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Back to the Distant Past With Beowulf

Cal Performances

Oct. 26-30

Benjamin Bagby may be uniquely qualified to perform Beowulf. He’s been making a progress back to the medieval epic’s source since the start of his career.

The American-born, Paris-based early-music specialist arrives in the Bay Area this week to perform his acclaimed “reconstruction” of the Anglo-Saxon poem. Subtitled The Epic in Performance, this historically informed music-theater event features Bagby reciting, singing, and accompanying himself on medieval harp in a rare solo version of the tale. Presented by Cal Performances, Beowulf is scheduled for four performances, Oct. 26-30, at Zellerbach Playhouse on the UC Berkeley campus.

Bagby’s not the first contemporary artist to revisit Beowulf, an intricate tale of warriors, monsters, and heroes in the kingdom of the Danish monarch Hrothgar. In recent years, the work has been updated in films, graphic novels, and even a new American opera (Grendel, by composer Elliot Goldenthal, based on John Gardner’s 1971 novel).

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Yet those seeking a more authentic experience may find this Beowulf a revelation. Bagby, who has meticulously researched his subject, drew from the sum total of his experience to assemble what he modestly calls “a musical realization” of the work.

Bagby isn’t new to historic reconstruction; as the cofounder and director of the medieval music ensemble Sequentia, he has created and performed over 70 programs of medieval music and drama in venues around the world.

In a phone call from his home in France, Bagby said most of those works tended to be slightly later music, “where we had much more musical information.” Yet, the more he worked in medieval music, the more he became interested in earlier repertoires. “Other people move forward in time,” he says. “I always move back.”

The Man Who Remembers Everything

His work on Beowulf began in the early 1980s. “I realized that this was actually a performance piece, not a piece of literature,” he says. “It was not something designed to be read and studied from the printed page. It was really something from the oral culture that was passed down through generations of storytellers such as we find described in the text itself — the so-called scop, who was the tribal singer and storyteller, the man whose job it was to remember everything.

“What really inspired me was the realization that it was a musical-vocal function, and the whole idea was to find a way to rediscover how that might have worked and how it might have sounded.”

Bagby first performed excerpts from Beowulf with Sequentia; in 1990, after working on the piece for nearly a decade, he began to present it in its current form, as a one-man show.

He tells the tale in its original Anglo-Saxon (with English supertitles), using gestures, facial expressions, and vocal effects to re-create the role of the scop. It’s a role, he says, that has no precise equivalent today.

“The scop fulfilled many functions,” Bagby remarks. “He had a huge repertoire, which included stories, epics, genealogies, history, news, but also lyric poetry and death laments and all kinds of texts that are needed in society.”

The performance requires extraordinary vocal resources, says Bagby, who studied German literature and voice at Oberlin College and music of the Middle Ages at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Basel, Switzerland.

“It really uses all the aspects of the voice’s capability,” he says, “from speaking to simple melodies, complex melodies, and something we would call song, all the way to the other end of the spectrum with sung speech into heightened speech, plain speech, to whispering, screaming, and all the rest. The entire spectrum of the human voice is called upon.”

Throughout the performance, he accompanies himself on a medieval harp built for him and based on an instrument found in Germany’s Black Forest: “It’s a typical kind of harp you would have found all across Northern Europe in the 7th or 8th centuries — the kind of instrument described in the Beowulf text, where the harp is mentioned many times.” Only a few such instruments survive today, he notes.

Creating a Musical Realization

Unlike liturgical music from the period, little has been written about early performances of Beowulf. But Bagby used all available clues. “It was using what we know about medieval ways of tuning, what tones work with other tones, the modes, and, of course, the metrics of the text,” he says. “It’s not prose; it’s a metrical, structured text, a poem with a Germanic alliterative structure. With those parameters, one has enough to make what we would call a musical realization.”

Still, Bagby says that aspects of Beowulf remain a mystery. For example, he shies away from assigning the poem to its generally accepted origins in the 11th century. “It probably has its roots in a much earlier time, as early as the 7th century,” he says. “But the manuscript version that we have now dates from about the year 1000.”

Also, he says the performance remains elastic. “Nothing has ever been written down or put in a score. It’s extemporized each time. It’s more or less the same in each performance, but each performance is also somewhat different.”

The 100-minute performance doesn’t recount the entire epic — that, says Bagby, would take over four hours. Instead, he tells the first third of Beowulf: the episode describing the title character’s struggle with the monster Grendel.

Bagby gives 10 to 20 Beowulf performances each year — he’s taken the show to New York, London, and the Edinburgh Festival — and says his audiences are an interesting mix of medievalists, early-music aficionados, fantasy buffs, and fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

“The Tolkien crowd is generally well-informed about old English poetry, and Tolkien himself knew this poem very well,” he says.

That’s quite a draw for a poem with its roots in the distant past. But Bagby says Beowulf still has much to say to contemporary audiences: "I think it speaks to everything we remember from childhood, hearing bedtime stories or ghost stories around the campfire. It has that kind of archaic and elemental quality of the aspects of life we can’t control. The Danish people, who were very successful warriors, terrorizing their neighbors and stealing everything in sight, came up against a force they could not reckon with or even understand. It simply didn’t fit into their way of looking at the world, and it made them paralyzed with fear. Then here comes this guy who, for no other reason than he hears this would be a great way to get some glory, decides to come and rid them of this fiend.

“It’s this idea of unbridled optimism: the hero in the best sense of the word, the man who is willing to burn all his bridges behind him, only go forward, and not think twice about it."

Georgia Rowe has been a Bay Area arts writer since 1986. She is Opera News’ chief San Francisco correspondent, and a frequent contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice, Musical America, San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, and San Francisco Examiner. Her work has also appeared in Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, and Songlines.