Ensemble for Medieval Music. Benjamin Bagby, Director

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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

29 October 2021, 7.30 pm
Friends of Chamber Music Kansas City, Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral, Kansas City, USA
Benjamin Bagby's Beowulf

22 to 26 November 2021
Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, France
Workshop n°2 Roman de Fauvel – part III

8 December 2021
Actus humanus, Main town Hall, Gdansk, Poland
Benjamin Bagby's Beowulf (60 mins.)

18 to 26 march 2022
Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, France
Roman de Fauvel – part III, mise en scène: Peter Sellar

See full concert schedule



Benjamin Bagby's teaching activities in 2019

In March 2019, Benjamin will give two weekend courses on the solo songs of Philippe le Chancelier (d. 1236). The courses are being hosted by the Centre de Musique Médiévale de Paris. Dates: 9-10 and 30-31 March.
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After retiring from his teaching position at the University of Paris - Sorbonne, where he taught between 2005 and 2018 in the professional masters program, Benjamin Bagby continues to travel widely in 2019 to teach practical workshops for young professionals:

Folkwang Universität der Künste (Essen-Werden, Germany).
Benjamin has joined the faculty of this renowned masters program for liturgical chant performance and medieval music. The dates of his courses in 2019: 5-7 April; 26-28 April; 17-19 May; 30 May–01 June.
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For the second year in a row, Benjamin will teach an intensive course in the 8th International Course on Medieval Music Performance (Besalú, Spain): Songs of the troubadours (for singers and instrumentalists).
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Amherst Early Music Festival (Connecticut College, New London CT) 21-28 July:
An intensive course on the solo cansos of the Occitan troubadours, with a focus on songs from the great Milan songbook Bibl. Ambr. R71 sup. (for singers and instrumentalists).
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