CHESTERTOWN—A performer with a booming baritone voice, a theatrical flair and an authentic medieval-style harp will bring the heroic epic poem Beowulf to spellbinding life when he visits Washington College Thursday, November 4, for a 7:30 p.m. performance in Decker Theatre, Daniel Z. Gibson Center for the Arts.
The way Benjamin Bagby performs the Anglo-Saxon epic in its original language, accompanying himself on the harp, has enthralled audiences and dazzled critics around the world. The Washington Post reported: "A seated Bagby held his audience spellbound for 75 uninterrupted minutes with just his voice, face and a few gestures with one arm. He keened, growled, sang and emoted, all within the poem's precise metrics, constantly changing tone, pacing and character."
"Mr. Bagby comes as close to holding hundreds of people in a spell as ever a man has,” wrote the New York Times. “When he has finished, you leave with the overwhelming impression that you know the anonymous poet who created Beowulf more than a dozen centuries ago, that you have felt the man's personality touch you."
Benjamin Bagby has devoted his adult life to medieval music and literature. After earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Oberlin College and the Oberlin Conservatory, he moved to Europe and in 1977 co-founded the medieval music group Sequentia with the late soprano Barbara Thornton. He still leads the group today from his home in Paris, where he teaches in the master’s program for medieval music at the Sorbonne.
No one knows when Beowulf was first created—theories range from the sixth century to the early eleventh century, when the manuscript was found. Bagby is certain, however, that the story of the Danish hero Beowulf and his battles with monsters has its roots in the art of the scop, or story-teller, whose recitations in song and speech were important to tribal gatherings in early medieval England.
With English subtitles projected behind him, Bagby recites Beowulf while playing a 6-string harp. The “bardic” instrument is modeled after the remains of one excavated from a seventh-century nobleman’s grave near Stuttgart, in Germany. On his web site, Bagby explains that the instrument provides a musical matrix of six tones “upon which the singer can weave both his own rhetorical shapes and the sophisticated metrics of the text. … In the course of the story the bard may move imperceptibly or radically between true speech, heightened speech, speech-like song, and true song. The instrument acts as a constant point of reference, a friend and fellow-performer, a symbol of the scop and his almost magical role in the community of listeners."
Professor Corey Olsen, a Tolkien specialist who teaches English at Washington College, says that in our modern age, when reading literature is primarily a silent and solitary experience, “Bagby’s performance brings audiences back into the ancient literary experience, which was oral, social, and communal. This is a unique opportunity to experience medieval poetry as it was meant to be enjoyed,” he adds.
The November 4 event, sponsored by the Sophie Kerr Committee, is free and open to the public.