Experience BEOWULF in Anglo-Saxon with Benjamin Bagby

Many years ago I had the great pleasure of witnessing a performance which transported me as closely as possible to Anglo-Saxon times as I could ever have imaginged: Benjamin Bagby sang, spoke, recited and brought to life an impressive part of Beowulf at Wheaton College, MA. It was perfectly captivating and mesmerising to see how a man of our times transformed himself into an artist who could have been invited to a mead hall in ancient times to sing and tell stories of heroes, of fate and death – a bard whose knowledge and talent would make a nobleman’s court sit in silence and listen.

Lincoln Center Festival presents Benjamin Bagby performing "Beowulf" at LaGuardia Drama Theater on July 18, 2006. Credit:  ©Stephanie Berger

Lincoln Center Festival presents Benjamin Bagby performing “Beowulf” at LaGuardia Drama Theater, July 18, 2006. Credit: ©Stephanie Berger

Luckily enough, Benjamin Bagby does regular performances of this particular piece. Tomorrow he will be at Utrecht in the Netherlands at the Dutch Harp Festival and then return to more shows in the United States. I do hope he will come to Germany soon (Berlin, maybe?) so I can see him again.

To any Tolkienist Beowulf should ring quite a few bells – it was one of the most important pieces of inspiration to Tolkien and a major source of his professional interest. Beowulf: The Monsters & the Critics is to this very day one of the most influential publications on said epic and should be read by quite a few researchers out there who have lost sight of the sheer appreciation of Tolkien’s creative genius.

The manuscripts of his seminal lecture series have been edited and published by leading Tolkien expert Michael Drout who has also recorded all of Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon (possibly inspired by Bagby’s performance!)

Beowulf is the story of a warrior journeying to the court of Danish king Hrothgar to rid him of Grendel, a monster attacking the court and killing off Danish warriors. After successfully completing this quest Beowulf has to fight with Grendel’s mother who is out for revenge and is able to vanquish her as well. After returning home Beowulf becomes king of the Geats and rules peacefully for decades until a fire-breathing dragon threatens the peace of his country and he goes out for a last heroic deed – he slays the dragon but is mortally wounded.

[learn_more caption=”Benjamin Bagby – A Short Biography”]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.
Benjamin Bagby: Resume (PDF, 135 KB)

Source: Official website of Benjamin Bagby’s BEOWULF[/learn_more]

Beowulf is one of the most filmed stories in the last twenty years from volunteer-run fan productions to mega blockbusters. The most successful version is, as usual, by far the worst of them all. The main actor claimed not to have read the story so as not to be influenced in his portrayal of a hero he doesn’t know. Thanks, Hollywood.

In that story some boy steals a golden cup from a dragon’s hoard. Sound familiar?  See this short excerpt of one of his performances (and no, it does not even come close to the real things!)

Forthcoming performances

1 March 2014 Dutch Harp Festival, Utrecht NL, 22h15 Vredenburgh/Leeuwenburgh

10 April 2014 Cambridge, MA, USA, Harvard University, Music Building, Paine Hall, 20h

16 April 2014  Virginia Arts Festival, Norfolk VA, USA

22 April 2014  Carnegie Hall / Zankel Hall, NYC, USA

24 April 2014  Jackson MS, USA

29 July 2014 Ottawa, Canada (details forthcoming)

6 September 2014 Bergen, Norway (details forthcoming)

1 May 2015 Chicago, IL, USA (details forthcoming)

 

Photo Credits: Benjamin Bagby (c) Olga George (featured image).

 

TheTolkienist

A Tolkien fan for twenty-five years (and more to come...) Founding chairman of the German Tolkien Society, Co-Founder of Ring*Con, Co-Founder of the ITF, host, presenter and fantasy expert

3 Responses

  1. Parmenter says:

    The Old English should be more understandable than that. It should be modeled on some local dialect in the Seven Kingdoms and not on German.

    • I am not quite sure whether Benjamin’s long stay in Cologne would have influenced his way of pronouncing Anglo-Saxon. My knowledge of Anglo-Saxon is almost non-existent but if there were a modern “accent” close enough to Anglo-Saxon I would indeed expect it to be a German one.

      Have you listened to Michael’s reading of Beowulf? With him being an American his reading of Anglo-Saxon doesn’t quite convince me but maybe that is just due to my hearing habits. And my lack of knowledge of how “Anglo-Saxon should sound” – it is always rather difficult to make the past come to life …

      There would probably have been one person to properly read it out – the man himself. With a Mercian accent, possibly 😉

  1. 19. March 2014

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