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 Reconstruction of Eddic Performance

Although we know that medieval epic poetry was the domain of bards and singers, no written musical sources of the Eddic poems dating from the Middle Ages are known to exist; indeed, we would have no reason to expect such sources to have been written at all. The milieu in which these poems were originally transmitted, sung, and acted out was that of a uniquely oral culture, and professional minstrelspassed on repertoires and techniques from generation to generation without the hindrance and expense of writing. As is almost always the case with medieval song, the use of musical notation is linked to the world of the monkish scriptorium and the noble or ecclesiastical collector, not to the world of the practicing musician. We can assume that the performing traditions of the Edda were probably already in decline by the time the main text manuscript, Codex Regius, was copied in the 13th century. Given this situation, how can we possibly reconstruct sung performances of Eddic poems as they would have been known in pre-Christian Iceland?

The earliest witness which we possess to musical settings from the Edda is an account found in Benjamin de la Borde´s Essai sur la musique ancienne et moderne, published in 1780. Among other examples (collected by a musician at the Danish Royal Court, Johann Ernst Hartmann), we find a strophe from the Völuspá set to a simple melody. Unfortunately, we will never know if this melody represents part of an unrelated Icelandic folk tradition of the 17th and 18th centuries, or if it indeed survived in this form from its origins as an oral formula for the vocalization of Eddic poetry.

In searching for paths to the vocalization of these texts, it was obvious to me that more musical information would be needed than this scrap of melodic material from the late 18th century, and I decided to make use of the techniques of "modal language" which Sequentia has developed over the years in work with medieval song. Briefly, we identify a mode not as a musical scale, but rather as a collection of gestures and signs which can be interiorized, varied, combined and used as a font to create musical "texts" which can be completely new while possessing the authentic integrity of the original material. But like the powerful magic mead which gives the god Odin the gift of poetry, this "modal mead" is a concoction which is both inspiring and dangerous. We need a strong knowledge of the practice of singing epic poetry as it still exists in various world cultures to show us how such performances must be given a form and a soul, to temper the limitless freedom of modal inotxication.

Having temporarily put aside monsieur de la Borde, where did I turn first for the basic ingredients of this modal brew? Iceland, of course. To give one example: in the sung oral poetry known as rímur - which in itself is a tradition dating from the 15th century, but whose roots may touch much earlier skaldic poetry - I found a vast repertoire of modal material, which clearly could be grouped into several types. During research residencies in Reykjavik in 1995 and again in 2001, I was graciously permitted to work in the tape archives of the Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, where I listened to hundreds of recorded performances of rímur and related song-types, making notes and analyses of the types and uses of modal materials. The result of this process of digestion (which included a weeding-out of obviously later melodic types) was a series of modal vocabularies grouped by structural "signals", which could then be taught to the other singers and applied to the metrics of the Eddic texts as taught to us by the Icelandic philologist Heimir Pálsson. Everything was learned in a process very much resembling oral tradition: we have only worked with our Edda texts and our memories; there were rarely any written musical documets. And in light of this knowledge, the melody found in de la Borde began to make sense. However one chooses to see its transmission, the fact is that this melody demonstrates characteristics which point to the use of a specific modal vocabulary consisting of a few limited elements which are repeated and varied. And so, the attentive listener might hear its "genetic code" echoed in our reconstructions, just as an experienced Icelandic rímur-singer hearing us sing these poems might find at times that some undefinable element makes him feel he actually knows the unknown piece being sung.

In cases where two singers declaim the same text, different versions of the modal gestures may sometimes be heard simultaneously, resulting in a kind of heterophonic texture (verging on improvised polyphony) typical of many traditional musical cultures. The sound of parallel 5ths, still sung in Iceland today in the two-voiced tvísöngur, is also heard. Other aspects of the reconstructive work include a study of Icelandic sources besides rímur, as well as a study of the ancient dance-song melodies of the Faroe Islands and certain Baltic traditional song forms.

Equally important in these musical reconstructions are the instruments which play independant pieces and also accompany the vocalists. In the 12th century, the two most important European instruments for courtly entertainment were certainly the fiddle and the harp, although other types of instruments (for instance, wind and percussion) were certainly known in popular culture. The harp which is used in this performance is copied from remains of instruments found in 7th-century Germanic burial sites. This type of "lyre" would have been known throughout northern Europe well into the 13th century, together with the more recent triangular cithara which we recognize as the most common harp form today. These instruments have very few strings (the lyre, for instance, has six gut strings), and the tuning systems, based on medieval theories of consonance, yield a series of basic intervals which in turn can inform the text being accompanied. The tuning system of the instrument is closely related to the mode which the singer has chosen, so that the instrument must be re-tuned to accompany in a new mode. Regarding playing technique, it hardly needs stating that an instrument of six strings is not suited to playing chords and elaborate melodies. Instead, we have here a harp type (such as is still known in several non-European musical cultures), which has as its means of expression the use of pattern and variation, and on the playing of modal vocabularies. Just as the singers rely on a small repertoire of potent modal gestures for the vocalization of their texts, the harp makes a virtue of its seeming limitations and, like an interlaced Viking design, brings a richness of articulation to the expression of the mode. The fiddle used here is based on one of the earliest depictions of a fiddle in Europe, dating from the 11th century, and was created especially for this production. Techniques of early northern fiddle playing can still be found today hidden within the thriving hardingfele tradition of Norway, and Elizabeth Gaver’s own in-depth researches into the possible medieval antecedants to this tradition have yielded a convincing style of stringing, tuning and articulation which harmonizes easily with general medieval ideas about the use of bowed instruments in courtly music. Likewise, the use of flute in this production is based on concepts of tuning and consonance from the early Middle Ages, and one instrument in particular has an almost shamanistic aura, making it ideal for the announcement of the oracular völva: a tiny flute made from a swan’s bone. Fragments of such bone flutes have been found in early Germanic burial sites. In developing the instrumental pieces and accompaniments for this production, the players have made use of the same modal vocabularies and language as the vocalists (we share a common prima materia) but then they have factored in the particular playing and tuning characteristics of their own instruments, so that in the end each piece is unique and can only be played by the musician and instrument which shaped it. There is no “improvisation” as such, but then there are also no written scores aside from a few sketches, and so we prefer to think of ourselves as working within a rather strict oral tradition.

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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