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A Thrilling Musical Journey Back in Time

New York
The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art
03/08/2009 -  
Benjamin Bagby: Beowulf
Benjamin Bagby (voice and Anglo-Saxon harp)

Benjamin Bagby (© Olga George)

Most music reviews, as with most experiences in life, do not exist apart from a context with which we are familiar, a context that enables us to compare and contrast what we see and hear with what we have seen and heard before. In that sense, the experience of hearing Benjamin Bagby perform Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, was absolutely unique. For he took his audience back in time, before printed books, and before mass literacy. He drew us from our world of the written word back into the world of tribal society and Anglo-Saxon legend, when bards, called scops told stories in song and speech to spellbound listeners, using only voice, gesture, and the simplest musical accompaniment.

And he did this at the Cloisters (the medieval outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), perched on a hill overlooking the Hudson River. He sat in the splendid limestone apse that was once part of the church of San Martin in Fuentidueña, a village in the province of Segovia, just north of Madrid. The church dates from the mid-12th century, as does the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf, now in the British Library. What setting could have been more fitting?

A performance of the complete poem takes many hours; Bagby performed the first third, in approximately 90 minutes. There were supertitles projected on the wall to his right. These were useful if the audience wanted to know exactly what was going on, and there were probably some people who kept reading them throughout. I was not one of them. I did glance at the titles from time to time. But before long, Bagby’s uncanny ability to bring to life the characters and events of the story was so powerful that the written text seemed more like a distraction. It would seem that he had so few resources -- dressed in black, seated on a stool, strumming a six string lyre, and singing and reciting in a language that was utterly unintelligible to a 21st century English speaker. In fact, with his beautiful deep baritone voice, his extraordinarily expressive face, the gestures of his one free hand, and even the stamping of his feet (to convey the pounding of horses hooves as the warriors race back from the water) he showed that he had resources aplenty.

In the dramatic and emotional climax, the battle between the warrior, Beowulf, and the monster, Grendel, Bagby declaimed, he chanted, and he wailed. We could see – and feel – Grendel slithering into the hall and gobbling up the sleeping soldiers. Beowulf could not use his sword; Grendel was protected from its blade. Instead, Beowulf had to use his hands. When he tore Grendel’s arm from its socket, my heart raced as Grendel screamed in pain and fear. Earlier, there was a scene of pure comedy, as Beowulf was ridiculed by the drunken warrior Unferth, who was jealous of his reputation for heroic deeds. Bagby’s expressive face, sarcastic tone, slurred speech, gestures, and even a few well-placed burps, charmed the audience and made us laugh.

Mr. Bagby is a scholar, as well as a performer. He is on the faculty of the Sorbonne in Paris, where he teaches in the master’s program for medieval music performance practice. I wanted to understand the musicological basis for this extraordinary tour de force, so I got the DVD, which not only contains a complete performance, filmed in Sweden, but also excellent background information. On the DVD, Bagby, answers the question that he says most people ask: Where does his musical score come from? He says that there is no score, no music, no melodies. Not because they once existed and are now lost. But because there was no musical notation before the 9th century. He had to reconstruct the performance practice of Anglo Saxon oral poetry. He began with the archeological evidence, the discovery in Germany of a lyre dating from the 7th century. The hollow oak lyre that he uses is a faithful reproduction. Its character and limitations inform his singing. There is a one-octave range, sheep gut strings that vary only by thickness, and no sound holes. His right hand plays figurations; his left merely thickens the texture. His hand memory, he says, is linked to his text memory. No two performances are ever the same.

To experience this mesmerizing performance for yourself, I strongly suggest that you visit Mr. Bagby’s website. There, you can find his schedule and also purchase the DVD from Koch Entertainment and Films Media Group.

The Site of Benjamin Bagby

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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