Saturday January 11, 2020 | 7:30PM
Vancouver Playhouse | Map
“Hwaet!” commands the storyteller. Listen! And tremble at this fearsome tale! A millennium or more has passed since the superhero Beowulf appeared in the annals of epic poetry, yet the legend of his bare-handed conquest of the terrifying Grendel endures. As one of the world’s leading practitioners of historically informed music and theater, Benjamin Bagby dramatizes the awe-inspiring poem in the original Anglo-Saxon, while simultaneously accompanying himself on medieval harp. With English supertitles.
Please note, there will be a post-performance talk with Benjamin Bagby.
“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.” – The New York Times
This concert is generously supported by Elaine Adair
I was first transfixed by Beowulf in a suburb of Chicago in the early 1960’s, when my English teacher, Mrs. Bennett, handed me Burton Raffel’s translation of the poem and laconically said ‘you need to read this’ (she later handed me yet another bombshell: Dante’s Inferno). Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that a few years later, in high school, I was utterly swept away by the sound of medieval music and started my first ensemble. The Anglo-Saxons would say that this was simply my wyrd (personal destiny).
In 1981, Sequentia (the medieval music ensemble I co-founded with Barbara Thornton) was invited to give a concert in Louvain, Belgium, as part of a university colloquium about performing historical vocal music. One of the participants in the colloquium was the Anglo-Saxonist Thomas Cable (University of Texas/Austin), who had recently published a book entitled The Meter and Melody of ‘Beowulf,’ discussing the theoretical backround for various possible modes of performance. We began to talk, and our discussions, along with my close collaboration with Vermont harp-builder Lynne Lewandowski, sowed the seeds for making the Beowulf story into a performance. The sound-image for this performance popped into my head a few months later, as I was driving through rural Arkansas one blustery March evening; perhaps my subconscious was prodded by the omnipresent local images of razorback hogs, kin to the wild boar, those symbols of fearlessness so dear to the Anglo-Saxons. An instrument was ordered and built, and the project slowly took musical shape, at first making use of shorter Old English poems (such as Caedmon’s Hymn and Deor) and later expanding into a short scene from Beowulf, which had its first public performance in 1987 and was integrated into a Sequentia concert program of medieval English music. Initial guidance with the intricacies of Anglo-Saxon pronunciation and meter was generously provided by Thomas Cable, during several memorable working sessions in his stone library-tower in Austin.
In 1990, I was approached by Jan Nuchelmans, then artistic director of the Utrecht Early Music Festival (Netherlands), about the idea of programming ‘an entire evening of Beowulf’ as part of the festival’s storytelling theme that summer. How could I possibly say no? With less than 5 months to put together a performance lasting about an hour (there were numerous deletions in the text necessary due to festival time constraints and, strangely, the last departure times of Utrecht buses & trams following late-night concerts), I worked feverishly to solve the many problems of shaping an ‘epic’ performance instead of a 10-minute ‘song’. This work was all accomplished with harp in hand and without the use of musical notation, and it was in this process of finding a new oral tradition to reconstruct a lost oral tradition that the project has its deepest roots. Following the premiere in the tiny crypt of the medieval Pieterskerk in Utrecht, this was the version of the story which I subsequently performed throughout Europe and North America during the mid-1990’s.
With the Lincoln Center Festival’s invitation to give a series of performances in New York, in 1997, the project received a huge boost in energy and interest. And it was during those subsequent difficult years 1997-2000 — which witnessed the long illness and death of my partner Barbara Thornton and the uncertainty of Sequentia’s future — that the Beowulf project took on a new importance and urgency: the memorization process was completed, deleted sections of text were restored, new instruments were acquired, and video titles were used for the first time. Sequentia’s long-time agent Jon Aaron became the producer of the Beowulf project and gained an expertise in Anglo-Saxon which allowed him to effortlessly run the video titles from his offstage laptop.
In the meantime, I have been performing Beowulf between Vancouver Island and the Faroe Islands; synagogues in Poland and the Lower East Side of New York; a warehouse in Los Angeles and a medieval art museum in Cologne; Perth, Pittsburgh and Perugia; the Cloisters and the Sydney Opera House; a high school in rural Texas and the Cité de la Musique in Paris. I have had much recent help with the text from John Miles Foley (University of Missouri/Columbia), the distinguished Anglo-Saxonist and scholar of oral poetry, who also oversaw the filming of the DVD in Helsingborn, Sweden, in 2006.
I am often asked if I plan to learn and perform the entire epic. In fact, during 2002 discussions were started about the possibility of preparing the complete Beowulf (3182 verses, or a performance time of roughly 5 hours) for a group of co-commissioners in the U.S., but sufficient interest and funding could not be found to make possible the development of such an intense, long-term project. The idea was reluctantly abandoned in 2004, but not before I had worked my way well into the scene with Grendel’s mother.
Responding to the Lincoln Center Festival’s invitation to return with Beowulf in 2006, I decided to expand my performance to include the final 20 minutes of the first episode (Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel and the subsequent celebrations), thereby making ‘Part I’ complete and containing the uncut text of lines 1-1062, the same version as was released on DVD. Only time will tell if I am able to continue working with the next episode.
Vocalist, harper and scholar Benjamin Bagby has been an important figure in the field of medieval musical performance for more than 30 years. After musical studies in the USA (Oberlin Conservatory and Oberlin College) and Switzerland (Schola Cantorum Basiliensis), he and the late Barbara Thornton formed Sequentia in 1977 in Cologne, Germany, where the ensemble was based until Mr. Bagby moved to Paris in 2002.
The years since 1977 have been almost uniquely devoted to the work of Sequentia. Mr. Bagby created more than 70 innovative concert programs of medieval music and music drama, giving performances in Western and Eastern Europe, North & South America, North and West Africa, the Middle East, Japan, Korea, and Australia.
In 1981, the ensemble began to release the first of many LP’s and CD’s which encompass the entire spectrum of medieval musical practice. Many of these recordings – including the complete works of Hildegard von Bingen (7 CDs) have received awards: the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis (for Vox Iberica, 1993), two Netherlands Edison Awards (for Hildegard von Bingen recordings, 1987 and 1998), a French Disque d’Or (1996), the CHOC of Le Monde de la Musique (2002) and Diapason d’Or (1995 and 1999). Sequentia’s best-selling CD, Canticles of Ecstasy, has sold more than 500.000 copies worldwide and was nominated for a Grammy Award as best choral recording.
For all of these recordings, which were researched and assembled by Bagby and Thornton, the accompanying booklets are appreciated for their rigourous scholarly quality, with great attention to detail, to the sources, and to the work of philologists (such as Peter Dronke, Pierre Bec, Heimir Pálsson and Ulrich Mueller) who collaborated on the textual editions. In addition, Sequentia projects witnessed collaboration with musicologists such as Leo Treitler, Edward Roesner, Harmut Möller and Richard Crocker.
The most recent CD releases of Sequentia (Edda: Myths from Medieval Iceland; The Rheingold Curse; Lost Songs of a Rhineland Harper and Fragments for the End of Time) are based solely on the research of Benjamin Bagby, reflecting his interest in oral poetry and the use of traditional music in reconstructing ancient modal vocabularies. They are grouped under the banner ‘The Lost Songs Project.’
Bagby also directs the Sequentia men’s vocal ensemble for the performance of medieval liturgical polyphony and chant, which traces it beginnings to the mid-1980’s. The major project for the men’s voices in 2003-4 was a collaboration – entitled Chant Wars – between Sequentia and the Parisian ensemble Dialogos (dir., Katarina Livljanic). The CD of this program was released by Sony-BMG (DHM label) in 2005. In 2009, he created a new men’s vocal ensemble in Paris, which has toured extensively.
Apart from the research and ensemble work of Sequentia, Mr. Bagby devotes his time to the solo performance of Anglo-Saxon and Germanic oral poetry; an acclaimed performance of the Beowulfepic is an ongoing project, with performances given yearly worldwide, and a DVD production released in 2007.
In addition to reseaching and writing more than 70 program books for festivals and concert series, and writing (or co-authoring, with Barbara Thornton) more than 25 CD booklets, Mr. Bagby has written about performance practice, with articles appearing in Early Music, Early Music America, in the Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music (IU Press) edited by Ross Duffin, in the Basler Jahrbuch für historische Musikpraxis, and in a recent collection of essays, Performing Medieval Narrative.
As a guest lecturer and professor, he has taught courses and workshops at – among others – the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, Harvard University, the Autunno Musicale (Como, Italy), the Modus Centrum (Oslo), Amherst Early Music (Tufts University), Wellesley College, the University of Texas at Austin, Northwestern University, the New England Conservatory of Music (Boston), Sarah Lawrence College (NY), St. John’s College (Santa Fe), Duke University, Stanford University, the Studio Alte Musik (Berlin), the Royaumont Foundation (Paris) and the Stary Sacz Festival (Poland).
In 2000 Bagby was a guest speaker at New York University’s Medieval Studies Program, and he spent a semester as a visiting Krieger Fellow at Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland); in 2001 he was invited as Patten Lecturer at Indiana University (Humanities and School of Music), as a humanities lecturer (together with Ping Chong) at the University of Michigan, and was a guest professor at Illinois Wesleyan University (Bloomington, IL). In 2003 he was awarded a Fortieth Anniversary Fellowship by the Religion and the Arts Initiative (Center for the Study of World Religions, in conjunction with the Music Department) of Harvard University, where he and Katarina Livljanic spent 6 weeks in residence developing the program Chant Wars. In 2004 he was a Trotter Distinguished Visiting Professor (University of Oregon) and in 2007 – again together with Katarina Livljanic – he was a Cornille Distinguished Visiting Professor at Wellesley College. Bagby and Livljanic were visiting instructors at Harvard University in 2011. In 2011 Bagby was also awarded the Howard Mayer Brown Lifetime Achievement Award by Early Music America. Since 2005 Bagby has been on the music faculty of the Université de Paris – Sorbonne, teaching in the master’s programme for medieval music performance.
Mr. Bagby is married to the Croatian singer and musicologist Katarina Livljanic.