously offered to pay for this commission and have it bound and printed. We are very excited indeed now to have received the final piece so that Ian Roberts can begin rehearsing it with the choir.

It will receive its premiere at the Cathedral’s formal Rededication ceremony in the summer and we can’t wait to hear it!

Newcastle Cathedral’s National Lottery Heritage Fund project, Common Ground in Sacred Space is due for completion in summer 2021. The Cathedral’s latest choral services can be enjoyed on our YouTube channel.

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