Arguably one of literature’s greatest epics, Beowulf – the story of King Hrothgar, the monster Grendel and the eponymous hero Beowulf - has been passed down in written form for hundreds of generations. As one of the world’s leading practitioners of historically informed music and theater, Benjamin Bagby has presented his acclaimed dramatization of Beowulf to sold out crowds all over the world, transporting audiences with this awe-inspiring poem, delivered in the original Old English and accompanied only by the Anglo-Saxon harp. On Saturday, 5 May, he is set to electrify the Fitters’ Workshop with his one-man tour de force. Want to know more? In this FAQ, we explore Benjamin Bagby the musician and his unique Beowulf project.
Who is Benjamin Bagby?
Singer, harpist and scholar Benjamin Bagby is perhaps best known for his work with the ensemble for medieval music, Sequentia. Co-founded together with the late Barbara Thornton in 1977, Sequentia was based in Cologne, Germany, for 25 years. Sole director since 1988, Bagby has created over 70 innovative concert programs of medieval music and music drama, giving performances in across Europe, North and South America, Africa, the Middle East, Japan, Korea, and Australia. Both Benjamin Bagby and Sequentia are now based in Paris and perform 15 to 30 concerts yearly, developing 1-2 new programs each year. Sequentia also have an extensive discography, including two CDs of musical reconstructions from the medieval Icelandic Edda. The ensemble’s most recent release forms the 9th and final installement of Sequentia's Hildegard von Bingen complete works project. In addition to his activities as singer, harpist and director of Sequentia, Benjamin Bagby writes about performance practice and teaches widely in Europe and North America. He is currently on the faculty of the Sorbonne University in Paris, where he teaches in the master’s program for medieval music performance practice.
Who, or what, is Beowulf?
Beowulf is the hero of an Anglo-Saxon poem of the same name, which survives in a single manuscript dated to the early eleventh century. It is written in Old English, the language used in England roughly between the years 500 to 1100 AD. Beowulf explores timeless themes of individual glory; the anxiety of encountering the unknown, the different, the monstrous; and the troubling conflicts at the heart of a warrior culture.
What is so special about Benjamin Bagby’s Beowulf performance?
Beowulf is thought to be the oldest surviving long poem in Old English and is commonly cited as one of the most important works of medieval literature. The Anglo-Saxon literary tradition continues to capture the modern imagination, and like J.R.R. Tolkien, James Campbell and countless medieval literature students around the world, this heroic tale has held Benjamin Bagby in thrall since he was a young teenager in his native US. Since 1987, he has taken this fascination further, researching and reconstructing several medieval oral epics. He has performed in Old Icelandic, Old High German, and Anglo-Saxon, accompanying himself on a Anglo-Saxon harp. However, it is in his acclaimed bardic performance of Beowulf, created in 1990 and now with 10-20 performances yearly worldwide, that Bagby truly shines. His reconstruction (accompanied by modern English supertitles) has captivated sold-out crowds from Carnegie Hall to Munich to Bruges – even the Edinburg Festival – earning rave reviews in every locale. The New York Times writes: “Mr. Bagby comes as close to holding hundreds of people in a spell as ever a man has…that is much too rare an experience in theater.” Benjamin Bagby’s appearance at the Festival is an especially rare chance to encounter one of the most popular texts in western literature as it was originally performed.
What is an Anglo-Saxon harp?
The specially-built 6-string harp used in this performance was based on the remains of an instrument excavated from a 7th 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. There are strong indications, supported by contemporary iconography, that such an instrument had six gut strings, a tailpiece and a free-standing bridge, the strings providing the ‘singer of tales’ with a series of six tones. Although several possible tunings present themselves, the tones used in this performance were arrived upon through a careful study of early medieval modal theory (a gapped octave which contains three perfect 5ths and two perfect 4ths). The result is a musical matrix, upon which the singer can weave both his own rhetorical shapes and the sophisticated metrics of the text. The harp is a relatively quiet instrument, but in the ear of the performer it rings with an endless variation of gestures, melodic cells and repetitive figurations which give inspiration to the shape of the vocalisation: in the course of the story the vocalist may move imperceptibly or radically between true speech, heightened speech, speechlike song, and true song.
Still have questions? Check out these links for more information:
ARTICLE: Beowulf and the Performance of Medieval Epic, by Benjamin Bagby
INTERVIEW: Between Music and Story-telling, with Benjamin Bagby and Katarina Šter
REVIEW: Beowulf, sung and recited by Benjamin Bagby at Tanglewood, by Michael Miller
Benjamin Bagby brings his tour-de-force performance of Beowulf to the Fitters’Workshop on Saturday, 5 May at 8pm. Tickets are $69/$64 (concession). Book online at cimf.org.au