in: Reviews

March 4, 2012

Bagby Time-Travels to Medieval Europe

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The much-praised Medieval music ensemble Sequentia thrilled a packed Houghton Chapel at Wellesley College (co-sponsor of this event with Boston Early Music Festival) last night. Many in the audience were from the Early Music world, while others knew Benjamin Bagby, the group’s singer and harpist, from his magisterial performances at Tanglewood and on the DVD of Beowulf.

Sequentia was formed by Bagby and his late wife Barbara Thornton in 1977. The first graduate of Oberlin Conservatory with a degree in Early Music, Bagby began his work reconstructing  Beowulf  in the mid-1980s and then moved into other European music repertoires (Anglo-Saxon, Icelandic, Old High German, to name a few) which have “vanished;” that is, the surviving manuscripts do not provide enough information for a reliable transcription. With the aid of musicologists and philologists, Bagby has assiduously and creatively been recreating a musical and literary world. He has written over 70 programs for Sequentia, and Saturday’s, entitled “Endzeitfragmente/ Fragments for the End of Time” certainly reflects the skill, intelligence, and fire that he brings to a performance.

Norbert Rodenkirchen, who neither spoke nor sang, played flute and auxiliary second harp. He aroused great interest when, after playing Medieval transverse flutes, he played a flute made from the bone of a swan (made by Friedrich von Huene in 1998, based on an 11th-century instrument unearthed near Speyer). It sounded very much like a piccolo, but knowing its origin was, for this listener, quite creepy. Most of the instrumental interludes were handed over to him and his flutes (while all of the plentiful lachrymose news came from the lips of Benjamin Bagby). Oddly, although I would ordinarily walk a mile to avoid hearing a flute, I enjoyed Rodenkirchen’s improvisatory playing a lot, while a friend who likes flutes seemed at the end of her tether having to hear so much of them!

What a great town! Britten’s War Requiem was playing in Boston, “Fragments for the End of Time” in Wellesley, and as I headed home, my car radio had BSO playing “The Dream of a Witch’s Sabbath” from Symphonie fantastique. [ed: BMInt will have reviewed 14 concerts from this weekend, and there were at least a half dozen others worthy of coverage.]

Back to Wellesley. . .  Nothing in Berlioz or Britten got any scarier than the admonitions from Bagby about what was to befall us. To wit: terror, destruction on a massive scale, every manner of bodily punishment, threats of hell’s “loathsome places,” great agony, senseless terrors — you get the picture. Bagby is both a brilliant actor and re-enactor. You never doubt his authenticity: consider his eyes, posture, pronunciation of the thorniest linguistic entanglements (and his gorgeous rolled r’s!), his hands and the many ways he modulates his voice. To boot, there is his six-string harp playing (which he usually does to accompany himself, but did sometimes with Rodenkirchen to great effect). The six-string harp (reconstructions of Germanic harps based on 12th-century instruments from near Stuttgart) was plucked upon most of the evening, but an early Medieval triangular harp (about 15 strings) was also used a bit; it had an exotic sound all its own (its strings were gut). The versatile Bagby also played a hurdy gurdy with flute in one of the numbers — it was quite lovely!

Behind Bagby was a screen onto which the modern English texts stared at us. (The medium was far less scary than the message). He spoke to us of putting things — our sins, our transactions with and transgressions against other people — into perspective on a cosmic scale. (Will any of this matter when the world ends)? Many of the texts are didactic, instructing us how to live; but alas, no texts exist for teaching us how to play or sing the music. Bagby explained in a pre-concert talk that no musical notation existed before the ninth century, yet people had already been singing and telling stories for hundreds of years. (I’m guessing many hundreds). If I ever go time-traveling to the Middle Ages, I want Sequentia as my guide — and my entertainment.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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