Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

Beowulf: Beowulf boasts; Hrothgar recalls Grendel’s assaults

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About the scene and clip:
In this scene, Beowulf boasts of his strength and expresses his intention to rid the Danes of the evil monster, Grendel; King Hrothgar then recalls Grendel’s terrible assaults on his hall in the past.

The solo performer uses all facets of the voice—including singing, speaking, heightened speech and even unusual sounds–and combines these with the use of a six-stringed harp (an instrument with strings of equal length, sometimes known today as a lyre) which is tuned in the “mode” of the epic, a reconstruction based on our knowledge of medieval musical practice and theory. The resulting six tones do not yield “melodies” as such, but rather a large collection of modal gestures which provide the vocalist with his primary musical material. The performer accompanies himself at times, and at other times uses the instrument to create certain modal effects, denote the passage of time, the introduction of a new character, a change of scene, etc.

About the work:
Beowulf, an Old English epic that was written down in the early 11th century, may actually date from as early as the 7th century, and is one of the great surviving medieval epics. While we cannot know who “created” the written version, it is clear that the text has its roots in an older oral tradition of epic storytelling. This type of Germanic verse is recognizable by the structural unity of its unrhymed alliterative lines, each line containing four stressed syllables.

It tells of the mighty struggles between the legendary hero Beowulf and three great supernatural monsters: first Grendel, then Grendel’s mother, and finally the Dragon. This song also sings of Beowulf’s great leadership and loyalty and of the virtues for which he was famed.

About the genre:
The epic is an ancient genre and is found in almost every culture. It is a long heroic narrative which tells of war and great deeds. Epics are generally composed in verse, and sung from memory or improvised in performance by professional performers with instrumental accompaniment. These narratives are created from traditional elements, commonly without recourse to writing, by poets whose names are often unknown to us. Among the famous traditional epics are the Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to Homer; the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf; and the Old French Song of Roland. Many known poets adopt epic forms and themes for their literary verse (such as Virgil in his Aeneid).

About the edition/translation:
Bagby based his performance on Beowulf, ed. Friedrich Klaeber, 3rd ed., Lexington, MA, Heath, 1950, lines 99ff. There are many English translations of this famous work.

About the performer/ensemble:
The American vocalist and medievalist Benjamin Bagby directs Sequentia, the ensemble for medieval music which he founded together with the late Barbara Thornton in 1977. In addition to his work with Sequentia, Bagby is widely known for his solo performances of the Beowulf epic. He lives in Paris. See www.sequentia.org and www.BagbyBeowulf.com.

About the production:
This clip is taken from a video of a performance of Beowulf by Bagby which took place at the Angel Orensanz Center for the Arts in New York City in April 2003, sponsored by the People’s Poetry Gathering. The performance was videoed by NYU-TV.

A DVD of a different performance of Beowulf by Bagby can be purchased at www.BagbyBeowulf.com.