The Other Voice
A Portrait of Hilda of Whitby
in Words and Music
Libretto by Gail
Music by Robert Starer
Notes for The Other
of The Other Voice
St. Hilda was the 7th century Abbess who founded
the Monastery of Whitby. Under her wise rule, it became the most
celebrated religious house and center of learning in Northeast
England. Several of her charges became bishops and abbesses,
and it was through her guidance that Caedmon, a humble farm laborer
on the monastic estate, became known to us as the first English
poet. The Other Voice presents a scenario of how Hilda
might have brought this to pass.
This dramatic work calls for a cast of four
who speak and sing. Hilda of Whitby is a Mezzo-soprano, the princess
Elfleda is a lyric Soprano, Rolf the Reeve is a Baritone and
Caedmon is a light Tenor. The accompaniment may be played on
the organ, on a piano, or a synthesizer. The chorus in the final
scene is optional. It's an accessible work, scenery needs are
minimal, and yet it will be a rewarding production for your audience.
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Gail Godwin's ten novels include A Mother
and Two Daughters, the Odd Woman, and Violet Clay,
all of which were nominated for the American Book Award. Her
most recent novels are A Southern Family, Father Melancholy's
Daughter, and its sequel, Evensong, published in March
1999. She has been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and the Award
in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
The Other Voice is her eighth collaboration with composer
Robert Starer. She and Mr. Starer received a grant from the National
Endowment for the Arts to write the opera Apollonia.
Robert Starer's orchestral works have been
performed by major orchestras in the U.S. and abroad under such
conductors as Leonard Bernstein, Erich Leinsdorf, and Zubin Mehta.
His stage works include several scores for Martha Graham. The
recording of his Violin Concerto (Itzhak Perlman and the Boston
Symphony under Seiji Ozawa) was nominated for a Grammy. Interpreters
of his music include the sopranos Roberta Peters and Leontyne
Price, violinist Jaime Laredo, cellist Janos Starker, and flutist
Paula Robison. Starer has taught at the Juilliard School and
the Graduate Center of C.U.N.Y. He was elected to the American
Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994.
Reviews of The
"Another work which really caught
my eye is a relatively small-scale dramatic work by Starer entitled
The Other Voice: A Portrait of Hilda of Whitby. The text
for this little opera is by Gail Godwin, who may be recognized
as the author of Father Melancholy's Daughter. (If you
haven't read this charming book, let me recommend it to you.)
There are four roles: Hilda, abbess of Whitby (mezzo); Elfleda,
princess and nun (soprano); Rolf, the Reeve (baritone); and Caedmon,
cowherd and poet (tenor). Production notes state that "The
accompaniment may be played on an organ, on the piano, or on
a synthesizer with judiciously selected sound images."
--the italics are mine. I do not think I have ever seen this
rubric before, but will be surprised if I do not see it--or something
similar--again. The chorus used (very briefly) in the last scene
is optional. One of my cherished hopes is that my parish will
be able to present occasional musico-dramatic productions. It's
published by Selah." --The Journal of the Association
of Anglican Musicians, December 1999
Notes on The
It is the late 660's, and spring is finally on its way to the
cold coast of Northeast England. Hilda, beloved abbess of Whitby,
esteemed far and wide as the most influential woman in Anglo-Saxon
Christendom, is where she most likes to be: alone with God, taking
refreshment and courage from her prayers. She is in her mid-fifties.
Her early adult life remains undisclosed, but we know that at
age thirty-three she took vows as a nun, ruled over the monastery
of Hartlepool as abbess, and went on to transform a desolate
Whitby cliff overlooking the North Sea into a thriving monastery
for men and women, a center of learning, and a place visited
by kings, princes, bishops and other seekers of her wisdom and
advice. The famous Synod of Whitby where Celtic and Roman-trained
Bishops argued their differences before King Oswy to settle the
date of Easter, took place at Hilda's monastery in 664.
Hilda has also raised the Princess Elfleda,
whose father, King Oswy, gave the baby princess to the Christian
God as a thank offering for letting him defeat the heathen king
Penda in battle. Elfleda, who will soon be taking her first vows
as a nun, interrupts Hilda's prayers. The teenage princess has
just come back from an ecstatic evening walk along the cliff,
where she heard the ice cracking, saw Caedmon the herdsman delivering
a new lamb, and stopped to chat with Rolf the Reeve, who oversees
the workings of the monastery estate. The Princess admires Rolf
because he "says interesting things," but Hilda is
angered when she hears that the oversociable pagan reeve has
raised doubts in the princess about her forthcoming marriage
to Christ. Hilda reassures Elfleda, and they sing a Sixth Century
Latin hymn, "To Thee Before the Close of Day."
Alone again, Hilda warms herself into a fine, focused anger at
Rolf the Reeve. She asks God why he sent her this troublesome
man who, though he's a good manager, insinuates himself into
people's personal business and forgets his station. Rolf is far
too smart for his own good, "though not smart enough to
see the good of you, Lord." Then she puts on her cloak and
goes out into the night to confront the reeve, asking God to
focus her wrath and sharpen her tongue to meet its target. Rolf
apologizes for getting too personal with Elfleda, but explains
that it's not easy for a communicative fellow like himself to
live with his brother Caedmon, who prefers talking to animals.
Hilda warns Rolf not to repeat the offense and is preparing to
leave when she hears another voice, which is Caedmon making up
a song to welcome a new lamb into the fold. She tells Rolf that
a gift like his brother's is meant for more than lambs. If Caedmon
were to sing the stories of the scriptures, she says, he would
make more lambs for God. After she leaves, warning Rolf again
to mend his ways or be fired, Rolf confronts Caedmon: If she
asks you up there to sing, you'd better open your mouth and sing.
Hilda and Elfleda are rehearsing for Elfleda's clothing ceremony
on the morrow, when she will take her first vows as a nun. Elfleda
confesses that she is uncertain and that she isn't ready to leave
Hilda. The abbess shores up the girl's doubts and, during their
duet, Hilda's stronger purpose slowly turns the girl's nostalgic
lament at leaving the carefree world of a young girl wandering
the cliffs into a joyful acceptance of her destiny as the future
abbess. After Elfleda exits, Hilda droops as she realizes that
tomorrow she will be losing the child who was her closest and
dearest earthly companion.
Some months have gone by. Hilda has sorely missed her lost daughter
who is now enclosed as a novice. One morning Rolf arrives unexpectedly
at the monastery, dragging Caedmon. His brother has just had
a heavenly visitor, he announces to the abbess. He prods the
unwilling Caedmon to repeat to the abbess what the otherworldly
voice instructed him to do. Hilda, that wisest of women, understands
that she is being given a divine gift through her canny reeve.
She has known God long enough to know He accomplishes His purposes
through many voices, not all of them issuing from the mouths
of the deserving or even the truthful. And she is seasoned enough
in the ways of the world to know exactly how to put these "other
voices" to work for God's glory. She laughs for the first
time in months.
It is the year 680. The Abbess Hilda is now 66 and close to death.
The abbess has been ill for six years. As Bede, her only know
biographer* writing within 50 years of her death, when memories
of her were still fresh, tells us: "It pleased the Author
of our salvation to try her holy soul by a long sickness, in
order that her strength might be perfected in weakness."
Knowing her time on earth is short, Hilda has sent for Rolf the
Reeve, who has outlived Caedmon. We learn that Hilda taught Rolf
to read so that he could "feed" the scriptures to his
brother,** who was then inspired, as Hilda had foreseen, to make
songs that reached the hearts of the unconverted. Through giving
Rolf another voice, that of literacy, the wise abbess has given
his irrepressible communicative energies a purposeful focus.
The concluding Requiem for Hilda, sung
by the Abbess Elfleda, was inspired by text found in 2 Esdras
2:1533 and by the final prayer of the Burial Service in
The Book of Common Prayer.
Mother, embrace thy children
And bring them up with gladness;
Make their feet as fast as a pillar;
For I have chosen thee, saith the Lord.
Those that be dead will I raise up again
And bring them out of their graves.
Fear not, thou mother of the children,
For I have chosen thee, saith the Lord.
Be joyful, O thou mother, with thy children
For I will deliver thee, saith the Lord.
Remember thy children that sleep,
For I shall bring them out of the sides
Of the earth and shew mercy unto them.
Rest eternal grant to her, O Lord
And let light perpetual shine upon her.
--Gail Godwin, October 12, 1998
* The Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History
of the English People, was completed in 731 at the monastery
of Jarrow, 50 miles up the coast from Whitby. In Bede's life
of St. Cuthbert, he often quotes Cuthbert's special friend, the
Abbess Elfleda of Whitby, who most likely was also a source for
what we know about her spiritual mother, Hilda.
** Bede tells us that Caedmon's superior,
the reeve, took him before the abbess to report Caedmon's dream
of a man ordering him to sing in his native tongue about the
creation of all things. We have made the reeve and the cowherd
brothers, which is not at all impossible. Bede tells us Caedmon
later became a brother in the monastery, but he apparently never
learned to read. According to Bede, Caedmon stored up in his
memory all that was read to him, "and like and animal chewing
the cud, turned it into such melodious verse that his delightful
renderings turned his instructors into his audience."
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