Benjamin Bagby, co-founder of medieval music ensemble Sequentia, is renowned worldwide as a performer and scholar. Most well-known for his Beowulf presentation, Bagby re-vocalizes medieval text into a spellbinding presentation through use of the Germanic harp and spoken word. Back by popular demand, Benjamin Bagby’s Beowulf is as epic as the poem that has captivated readers for centuries.
Vocalist, harper and medievalist Benjamin Bagby is descended from a Germanic clan which emigrated to northern England in Ca. 630, later emigrating to the colony of Virginia almost a millennium later. From a young age he was captivated by medieval music, becoming an important figure in the field of medieval musical performance for more than 35 years. In 1977 he, with the late Barbara Thornton, co-founded Sequentia, a medieval performance group devoting himself to research, performance, and recording projects for the Paris-based group.
In addition to his activities as a singer, harper, and director of Sequentia, Mr. Bagby is deeply involved with the solo performance of Anglo-Saxon and Germanic oral poetry. His critically acclaimed, one-man production of Beowulf has been heard worldwide and was released as a DVD in 2007. In 2010 he received the Howard Mayer Brown Lifetime Achievement Award from Early Music America. In 2017, he was awarded the Artist of the Year Award by REMA, the European Early Music Network. In addition to researching and creating over 75 programs for Sequentia, Mr. Bagby has published widely, writing about medieval performance practice; as a guest lecturer and professor, he has taught courses and workshops all over Europe and North America. Between 2005 and 2018 he taught medieval music performance practice at the Sorbonne – University of Paris. He currently teaches medieval music performance at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen, Germany.
WHAT IS BEOWULF?
The untitled Anglo-Saxon epic poem known as 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 re-tell the story of Beowulf, in song and speech, perhaps accompanying himself on a six-stringed harp (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 five and six hours – would never be exactly the same twice, as the ‘singer of tales’ subtly varied the use of poetic formulæ to shape his unique version of the story.
The central dilemma of any attempt to re-vocalize a medieval text as living art is based on the fact that a written source can only represent one version (and possibly not the best version) of a text from a fluid oral tradition. 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 harps; and from those scholars who have shown an active interest in the problems of turning written words back into 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 can approximate.
Benjamin Bagby will perform live at Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral on October 29 at 7:30 PM.
To see this Epic performance live, visit www.chambermusic.org for details!
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