The Institute for Advanced Study’s four-part series of public concerts was scheduled to wind down on March 13 and 14 with a performance of the literary classic “Beowulf” as it was originally designed: recited and sung with harp accompaniment. The performance has been postponed due to coronavirus concerns.
Performer Benjamin Bagby, a faculty member at the Sorbonne in Paris specializing in medieval music performance, explains his effort to return the story of the famed warrior to the ancient voice of the “scop” or bardic storyteller in the following statement:
I was first transfixed by Beowulf in a suburb of Chicago in the early 1960s, 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, who had recently published a book titled “The Meter and Melody of ‘Beowulf,’” discussing the theoretical background 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
The central dilemma of any attempt to re-vocalise 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 an 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.
Benjamin Bagby’s “Beowulf,” Institute for Advanced Study, Wolfensohn Hall, 1 Einstein Drive, Princeton. 609-734-8000 or www.ias.edu/events.