Ensemble for Medieval Music. Benjamin Bagby, Director

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Sequentia celebrates its 40th anniversary in March 2017




Katja Zimmermann

(exclusive of Europe)

Seth Cooper
Seth Cooper Arts Inc.
4592 Hampton Ave.
Montréal, QC, Canada
Tel: 514-467-5052

In association for
Season 2016-2017 with:

Jon Aaron
Aaron Concert Artists 
220 West 148th St. 4J
New York City 10039, NY / USA
Tel: 212-665-0313


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The Rheingold Curse

A Germanic Saga of Greed and Vengeance from the Medieval Icelandic Edda

The Rheingold Curse: Introduction

At a time when the Romans were loosing their grip on a vast colonial empire, a wandering tribe of warlike Germanic people from the Baltic coast came to central Europe, finally settling on the Rhine River in 413 and agreeing to an alliance with the Empire. But these ambitious folk, who were called Burgundians, expanded a little too fast and too far, and were eventually wiped out in 436 by another tribal alliance of fighters called Huns. The Burgundian survivors followed a long, Roman-dictated “trail of tears” and after many years ended up in the region we still call Burgundy today. One of their kings was called Gundaharius: he is the man named Gunnar in our story.

Most of early Germanic history is a collection of fragments, hearsay, reports from homesick Romans and the randomly scattered contents of burial mounds. The legend of the cursed Rhinegold, of the boy-hero Sigurd, of King Gunnar and his beautiful sister Gudrun, of Attila the Hun and his Valkyrie-sister Brynhild, are contradictory, weird, and seem to take place in a dreamscape which easily includes both Mirkwood forest, the Rhine River and the glaciers of Iceland. It is a legend based on names of places and people (some of whom existed), freely mixed with the old Germanic gods, cunning dwarves, dragons, shape-changers, magical swords and horses, supernatural beings and talking birds; an archaic story which enthralled many generations of Europeans as they listened to the bards and minstrels who formed the fabric of their tribal memories. As centuries passed, the Romans went home, Christianity was imposed, new stories were heard, and many old orally-transmitted tales lost their immediacy or were transformed into mere adventures until they were utterly unrecognizable or lost. But in a far corner of Europe, in Iceland, dozens of these stories lived on in the language of the Vikings and - luckily for us – were copied in the 13th century into a small parchment book: a humble, untitled manuscript which is now the greatest single cultural treasure of the Icelanders and is called the “Edda”. The poems found there, which serve as the basis for our reconstructions, represent the highest art of bardic story-tellers and singers, whose tradition stretches into the people's remote pagan past. Their masterful style makes use of ingenious meters, a telegraphic, pithy diction perfect for vocalization, employing gnomic devices and poetic circumlocutions intended more to arouse associative imaging than to deliver information. Despite a marked tendency towards unsentimentality, pragmatism, even grisly humour, these Old Norse stories are full of the uncanny, the dreamlike: the reconstructions we present here bear witness to this. The Edda manuscript includes these tales of envy, gold-lust, revenge and the horrible power they have over that most sacred and holy human institution: the family. These are the archaic stories which we have liberated from the written page, where they were never really at home, and put back into the mouths of bards and the hands of minstrels.

We do not limit ourselves to this one terrifying family epic, but frame it with a prophecy taken from the same manuscript. The northern peoples' uncommon respect for worlds beyond their own was manifested in a willingness to heed what was spoken in prophetic and poetic modes. Völuspá is the name of one of the central poems of Old Icelandic tradition, containing the words of an immortal female being who speaks in the enigmatic expressions of oracle to a questioning but silent god Odinn; she speaks of time's flux, of the urges for growth and order, and the unconquerable forces of chaos. She tells how the world came about, and she also tells how it will end, stopping to ask her questioner: “Do you really want to know more?”.

If this story is at all familiar to us today, it is probably thanks to the 19th-century German Romantics’ fascination with all medieval stories and legends. We find these Eddic poems translated into German and published (by the Brothers Grimm) already in 1815, and it is this edition, among other sources, which an industrious young composer named Richard Wagner consulted when working on the libretto for his “Ring of the Nibelung” music-drama cycle, re-working and re-weaving medieval sources with his own fertile imagination, in which Brynhild becomes Brünnhilde, Sigurd becomes Siegfried, and the final, apocalyptic battle between giants and gods becomes Götterdämmerung. But Wagner did not “rediscover” these stories any more than we did: 800 years ago an anonymous southern German court poet produced a hugely successful and extravagent verse retelling of the story, the “Nibelungenlied”; and not long thereafter the famously literary Icelanders themselves were re-acquianted with the whole deadly family affair through the prose “Volsunga Saga”. Indeed, we must resort to using material from this saga to fill the gaps in the story where the Edda itself is silent.

Further Reading

The Rheingold Curse: Introduction

The Reconstruction of Eddic Performance

Excerpts from reviews of ‘Rheingold Curse’ performances in the USA (January-February 2010)


Upcoming Concerts

05 October 2017
Paris (FR), Musée de Cluny
Monks Singing Pagans

09 to 13 October 2017
Venice (IT), Fondazione Cini
Seminar Roman de Fauvel

20 April 2018
Konstanz, D
Oswald in Konstanz

See full concert schedule



Benjamin Bagby's recent activities as teacher/lecturer, linked to his performances

At the invitation of the music department, Benjamin taught a performance workshop on the music of Hildegard von Bingen for students at Princeton University (29 March), where he also performed 'Beowulf' in a collaborative production with digital light designer Craig Winslow. Following this, at the invitation of the medieval studies program and the English department, he gave a lecture on his work with reconstructing the 'Beowulf' performance, at Yale University (3 April).

At the Université Paris – Sorbonne, where Benjamin is on the faculty, the yearly 'Entretiens de la musique ancienne' were held this year in honor of his life-long work with reconstructing 'lost songs'. The main event was his performance of 'Beowulf' (11 May), with French video titles, in the Amphithéâtre Richelieu of the Sorbonne, followed by two days of symposium at the university's Centre Clignancourt, sponsored by the historical music organization IREMUS and the musicology department of the university. During this symposium, Benjamin gave a lecture on his work with reconstructed harps and the kinds of clues they can provide ('Beowulf ': dans l'atelier d'un conteur d'histoires).


2017 Barbara Thornton Memorial Scholarship awarded by Early Music America to string-player Allison Monroe

This scholarship is given by EMA to “an outstanding and highly-motivated (and possibly unconventional) young performer of medieval music who seeks to widen his/her experience through more advanced study and/or auditions in Europe.”  The recipient is chosen by a jury of musicians who knew or worked with the great medieval music specialist and teacher, Barbara Thornton (1950-1998), who co-founded Sequentia together with Benjamin Bagby in 1977. Read more about Allison here.

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