Last Saturday was the premier of a new work by composer Ian McQueen: ‘The Earthly Paradise’, based on extracts from William Morris’s massive poem of the same title. The Barbican ran a study afternoon at which Morris scholars Clive Wilmer and Fiona McCarthy spoke, as well as McQueen himself. It’s certainly exciting that Morris’s poetry is being used in new creative works, especially a poem as little read as the Earthly Paradise. The poem itself (longer than the Aeneid…) tells the story of a band of 14th century Norsemen fleeing the Black Death and searching for a land ‘where no-one grows old’. It is, as Wilmer suggested, a poem of happiness, but not of ease; the happiness is always under threat. Morris’s contention is that we have a paradisical world to live in, but that it is humans that threaten it – a very contemporary idea for Morris but also for us (the music has been described as an ‘environmental scherzo’). E.P. Thompson described the poem as the ‘poetry of despair’ – and this is also true; it is despair with the world in which we live.
Ian McQueen found Morris through an interest in the Hammersmith area, and has clearly done some considerable research into his work, and is clear on what he sees as the importance of Morris to us today. The work he produced was just over half an hour of orchestral and choral music arranged around four extracts from the poem: The Doomed Ship, O Dwellers on the Lovely Earth, The Hill of Venus and Iceland First Seen. Conducted by Sir Andrew Davis and performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, it’s a work which really seems sympathetic to the poetry, working in biographical elements, as McQueen explained. The motto from Red House, “Si je puis” (If I Can) is worked into the music as a reminder of Morris’s own quest for how to live his life.
McQueen is enthusiastic about Morris’s work as ‘art for the people’, and feels this can be related to his own experience of getting people involved with music. Interestingly, in the case of ‘The Earthly Paradise’, it was the power of the images Morris creates, rather than his language usage, which inspired McQueen, though the ‘lovely melodic shape’ of the poems helps. The four pieces, ranging from the environmental to the personal, should help to bring Morris to a wider audience, since the short extracts, set sympathetically to music and with such a good advocate as McQueen, will appeal to a wide range of listeners. The Radio 3 blog has some great behind-the-scenes posts about The Earthly Paradise if you’re interested.