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Beowulf with harp at Vassar

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Fri Mar 9th, 2018

Benjamin Bagby performing Beowulf

Last Thursday evening baritone Benjamin Bagby performed Beowulf (Honeywolf) at Vassar College with a reconstructed 7th century Anglo-Saxon harp based upon the remnants of one discovered in an unknown nobleman’s grave. Born on the shores of the Great Lakes, he was captivated by the Beowulf epic at the age of twelve. After graduating from Oberlin College, he moved to Europe to study at the Schola Cantorum in Basel. In 1977 with Barbara Thornton he founded Sequentia, a leading medieval ensemble that has recorded over twenty discs. Bagby is the principal singer as well as harpist for the ensemble, yet he developed a solo shop (Anglo-Saxon word for poet-singer) performance of Beowulf that runs to about a hundred minutes.  

Bagby’s performance on the reconstructed harp was astonishing. The harp has six strings with open tuning in D. Through arduous study of the instrument he discovered that the instrument achieves a gapped octave containing three perfect fifths and two perfect fourths. Central to an Anglo-Saxon performer was the element of improvisation, so none of Bagby’s performances is ever the same. As well as being an impressive singer, Bagby is an accomplished actor. After the performance, he stayed for audience Q & A, and this revealed a completely different personality. Bagby has an amazing knowledge of not only medieval music, but a knowledge of Serbian epic improvisation and various African methods and mythologies concerning improvisation.

Bagby’s summary of Beowulf focused on the Grendel story (most scholars think the dragon story was written by a disciple and tacked on). (A complete version of the epic would last about three and one-half hours without intermission.) Bagby’s performance highlighted medieval court humor; his rendition of the Unferth character, a character like the ironically named Euryalus (a braggart-athlete warrior) in Book 8 of Homer’s Odyssey, delivered delightful entertainment. Bagby was excellent at offering ironic elements as well as the wry epic tone embedded in Anglo-Saxon psychology. The vivid realization of this comic element put his impersonation of a savvy scop over the top.

There were moments when Bagby sang, yet there were also interludes when unaccompanied he directly addressed the audience or improvised a musical interlude, yet he managed to maintain the suspense of the epic. The music became a co-narrator. Bagby’s Anglo-Saxon accent appeared to be pitch-perfect as he enhanced the musicality of the printed text. For people like me who have mostly forgotten their Anglo-Saxon, there were superscripts in contemporary English.

Nearly a hundred students turned out to hear this extraordinary event in Taylor Hall, despite the fact that the event had been scheduled for Wednesday and then postponed until Thursday because of the recent snow storm. Bagby, who has been performing Beowulf for twenty years, lamented that he does not have a student to follow in his footsteps and that his work might disappear after his death. A one minute video rehearsal of Bagby performing appears below, yet such a tool only gives a vague approximation of what a dynamic singer-actor in the flesh achieves when seen live on stage delivering the emphatic intensity of the Anglo-Saxon word “Listen!”