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MusicThe Best of 2010

Beowulf, sung and recited by Benjamin Bagby at Tanglewood

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Benjamin Bagby performs Beowulf. Photo Hilary Scott.
Benjamin Bagby performs Beowulf. Photo Hilary Scott.

Seiji Ozawa Hall, Thursday, July 22, 2010

Benjamin Bagby has been performing Beowulf now for twenty years, usually to sold-out houses, especially in New York City. (I’ve tried and failed to get tickets more than once.) Audiences and critics rave about Bagby’s ability to create a spellbinding effect in his recitation/singing over the hour and forty minutes of its duration — all in what is practically a foreign language, even if most people call it Old English. With brilliant success, Bagby has transformed what was once the bane of American English majors — all too long ago: that last of those required to address the older stages of our language are hoary of head and halting in gait — into a thrilling entertainment full of color and expression. It is as if the early music movement had finally spawned their Stokowski. The effect is so essentially baroque. What Lear or Hamlet has speech, declamation, and singing in his dramatic quiver? In this way Bagby has bridged the language gap and made it possible for modern audiences to share something like the enjoyment a medieval scop’s audience would have experienced in a bardic performance. Of course today we sit decorously in Seiji Ozawa Hall or some place like it, and there is no mead or beer at hand. On the rare occasion that a line comes out as comprehensible modern English, we laugh. Our eyes flit back and forth to and from the supertitles…

Actually he performs the first 1062 lines of the poem — the story of the slaying of Grendel, a monstrous, possibly semi-human creature, who has been decimating the court of King Hrothgar. By omitting the final two sections, which tell how Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother, and then how he himself dies in combat with a dragon, Bagby obtains a performable chunk of the epic without any need for disfiguring cuts. This makes for a performance of around an hour and forty minutes, perhaps a third longer than the average Homeric book, which many think to fit into the customary length for epic entertainment among the Greeks.

As powerful and fascinating as the performance is, a distance remains, evident on a more profound level in the almost caricatural way Bagby conveys the heavy, northern Germanic sarcasm of Hrothgar’s response to Beowulf’s self-introduction. The rationale behind this comes from Bagby the performer rather than Bagby the scholar. Here exaggeration is necessary: otherwise modern audiences wouldn’t get it. By contrast the mystery and horror of Grendel’s visitations communicate directly to us. For this Bagby needs no more than the storyteller’s poise and expression, at the very least a rich and highly seasoned brew.

I have the impression, which I shall have to leave entirely undocumented here, that epic poetry and Beowulf in particular has a larger popular audience today than when it was an indispensable part of the college curriculum. Although there have been some other similarly imperfect, but excellent translations in the past, Robert Fagles’ translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey struck a chord with contemporary readers and sparked off an enthusiasm for Homer, which may still be alive. Similarly, Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, much to the disgust of the scholarly community, has attracted a wide following, seemingly including many people who  might not have thought of reading Beowulf before. This is all apart from the indirect popularity the Beowulf scholar J. R. R. Tolkien created for the poem through his trilogy of novels, The Lord of the Rings, which eventually became an even more popular series of films. Enough said. Poor Tolkien has suffered enough. This latter audience probably overlaps only slightly with Benjamin Bagby’s literate audiences in New York and now here at Tanglewood. Even the Draculesque young man with the beginnings of a Rasputin beard who floated over the lawn in his long black cape gave the impression of an eccentric medievalist than a fan of pop-culture epic, cinematic or otherwise.

Likewise, I’d wager that Heaney’s and Bagby’s audiences do not entirely overlap. One appeals to general readers of accessible modern poetry, and the other to medievalists and enthusiasts of the early music movement. In this world, it is easier for the scholar to reach out to the public as a performer. In fact Benjamin Bagby’s bailiwick at the Sorbonne, where he has a teaching position, is defined in the course catalogue as “Master Professionnel Pratique de la musique médiévale,” that is, within a practical division at a university rather than a conservatory. He has long researched and lectured on performance practice, and there is a reason behind everything he does on stage. He is fully aware of the limitations of what we know and understand about how medieval epic was performed, and his working methods are thoroughly tempered with a modest agnosticism. As he said in his article “Beowulf, the Edda, and the performance of medieval epic: Notes from the workshop of a reconstructed ‘singer of tales’” (Birge Vitz, Evelyn, Nancy Freeman Regalado and Marilyn Lawrence, eds. Performing Medieval Narrative)

We can never know if our performances precisely duplicate the art of a particular medieval bard, in Iceland or elsewhere; nor can we ever rediscover the “original melody” to which any epics were sung in the early Middle Ages, since the original melody certainly never existed for any one narrative or story. In each local tradition, in each language and dialect there were varieties of originals being passed along in their own oral traditions. However, I am convinced that by making careful use of specific information and techniques, as described here, coupled with an intuitive spirit based on a working knowledge of both medieval song and the essence of sung oral poetry, it is possible to reconstruct highly plausible performance models which allow our venerable ancestral stories to live again.

To get to this point, not only for the Icelandic Eddas, the Nibelungenlied, and other medieval narrative works he has performed, Bagby has pursued painstaking research into all the available evidence: the texts, of course (which is usually all that survives), musical notation (if there is any), historical tradition about the original singers and their social context (an excellent example of this, occurs in Beowulf, in the account of the scop — traditional topos of epic, which we find in the Odyssey as well), and finally what we know about the musical instruments used by the bards. For Beowulf and the Eddas, he plays a 6-string harp built by Rainer Thurau of Wiesbaden, based on the remains of an instrument excavated from a 7th century Alemannic nobleman’s grave in Oberflacht (south of Stuttgart). From its construction, Bagby deduces the greater part of the tuning method he uses and his playing style. A lot is resting on very little here, but Bagby’s aim is to perform, and to perform stirringly, to bring the poems to life for non-specialist audiences.

In calling himself “a reconstructed ‘singer of tales’” Bagby asserts his belief that Beowulf is for the most part an oral poem, that is, a work from a pre-literate poetic tradition which was handed down without the aid of written texts, through the assimilation of a body of oral formulae, segments of verse which could be strung together to create the poem as it is being performed. The formulae, the meter, and knowledge of the story line come together to aid the bard as he sings.

As a “singer of tales” Bagby also associates himself with one of the last surviving oral traditions, which the Harvard classicist, Milman Parry, was able to record on disc during two expeditions in 1933 and 1934 to towns, mostly Muslim, extending from the north to the south of the former Yugoslavia. By careful linguistic analysis of Homer, above all the Iliad, Parry came to the conclusion that the texts were based on an oral tradition. Hence, when he came to Yugoslavia to document this living oral tradition through recorded  interviews and performances, he was careful to establish the illiteracy of the singers, as he interviewed them about their training and methods. It is still possible to find some oral singers today, mostly in Central Asia, especially Kirghizistan and Uzbekistan, but these traditions are somewhat less pure than the South Slavic, which itself was not entirely pure. Beowulf, in any case, is something of a mixture, more akin to the Odyssey, which incorporates some refinements of textual literature) than the Iliad in this respect, although many would agree with Benjamin Bagby that the the voice of the illiterate bard is still alive in it, and so would I.

Bagby also takes approach to the meter of Beowulf. As he said in the essay quoted above:

When I approached the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf for the first time, with the intention of reconstructing a performance, I listened to all of the available recordings of experts reading the original text. I was struck by what I perceived as an exaggerated emphasis on the pure mechanics of metrics; the metrical patterns of various lines, which for an oral “singer of tales” would normally function on a deeper structural level, had broken the surface of the text (and the story), becoming obvious and heavy in the mouth of the reciter, and intrusive in the ear of the listener. The musician (and storyteller) in me imagined a subtler role for these delightfully vivid and supple metrical patterns, and I resolved to work on the text of Beowulf…in such a way that the metrical structures are servants of the performance and not its master. Through long hours of practical work, I searched for ways to give the metrics a powerful yet less superficial function in support of the the text, so that the story would be free to emerge as an aural experience, held together from within by an almost imperceptible array of interlocking sounds and impulses.

As a performer of metrically structured texts, I do not have the role of teaching metrical theory to my listeners, but of telling a story. This does not mean, however, that the metrical structures are being neglected. On a very deep level I do experience the metrics as I sing and speak the story; they are influencing and shaping my use of voice, instrumental accompaniment, timing, speed, and rhetorical gesture, in short, all of the variables of performance. […] My goal is to allow the metrical structures their important place in the text, so that they function, but subtly, creatively, almost subconsciously. All elements of measured time must be free to help shape the story: from the smallest unit of the individual syllable to the single, long pulse of an entire performance.

It is most likely in this that Mr. Bagby’s performance will raise the hackles of specialists. The regularities of rhythm which he finds objectionable, but which is learned by every student of Old English poetry is not always detectable. This meter encompasses many variables, in any case, and Bagby’s unlocking of their expressive power is a wonder to hear. I think, however, that a listener who understands the meter and retains an open mind, will get more out of the performance.

If not every student of Beowulf has found this primal voice, Bagby certainly has, and, as an artist, he is able to re-create it with his voice and fingers, not to mention other parts of his body, like his feet, which he taps and stamps on occasion. The enormity of sound produced in the famous opening word of the poem, Hwaet! (Listen!), always a strong word whenever it recurs, lets us know that this will be a performance on a very large scale, true to the concept of epic. Bagby shapes each meaningful narrative unit, whether it is a basic half-line, or two or three. This expressive attention to detail makes the verse — and the story — intensely vivid to all but the least interested in the audience, even if they don’t know the poem at all and are struggling along with the supertitles — or at least I imagine so. He combines this with a fine sense of timing and narrative shape, so that the narrative succeeds in musical and dramatic terms as well. And then there is his robust and infectious sense of humor!

From the uproarious applause of the audience, I imagine that many of its members will come back to hear Benjamin Bagby sing Beowulf again. I have already acquired the DVD of his performance together with some invaluable interviews and discussions. His performance is overwhelmingly captivating, but I do recommend a little preparation for full access to its wonders. If you, first example get hold of an introductory book, like Peter Baker’s Introduction to Old English (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), also available online as The Electronic Introduction to Old English, and learn to pronounce Old English and come to understand the meter, so that you can read a few lines aloud, it will open up even more of the pleasures contained in the performance. Benjamin Bagby will take care of the rest.

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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