Benjamin Bagby's Program Notes for Beowulf

The Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf survives in a single manuscript source dating from the early eleventh century (British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.XV). Although scholars do not agree on the dating of the poem--theories range between the sixth century and the date of the manuscript--it is clear that the story has its roots in the art of the scop ("creator"), the bardic story-teller and reciter at formal and informal gatherings, whose services were essential to the fabric of tribal society in early medieval England. The scop would retell the story of Beowulf, in song and speech, perhaps accompanying himself on a six-stringed lyre (this we know from contemporary accounts, although musical notation was superfluous and only remnants of instruments have survived). His courtly audience was attuned to the finest details of sound and meaning, meter and rhyme, timing and mood.

The "performance"--which, for the whole epic, might last between four and seven hours--would never be exactly the same twice, as the "singer of tales" subtly varied the use of poetic formulae to shape his unique version of the story. The fact is that the written source can only represent one version (and usually not the best version) of a text from a fluid oral tradition; it is the central dilemma of any attempt to revocalize a medieval text as living art. The impetus to make this attempt has come from many directions: from the power of those bardic traditions, mostly non-European, which still survive intact; from the work of instrument-makers who have made thoughtful renderings of seventh-century Germanic lyres; and from scholars such as Thomas Cable, Jess Bessinger, Albert B. Lord, and Kemp Malone, who have shown an active interest in the problems of turning written words back into an oral poetry meant to be absorbed through the ear/spirit, rather than eye/brain. But the principal impetus comes from the language of the poem itself, which has a chilling, magical power that no modern translation--and there are dozens--can approximate.

The Instrument

The six-string lyre used in Benjamin Bagby's performance was built by Rainer Thurau (Wiesbaden, Germany), based on the remains of an instrument excavated from a seventh-century Alemannic nobleman's grave in Oberflacht (south of Stuttgart). The remarkably intact pieces of oak clearly show a thin, hollow corpus with no soundholes. Like a similar instrument unearthed at Sutton Hoo in England, there are strong indications, supported by contemporary iconography, of six gut strings, a tailpiece and a free-standing bridge. This "bardic" instrument serves as a key piece of evidence in reconstructing the performance, for it provides a series of six tones. Although several possible tunings present themselves, the six tones used tonight were arrived upon through a careful study of early medieval modal theory, yielding an octave, three perfect 5ths, two perfect 4ths, and two minor 3rds. The resulting "scale" serves as a musical matrix, upon which the singer can weave both his own rhetorical shapes and the sophisticated metrics of the text (each line, divided into two halves, contains four stresses which are linked by a common vowel or consonant sound). The Anglo-Saxon ear was finely tuned to this web of sounds and syllable lengths . . . it was always experienced as an aural event, inextricably bound up with the story being told. The lyre is a relatively quiet instrument, but in the ear of the bard it rings with an endless variation of gestures, melodic cells and repetitive figurations which give inspiration to the shape of the vocalization: in the course of the story the bard may move imperceptibly or radically between true speech, heightened speech, speechlike song, and true song. The instrument acts as a constant point of reference, a friend and fellow performer, a symbol of the scop and his almost magical role in the community.

Benjamin Bagby

Benjamin Bagby is descended from a Danish clan which emigrated to England in ca. 630, from whence his branch of the family emigrated to the colony of Virginia almost a millennium later. Following 334 years of subsequent family wanderings, he was born on the shores of Lake Michigan, and twelve years later was captivated by Beowulf. In 1974, he completed degrees in voice and German at Oberlin Conservatory and Oberlin College, and was awarded a Watson Foundation Fellowship to study the performance ofmedieval song during his first Wanderjahr. Subsequently, in Basel, he began a long-term collaboration with Barbara Thornton, and together they completed a Diplom for Musik des Mittelalters at the Schola Cantorum in 1977. Immediately following this, they founded Sequentia (ensemble for medieval music) and moved down the Rhein to Cologne, where they lived and worked until Ms. Thornton's tragic death in 1998. In addition to his activities as singer and co-director of Sequentia, Benjamin Bagby directs the Sequentia ensemble of men's voices for the performance of medieval liturgical polyphony, and devotes himself to the medieval harp.

Current and future projects include a reconstruction of portions of the Old Icelandic Poetic Edda, and a CD-ROM recording of the entire Beowulf, in which the original manuscript, several translations, commentaries, and archaeological information will accompany the performance (to be released by German Harmonia Mundi / BMG Classics).



Note from Br. Tom: If you ever have a chance to witness Mr. Bagby's performance of a large section of Beowulf, DO NOT MISS IT. I attended a performance on a Friday evening after a very long and difficult work week. From the opening "Hwaet!" I was not the least bit tempted to doze. Mr. Bagby's work is dramatic, beautiful and stimulating as a strong cup of coffee.

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