About the Performance

Benjamin Bagby’s Beowulf
Saturday, January 23 | 7:30 PM
Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral

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Benjamin Bagby, co-founder of medieval music ensemble Sequentia, is renowned worldwide as a performer and scholar.  Most well-known for his Beowulf presentation, Bagby re-vocalizes medieval text into a spellbinding presentation of the epic poem through use of the Germanic harp and spoken word.  Back by popular demand, Benjamin Bagby’s Beowulf is as epic as the poem that has captivated readers for centuries.

Benjamin Bagby's Beowulf

“Bagby’s imaginative re-creation of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem [Beowulf]… is a double tour de force of scholarly excavation and artistic dynamism.” San Francisco Chronicle

Benjamin Bagby is descended from a Germanic clan which emigrated from Jutland to northern England in ca. 630, from where his branch of the family emigrated to the colony of Virginia almost a millennium later. Following 321 years of subsequent family wanderings, he was born on the shores of the Great Lakes, and twelve years later was captivated by Beowulf.

Several years after moving back to Europe in 1974 he founded – together with the late Barbara Thornton – the ensemble for medieval music, Sequentia, which was based in Cologne, Germany, for 25 years. Both Mr. Bagby and Sequentia are now based in Paris.

In addition to his activities as singer, harper and director of Sequentia, Benjamin Bagby writes about performance practice and teaches widely in Europe and North America. He is currently on the faculty of the Sorbonne University in Paris, where he teaches in the master’s program for medieval music performance practice.

In addition to his work with Beowulf, Mr. Bagby and Sequentia have produced two CDs of musical reconstructions from the medieval Icelandic Edda, one of which, ‘The Rheingold Curse’, was also staged by Ping Chong. The ensemble’s most recent CD, ‘Fragments for the End of Time’, explores early medieval songs about the Apocalypse.

A DVD production of Mr. Bagby’s ‘Beowulf’ performance, filmed by Stellan Olsson in Sweden, became available in 2007. It contains numerous extra features, including interviews with noted Anglo-Saxonists and the performer.

Listen to a sample of Benjamin Bagby's Beowulf

What is Beowulf?

The untitled Anglo-Saxon epic poem known as Beowulf survives in a single manuscript source dating from the early eleventh century (British Library, Cotton Vitellius A. XV). Although scholars do not agree on the dating of the poem – theories range between the sixth century and the date of the manuscript – it is clear that the story has its roots in the art of the scop (‘creator’), the bardic story-teller and reciter at formal and informal gatherings, whose services were essential to the fabric of tribal society in early medieval England.

The scop would re-tell the story of Beowulf, in song and speech, perhaps accompanying himself on a six-stringed harp (this we know from contemporary accounts, although musical notation was superfluous and only remnants of instruments have survived). His courtly audience was attuned to the finest details of sound and meaning, meter and rhyme, timing and mood. The performance – which, for the whole epic, might last between five and six hours – would never be exactly the same twice, as the ‘singer of tales’ subtly varied the use of poetic formulæ to shape his unique version of the story.

The central dilemma of any attempt to re-vocalize a medieval text as living art is based on the fact that a written source can only represent one version (and possibly not the best version) of a text from a fluid oral tradition. The impetus to make this attempt has come from many directions: from the power of those bardic traditions, mostly non-European, which still survive intact; from the work of instrument-makers who have made thoughtful renderings of seventh-century Germanic harps; and from those scholars who have shown an active interest in the problems of turning written words back into oral poetry meant to be absorbed through the ear/spirit, rather than eye/brain. But the principal impetus comes from the language of the poem itself, which has a chilling, magical power that no modern translation can approximate.

Story Synopsis

The following summary will give an overview of the story up to the point where Benjamin Bagby’s re-telling of Beowulf stops, encompassing roughly the first third of the entire epic (lines 1-1062):

Following the formal call of ‘Hwaet!’ (Listen!), the scop reminds the listeners of some geneology: the legendary arrival of the great leader Scyld, found in a boat along the Danish coast, a solitary baby with no possessions. He grows up to become a unifier, war-leader and king of the Danes. On his death he is again set adrift, but now the funeral boat is piled high with treasure and the standard floats in the wind on the mast above him. He leaves a son, Beow, already famous as a king in South Sweden (the northern part of Denmark in the fifth century). Beow carries on the Scylding line as a good and able ruler and is succeeded by his son Halfdane. Halfdane in turn is a worthy king, and has three sons – Heregar, Hrothgar and Helga – and a daughter, Yrsa, who marries Onela of the royal line of Sweden. Eventually, Hrothgar becomes king and rules long and well.

With the kingdom stable, Hrothgar orders that a great banquet hall be built. Workmen from far and near are brought to build and decorate this royal building. Its fine workmanship and gilded gables are famous in Denmark and abroad. Hrothgar names the hall ‘Heorot’ (Hart). The drinking and laughter of the warriors, and the harping and songs of the scop provoke a savage monster named Grendel, a descendant of Cain, who lives in the marshes nearby cannot bear this human gaiety in his loneliness. Only later do we learn details of the creature: that it takes four men to carry his head on a spear, and that his hand has sharp claws like steel spikes. For weeks and months Grendel visits the hall nightly, devouring sleeping warriors and carrying off others to the moor to feed on later. At last, only drunken, boasting fools will linger in the hall after dark, until they too are slaughtered.

Twelve years pass, and in the form of sad songs the news of Hrothgar’s dilemma travels eventually to other lands. Beowulf, sister’s son to Higelac, King of the Geats, hears of Hrothgar’s distress, and with consent from his uncle, sails with fifteen companions from southwestern Sweden on the east coast of the Oslofjörd. When the Danish coastal watchman learns that they have come to Hrothgar’s aid, he shows them the path to Heorot. The Geatish warriors march with their spears, swords, helmets, shields and chain-mail to the high-gabled hall. At Heorot Beowulf and his men enter with challenges and formal speeches, the strict codes of a warrior’s behaviour in court. King Hrothgar had earlier given protection to Beowulf’s father, Ecgtheow, during a feud. Learning Beowulf’s name, Hrothgar recalls hearing of the extraordinary strength and reputation of the Geatish hero: he has the strength of 30 men in his hand-grip.

The strangers are warmly received and Beowulf is seated on the bench with Hrothgar’s young sons. No Dane has confronted Grendel and lived. But the enthusiastic welcome shown to the Geats irritates the jealous Unferth, a drunken courtier sitting at Hrothgar’s feet, who taunts Beowulf for having been defeated in a legendary swimming contest with Breca. Beowulf sets the record straight by recounting the dangers – attacking sea-monsters, storms, vast distances – and claiming that they had merely dared each other to a boyish hunt for sea-beasts. Separated by the winter storm, they swam, carrying swords and wearing chain-mail, two different paths: Breca to Norway and Beowulf to the land of Finns. Beowulf ends his retort with a taunt that Unferth has slain his own brother, the ultimate crime, even though by accident. With such ‘heroes’ as this, it’s no wonder the Danes can’t deal with Grendel themselves! The queen, Wealhtheow, pours ritual mead for the feasting warriors and Beowulf boasts to her that he will defeat Grendel or die in the attempt.

At nightfall Hrothgar and all the Danes depart from Heorot to sleep elsewhere, leaving Beowulf and his men to occupy the hall benches. Beowulf removes his helmet, chain-mail and weapons and boasts again to use no weapon in this fight, since Grendel uses none. As darkness descends Grendel comes gliding up from the misty marshes, and pushes open the great door, his eyes gleaming with an evil light. Immediately he grabs and eats a sleeping warrior. Next, the monster reaches for Beowulf, but the hero grasps his arm in return and rises to his feet. Beowulf’s men cannot help him since Grendel has put a spell on all weapons so that none can harm him. During the ferocious stuggle that follows, the hero wrenches off Grendel’s arm. The sounds of the combat terrify the Danes outside: Grendel howling with pain, benches torn up and overturned, the hall shaken to its foundations. Grendel, leaving a trail of blood, escapes without his arm and limps back to the fens where he dies. Beowulf fixes the arm high above the hall as a symbol of victory. Heorot is cleansed of the evil monster, and in the morning people come from far and near to inspect the sight, following Grendel’s trail to a boiling pool of bloody dark water in the marshes.

Young and old race their horses jubilantly back from the water, praising Beowulf, while an old bard, keeper of many ancient stories, makes up a new song about Beowulf’s deeds of the previous hours. He also sings the well-known story about Sigmund and the dragon. As the morning fog clears and the Danes converge on Heorot, Hrothgar appears with his queen and her retinue of maidens. Seeing the wrecked hall and Grendel’s arm, he gives thanks, praising Beowulf, offering to take him as a son, and promising him rich rewards. Beowulf gives a speech in reply: he describes the combat and regrets only that he cannot show Grendel’s entire body. Everyone agrees, looking at Grendel’s claw, that no sword could have ever defeated the monster. Order is quickly made in the half-wrecked hall, and a great celebratory feast is prepared: mead is poured and Hrothgar makes good on his promise: Beowulf is given a golden standard, a richly adorned helmet and chain mail, a priceless sword, and eight horses, one with a royal saddle decorated with jewels. Beowulf’s men are also given gifts, and the Geatish warrior killed by Grendel is atoned with gold.

The bard ends the story by reminding us that in those days God controlled all mankind, as He still does today. Still, human prudence in all things is best. Anyone who lives for long in this world will endure much: both good and evil.

A Brief History of the Beowulf Project (by Benjamin Bagby)

I was first transfixed by Beowulf in a suburb of Chicago in the early 1960’s, when my English teacher, Mrs. Bennett, handed me Burton Raffel’s translation of the poem and laconically said ‘you need to read this’ (she later handed me yet another bombshell: Dante’s Inferno). Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that a few years later, in high school, I was utterly swept away by the sound of medieval music and started my first ensemble. The Anglo-Saxons would say that this was simply my wyrd (personal destiny).

In 1981, Sequentia (the medieval music ensemble I co-founded with Barbara Thornton) was invited to give a concert in Louvain, Belgium, as part of a university colloquium about performing historical vocal music. One of the participants in the colloquium was the Anglo-Saxonist Thomas Cable (University of Texas/Austin), who had recently published a book entitled The Meter and Melody of ‘Beowulf,’ discussing the theoretical backround for various possible modes of performance. We began to talk, and our discussions, along with my close collaboration with Vermont harp-builder Lynne Lewandowski, sowed the seeds for making the Beowulf story into a performance. The sound-image for this performance popped into my head a few months later, as I was driving through rural Arkansas one blustery March evening; perhaps my subconscious was prodded by the omnipresent local images of razorback hogs, kin to the wild boar, those symbols of fearlessness so dear to the Anglo-Saxons. An instrument was ordered and built, and the project slowly took musical shape, at first making use of shorter Old English poems (such as Caedmon’s Hymn and Deor) and later expanding into a short scene from Beowulf, which had its first public performance in 1987 and was integrated into a Sequentia concert program of medieval English music. Initial guidance with the intricacies of Anglo-Saxon pronunciation and meter was generously provided by Thomas Cable, during several memorable working sessions in his stone library-tower in Austin.

In 1990, I was approached by Jan Nuchelmans, then artistic director of the Utrecht Early Music Festival (Netherlands), about the idea of programming ‘an entire evening of Beowulf’ as part of the festival’s storytelling theme that summer. How could I possibly say no? With less than 5 months to put together a performance lasting about an hour (there were numerous deletions in the text necessary due to festival time constraints and, strangely, the last departure times of Utrecht buses & trams following late-night concerts), I worked feverishly to solve the many problems of shaping an ‘epic’ performance instead of a 10-minute ‘song’. This work was all accomplished with harp in hand and without the use of musical notation, and it was in this process of finding a new oral tradition to reconstruct a lost oral tradition that the project has its deepest roots. Following the premiere in the tiny crypt of the medieval Pieterskerk in Utrecht, this was the version of the story which I subsequently performed throughout Europe and North America during the mid-1990’s.

With the Lincoln Center Festival’s invitation to give a series of performances in New York, in 1997, the project received a huge boost in energy and interest. And it was during those subsequent difficult years 1997-2000 — which witnessed the long illness and death of my partner Barbara Thornton and the uncertainty of Sequentia’s future — that the Beowulf project took on a new importance and urgency: the memorization process was completed, deleted sections of text were restored, new instruments were acquired, and video titles were used for the first time. Sequentia’s long-time agent Jon Aaron became the producer of the Beowulf project and gained an expertise in Anglo-Saxon which allowed him to effortlessly run the video titles from his offstage laptop.

In the meantime, I have been performing Beowulf between Vancouver Island and the Faroe Islands; synagogues in Poland and the Lower East Side of New York; a warehouse in Los Angeles and a medieval art museum in Cologne; Perth, Pittsburgh and Perugia; the Cloisters and the Sydney Opera House; a high school in rural Texas and the Cité de la Musique in Paris. I have had much recent help with the text from John Miles Foley (University of Missouri/Columbia), the distinguished Anglo-Saxonist and scholar of oral poetry, who also oversaw the filming of the DVD in Helsingborn, Sweden, in 2006.

I am often asked if I plan to learn and perform the entire epic. In fact, during 2002 discussions were started about the possibility of preparing the complete Beowulf (3182 verses, or a performance time of roughly 5 hours) for a group of co-commissioners in the U.S., but sufficient interest and funding could not be found to make possible the development of such an intense, long-term project. The idea was reluctantly abandoned in 2004, but not before I had worked my way well into the scene with Grendel’s mother.

Responding to the Lincoln Center Festival’s invitation to return with Beowulf in 2006, I decided to expand my performance to include the final 20 minutes of the first episode (Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel and the subsequent celebrations), thereby making ‘Part I’ complete and containing the uncut text of lines 1-1062, the same version as was released on DVD. Only time will tell if I am able to continue working with the next episode.