Monday, April 8, 2013

Beautiful blast from the bardic past: Benjamin Bagby’s “Beowulf”

Benjamin Bagby, singer, multi-instrumentalist, musicologist, and one of the founding members of the early music group Sequentia, brought his one-man performance of his reconstruction of “Beowulf” (as it would have been originally performed) to Seattle’s Town Hall on Saturday, April 6th.

“If you’re expecting Game of Thrones, sorry,” said the MC, Laurence W. Herron, the president of the (Seattle) Early Music Guild. “It’s better than that. No CGI monsters. It will be a theater of the mind, as it would have been performed more than a thousand years ago in the mead halls of Medieval Britain.”

Please turn off all cell phones or risk the vengeance of Grendel’s claw.

Exactly how “authentic” it was, of course, will never really be known. We have to be content with an educated guess – though this guess was very well educated. Mr. Bagby’s bardic instrument was probably as close as we can come after this many centuries. It is a copy of a small harp found in a 7th –century Germanic tomb. The tuning – a pentatonic minor (i.e. A, C, D, E, G, A) was another educated guess, though based on known music theory from the time. I’ve heard the same scale in other early music, as well as in some surviving ancient music from elsewhere in the world (Ethiopia, China).

In contrast to other still-extant bard-like traditions (such as the epics recited to the accompaniment of the Turkish tar or the Japanese biwa), Mr. Bagby used the harp for little (if any) sound effects – there was not even a galloping rhythm to indicate horses. Rather, it created an ever-changing (yet at the same time unchanging) underpinning of partly melodic indications of mood: fast and rhythmic for happy situations; slower for sad or solemn moments (there were a lot of the latter); fast but disjointed for scary or exciting scenes; occasional complete pauses for the punch-line of a joke.

Yes, there are jokes in Beowulf. Some of them – no doubt helped by Mr. Bagby’s comic timing, are still funny. But, of course, there is a lot more there too. Mr. Bagby recited roughly the first third of the epic, telling how the monster Grendel, a descendant of Cain, turned the Hall of Heorot into a scene of carnage (not once, but multiple times) and how the hero Beowulf came from across the sea to defeat him – with his bare hands, since it would be dishonorable to use a weapon against a monster who does not use one. It’s quite a swashbuckling, heroic tale. Culturally there are some differences from more recent tales of the same (albeit reworked) genre (i.e. The Lord of the Rings or even Star Wars) – contemporary authors would probably spend more time talking about the battle itself and less describing the gifts given to Beowulf after his victory (even if these are important later in the story). The language also has a different “sound” from modern English, though some words and even phrases are still recognizable. It still retains its Germanic “CH” sounds, for example; and to the modern ear (mine, at least), the king's name, Hrothgar, sounds more like a name for a monster than “Grendel” does.

Above all, though, “Beowulf” is a poem. Its power resides in its recitation as a poem. Here is where Mr. Bagby’s performance comes to the fore. He delivered much of it as an actor might deliver a Shakespearean monologue, with or without the harp; and his narration was enhanced by dramatic facial expressions and animated gestures. At key point he would chant or break into a fully melodic song, often a long melisma on a single emphatic syllable. (Those songs often provided melodic tension with the simplest of means: by continuously ending on the fourth tone of the scale while the harp insisted that the first tone was the tonic.) He has a beautiful, clear voice, with enough resonance to fill the large hall with sound despite that neither he nor his harp was amplified. By the end he (and Beowulf) had woven a spell that transported the audience to another age, both heroic and barbaric. It was an experience that I will not soon forget.

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