Historically informed performance—the practice of reviving older styles of music through the close examination of their social context, as well as surviving manuscript scores—has been the norm in early music for decades. But what can performers do when they’re working with something that survives only in text form? That’s the task Benjamin Bagby has faced in bringing the 10th-century Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf to the stage. No one knows how it would have been presented, a thousand years ago. Would it have been highly theatricalized, or delivered as straight recitation? Would it have been accompanied by music and, if so, which instruments would have been featured?
The historical record is mute. Consequently, over the course of his almost 30-year intimacy with this archetypical hero’s journey, Bagby has proceeded through, as he’s written, “a veil of conjecture and intuition”. So far, listeners have concurred, the results are stunning.
They are also, the singer, scholar, and founder of the esteemed Sequentia Ensemble for Medieval Music adds, ever-evolving.
“My first steps were of course hesitant and stumbling—trying things and discarding things and keeping others,” Bagby tells the Straight in a telephone interview from his home in Paris. “And in a way I’ve developed with time a sort of oral tradition of my own.…I’m now just a singer who is working within an oral tradition, and I’m respecting my elders, as it were—but my elders happen to be the younger me. So it’s paradoxical.
“I don’t feel like I’m a composer or an arranger or anything like that—anything intellectual,” he continues. “I think of myself as following a set of procedures that developed organically over time in years past, and my impression is that I’m staying very true to the tradition. But, again, I may be departing from it without knowing. And, indeed, that’s a factor in any oral tradition. There are influences that come in; one changes something by complete happenstance one evening in a performance and it seems to work well and then that gets installed and it remains forever. Other things that one has worked out intellectually are discarded for no apparent reason and replaced with something else. It’s a living, organic process, and I try to not get in the way of what the text is trying to tell me as I tell it, as I speak the text. And that way, the performance is always something new.”
In bringing Beowulf out of the historical mists, Bagby credits a fortuitous encounter with the Japanese vocalist and biwa player Kinshi Tsuruta, singing the 14th-century epic The Tale of the Heike, with helping to shape his own approach to longer texts.
“Seeing that—I think I was 14 or 15—really made an impression on me, and I sort of filed it away somewhere very deep,” he recalls. “And as I began working on Beowulf many, many years after that, certainly the memory of how that felt came back to me. I was very inspired by the way she could use time, the way she could use the instrument, the way she could make language work to give a feeling of authority. ”
A variety of shorter poetic forms—including an excerpt from Beowulf—factor into Charms, Riddles & Elegies, the concert that the four members of Sequentia will deliver the night before Bagby’s solo show. The connection is that the ensemble performance is based around a set of Anglo-Saxon elegies that Sequentia’s leader had been introduced to by one of his Beowulf mentors, the American medievalist John Miles Foley.
“We had a long-term project that I might perform and record some of these, and then he died, unfortunately, about five years ago,” Bagby explains. “So I moved ahead with the project, but I found that just singing these incredibly sad elegies doesn’t make for much of a concert program.…So this is a concert with lots of little things. The riddles are spoken, the charms are sung, and nothing is very long. But they swirl around these big boulders—four of the great Anglo-Saxon elegies—that serve as the main points of reference.”
The charms in particular, Bagby adds, bring a magical element to the program that should prepare listeners for the supernatural events related in Beowulf. “Some of them are extremely weird,” he says. “They’re really strange, some of them, and spooky. They’re not very logical, and they’re certainly not anything you would call scientific. They’re really on the dark side—and yet sometimes quite funny.”
Early Music Vancouver presents the Sequentia Ensemble for Medieval Music in Charms, Riddles & Elegies at Christ Church Cathedral on Friday (January 10), and Benjamin Bagby’s Beowulf at the Vancouver Playhouse on Saturday (January 11).