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Charms, Riddles and Elegies

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Benjamin Bagby (file photo)

For more than 35 years Benjamin Bagby has been exploring the earliest sources of medieval song, both in solo performances as a singer/harpist (the Beowulf epic) and in collaboration with the singers and players of his talented ensemble Sequentia. At Jordan Hall on Wednesday evening they reached back several centuries earlier than in the usual Boston Early Music Festival fare to bring us a riveting series of “Charms, Riddles and Elegies” on Anglo-Saxon and Germanic texts. Bagby sang, recited, and played a six-string lyre-shaped Anglo-Saxon harp reproduced in Germany, and also wielded a traditional deer-hide drum from Vancouver Island. Other performers were Norbert Rodenkirchen, who played a small bone flute by Boston’s own Friedrich von Huene in addition to a variety of wooden cross-flutes and a 16-string medieval harp, and singers Hanna Marti, who also played both types of harp, and soprano Stef Conner, who joined the ensemble this spring.

Bagby structured the concert in four segments designed to draw us, as much as possible, into the proceedings. Each one alternated instrumental pieces, charms, riddles, and elegies; translations, also available in the handout, were projected onto a screen. First came the so-called “Merseburg Charms,” the only known examples of Germanic pagan belief preserved in Old High German. Compelling incantations by the two women in shrill unison urged on the Valkyries and called for the healing of a wounded battle horse. Bagby posed an Anglo-Saxon riddle in two stanzas that described first the physical structure of a “creature” and then its power. We had a minute to guess the solution, revealed as a harp. Assuming the persona of a tribal singer using a pentatonic melody of restricted compass, Bagby cited tales of famous men who suffered before recounting his own loss of status as singer to the king. More charms in Old High German and Anglo-Saxon followed: to bless a house and to manage a swarm of bees. The second program segment opened with an instrumental piece based on one of the few surviving melodies from the northern islands, the so-called St. Magnus hymn from a manuscript of around 1230 from the Orkneys. The two Anglo-Saxon harps accompanied what sounded like an improvisatory flight by Rodenkirchen on a sonorous wooden flute. More riddles from Bagby alluded to a quill pen and the fingers that command it, and adding a touch of humor, to a bookworm. In an impassioned lament, Stef Conner eloquently assumed the role of an Anglo-Saxon wife waiting and longing for her absent warrior husband. Concluding incantations aimed to chase away a litany of invasions of the human body, including arrowheads and worms. Rodenkirchen opened the third program segment with a beautiful rendition of the ancient Icelandic folk tune “Lilja” on the flute. Bagby’s performance of the “Dying Old Man” elegy from the Beowulf epic was equally moving, while incantations against the spider-dwarf and “little tumors” were downright frightening. The instrumental piece that opened the fourth and final segment was “deconstructed” back in time by Rodenkirchen from a 10th-century sequence by the St. Gall monk known as Notker the Stammerer, based on the supposition that a multi-stanza Christian sequence might have been based on a pre-Christian melody from oral tradition. Three Anglo-Saxon riddles described household objects — bread dough, an onion, a butter churn — to which obscene doubles entendres could easily be ascribed — but were left to our imaginations. Accompanying herself on the harp, Hanna Marti performed her own reconstruction of the Anglo-Saxon “Wulf and Eadwacer” elegy with its haunting refrain, “It is different with us.” The poem is preserved in a manuscript known as the Exeter Book, donated to Exeter Cathedral in 1072. The manuscript has been dated to ca. 975, but several of the poems included in the book are much older, and some of them have been dated as far back as the 7th century. The story of Wulf and Eadwacer is enigmatic. According to the most widely credited interpretation, the speaker is a woman, being held prisoner on an island by Eadwacer, while Wulf (her lover or husband) is in exile, perhaps being hunted by the speaker’s people. In Marti’s rendition, her defiant isolation in the face of danger became palpable. Marti and Conner joined forces with Bagby’s harp and Rodenkirchen’s flute to invoke charms against bleeding that freely mixed pagan magic and Christian imagery. Bagby recited an elaborate charm that invoked Wotan, then nine herbal remedies, and finally Christ to drive out nine poisons from the body. The evening closed with the “Mill Song of Frodi’s Slave Girls,” taken from a 13th-century prose Edda in Old Icelandic. In the story, King Frodi hires two slave girls to grind out wealth and prosperity for him with a magic millstone. But remembering that they are descended from powerful mountain giants, they instead grind out an army to destroy him, and in conclusion, shake his mill until it collapses. As the two women, Marti and Conner were menacingly convincing in their vengeful anger, the second part of each stanza shifting to the shrill tessitura of the melody’s upper final.

It seemed to this uninstructed listener that both imaginative re-composition and a good deal of conjecture were brought to bear in bringing these “Lost Songs” to life. But why not try? These are musicians steeped in improvisatory traditions, both vocal and instrumental; furthermore, they have mastered obscure languages and made them their own in performances that are riveting as well as convincing. We are grateful for the varied-repetition structure of the program, for the helpful notes in the program book, for the complete texts and translations provided by Anglo-Saxonist Craig Williamson, and for projection of the translations on Jordan Hall’s screen. Sequentia promises detailed information about sources and reconstructions for the program beginning in summer 2019, unfortunately too late for this review.

Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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