Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

Nibelungenlied: Opening lines; group dance

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About the scene and clip:
The performer sings the opening lines of The Nibelungenlied, which introduce the themes of the work and the central female character of Kriemhild; he sings and reads the text, accompanying himself on an Irish harp and using appropriate music from the medieval period. The clip then briefly shows a group dancing a medieval round-dance step in a garden, while the performer plays the melody of the epic on the hurdy-gurdy. The Nibelungenlied is sung here to a melody called the “Hildebrandston,” known to be very close to the original melody of the epic. It is not certain if the Nibelungenlied was ever used for dancing, but on the Faroe Islands (between Scotland and Iceland), in a practice dating back many centuries, Nibelungen ballads are still today both sung and danced; those dances inspired this performance.

About the work:
The Nibelungenlied, or Song of the Nibelungs, is an anonymous German epic composed around 1200, probably by a professional poet or entertainer for performance in a court in Bavaria or Austria. This violent poem draws both on Germanic legends and on historical events of the distant past; it recounts the love and marriage between Siegfried and Kriemhild, a Burgundian queen of the Nibelung dynasty; the great quarrel between Kriemhild and her sister-in-law Brunhild; the treacherous murder of Siegfried; Kriemhild’s marriage to Etzel (Attila the Hun), her violent revenge for Siegfried’s death, and her death. The Niebelungenlied is composed in 4-line strophes of rhymed couplets. The long lines of somewhat irregular length have 7 accented syllables to a line for the first 3 lines of the strophe, and 8 for the last line. Over 30 manuscripts preserve this lengthy epic, in 3 main versions. It is known that the Nibelungenlied was originally sung, and a surviving melody called the “Hildebrandston” is believed to be very close to the original melody for the epic.

About the genre:
The epic is an ancient genre and is found in almost every culture. It is a long heroic narrative that 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:
Das Nibelungenlied, ed. Karl Bartsch & Helmut de Boor/ trans. Siegfried Grosse, Stuttgart, Reclam, 2003. The most accessible English edition is the prose translation by A.T. Hatto, The Nibelungenlied, Penguin Classics, Harmondsworth/Middlesex, 1969. Poetic translations of this work also exist; the attractive poetic translation by George Henry Needler is currently (October 2004) available on-line: http://gutenberg.teleglobe.net/etext05/niebn10h.htm

About the performer/ensemble:
Eberhard Kummer, a professional musician and a retired lawyer from Vienna, has been performing works of the German Middle Ages for many years, accompanying himself on the harp, hurdy-gurdy and other instruments. The dancers are Prof. Ulrich Müller of the University of Salzburg, who arranged for Kummer’s performance in New York, and members of the audience.

About the production:
This clip comes from a performance of Middle High German works by Eberhard Kummer at New York University in May 2004. The performance was videoed by NYU-TV at the New York University Deutsches Haus and in its garden. This production was made in cooperation with the “Interdisciplinary Center for Medieval Studies” at the University of Salzburg, Austria.