Ensemble for Medieval Music. Benjamin Bagby, Director

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Sequentia celebrates its 40th anniversary in March 2017




Katja Zimmermann

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Seth Cooper
Seth Cooper Arts Inc.
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The Rheingold Curse

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

Reconstruction, by Benjamin Bagby, of the ancient Germanic Rheingold story from the Old Icelandic Edda. This is the oldest-known witness to the story of gold, greed and revenge which captivated Europe for centuries and which served as the basis for Richard Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen cycle. Three singers are joined by two instrumentalists to tell the story of Fafnir the dragon, the dwarf Regin, Sigurd the young hero, the Valkyrie Brünnhild and her beautiful rival, Gudrun; Atli the murderous Hunnish chieftain and many others. The story is framed by the visionary prophecy of the Seeress, telling of the beginning and ending of the world.

Released as a double CD in 2001. For more details on this program, see: Music theater: Ping Chong’s staging of the ‘Rheingold Curse’ 

Benjamin Bagby voice, lyre
Agnethe Christensen voice (Brynhild), drum
Lena Susanne Norin voice (Gudrun)
Elizabeth Gaver fiddle
Norbert Rodenkirchen flutes, lyre

Concept, musical direction, final text versions, musical reconstructions of the sung texts: Benjamin Bagby. 

Instrumental arrangements and accompaniments by Elizabeth Gaver (fiddle) and Norbert Rodenkirchen (flutes), in collaboration with Benjamin Bagby (lyre).

Pronounciation and language consultation (before and during the production): Heimir Palsson (Reykjavik).

Sources: sungs texts from the Codex Regius (Reykjavik, Iceland,  Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, Gl.kgl.sml.2365 4to.) in the editions of Gustav Neckel / Hans Kuhn (Heidelberg, 1962), with editorial adjustments made by Heimir Palsson based on the facsimile of Codex Regius.

Instruments: 6-string lyres by Rainer Thurau (Wiesbaden, 1997 and 2001); 4-string fiddle by Richard Earle (Basel, 2001); wooden flutes by Neidhart Bousset (Berlin, 1992-98); swan’s bone flute by Friedrich van Huene (Boston, 1998); caribou-skin frame drum, traditional, Kwakiutl culture (Vancouver, B.C., ca. 1998).

Thanks ro the following people and institutions in Iceland who helped Sequentia to realize this project:

Heimir Pálsson (Reykjavík, Iceland) for his inspiring and patient help with these difficult texts and their pronounciation.

The Stofnun Árna Magnússonar (Reykjavík), in particular to Rosa Thorsteinsdottir, Vesteinn Olason and Gisli Sigurdsson, for generous assistance and use of its historical sound archives during three research visits to Iceland.

The Pieces

1. Hliods bid ek allar kindir (Voluspa / The Prophecy of the Seeress, part 1)
Rodenkirchen (swan’s bone flute); Christensen & Norin (voices)  

2. Odinn ok Hoenir ok Loki (Reginsmal / The Lay of Regin)
Bagby (voice & lyre)

3. Sveinn oc sveinn (Fafnismal / The Lay of Fafnir)
Gaver (fiddle); Christensen, Norin, & Bagby (voices); Rodenkirchen (flute)

4. Hvat beit brynio, hvi bra ec svefni? (Sigrdrifomal / The Lay of Sigrdrifa (Brynhild)
Christensen & Bagby (voices); Rodenkirchen (flute)

5. [Instrumental interlude]
Gaver (fiddle) & Rodenkirchen (flute)

6. Ar var, thatz Sigurdr sotti Giuka (Sigurdarkvida in Scamma / The Lay of Sigurd, part 1)
Gaver (fiddle); Bagby, Christensen & Norin (voices)

7. Ar var, thatz Gudrun gordiz at deyia (Gudrunarkvida in Fyrsta / The First Lay of Gudrun)
Bagby & Rodenkirchen (lyres); Norin (voice)

8. Kona varp ondo, enn konungr fiorvi (Sigurdarkvida in Scamma / The Lay of Sigurd, part 2)
Bagby & Christensen (voices)

9. Maer var ec meyia, modir mic foeddi (Gudrunarkvida Onnor / The Second Lay of Gudrun)
Gaver (fiddle); Norin & Christensen (voices)

10. Atli sendi ar til Gunnars (Atlakvida / The Lay of Atli)
Rodenkirchen (flute); Christensen (drum); Bagby (voice & lyre); Norin (voice)

11. That man hon folkvig fyrst i heimi (Voluspa / The Prophecy of the Seeress, part 2)
Gaver (fiddle); Christensen, Norin & Bagby (voices); Rodenkirchen (swan’s bone flute)


The Icelandic Edda is the earliest medieval manuscript containing ancient germanic myths, stories of gods and heroes, tales of possession, betrayal and revenge. Its pages reflect the pagan beliefs of the oral culture and bardic genius of the pre-Christian North as heard by medieval Icelanders. Many of these legends and characters found their way centuries later into other incarnations, the most famous of which include the music-dramas of Richard Wagner. Loki (Loge), Odinn (Wotan), Brynhild (Brünnhilde), Sigurdur (Siegfried), Fafnir and the Valkyries all make appearances in the Eddic poems. The music, which has been stunningly realized after Benjamin Bagby's research of Icelandic and other northern folk traditions, appears on Sequentia's most recent CD for BMG: Edda. Myths from Medieval Iceland.


A seeress tells of the beginning of the world. She describes the ordering of the cosmos, the creation of the earth and sea, of time, tools, men and women and fate. This begins the history of gods and men.

One day, three gods kill an otter they find by a waterfall. They show the otter's skin to King Hreidmar, their host for the night, only to discover that the otter was the king's son, transformed to catch fish. Hreidmar vows to kill the gods unless they cover the otter's skin, inside and out, with gold. The god Loki goes back to the waterfall and catches the enchanted pike that lives there, guarding a hoard of gold. The pike, a transformed dwarf, gives Loki all of his gold, except for one dazzling ring. When Loki takes the ring, the pike warns him that it is cursed and will bring misery to whoever holds it. Loki covers the otter skin with the gold, inside and out. A single whisker pokes out, and Hreidmar demands that Loki cover it with the dazzling ring. Loki tells the king of the curse, but Hreidmar claims all the gold and drives the gods away.

King Hreidmar refuses to share the gold with his two remaining sons, Fafnir and Regin. Fafnir kills his father but refuses to share the gold with Regin. Fafnir transforms into a dragon, nesting on his brood of gold. Regin bides his time while he grooms the young warrior Sigurd to win back the gold for him.

Regin makes Sigurd a sword called Gram, sharp enough to slice the anvil that forged it. At Regin's urging, Sigurd slays Fafnir and roasts the dragon's heart. When a drop of the dragon's blood touches Sigurd's tongue, he suddenly understands the language of birds. The birds tell him to kill Regin before Regin kills him, and take the gold for his own. So Sigurd hacks off Regin's head while he sleeps. Following the bird's advice, Sigurd takes the gold and goes to seek a wife.

Sigurd rides his horse, Grani to the mountain where a valkyrie sleeps and through an enchanted ring of fire that surrounds her. He finds Brynhild, a supernatural warrior woman who is fated to marry whomever can ride through the ring of fire the god Odin has placed around her. Sigurd and Brynhild fall in love, but before they can marry, Sigurd must follow his fate to the court of King Gjuki and Queen Grimhild.

Grimhild decides to win the hero and his gold for her daughter, Gudrun. She gives Sigurd a potion of forgetfulness. He forgets his vows to Brynhild. He marries Gudrun and swears an oath of brotherhood with her brothers, Gunnar and Hogni. Then Grimhild decides that Gunnar should marry Brynhild. Sigurd rides with Gunnar to the valkyrie's mountain, but Gunnar cannot pass through the ring of fire. So Sigurd shape-shifts with Gunnar and rides through the fire to Brynhild in Gunnar's form. Brynhild must marry the warrior who rides through the fire, and so she marries Gunnar, though she still loves Sigurd. When Brynhild realizes that she was tricked into marrying Gunnar, her sorrow turns to rage. She presses Gunnar to kill Sigurd and he sorrowfully agrees. He and Hogni have sworn brotherhood with Sigurd, so they convince their brother Guthorm to do the deed. Guthorm kills the hero, but as he dies, Sigurd slices Guthorm in half. The cursed gold passes on to Gunnar and his kin.

Her revenge accomplished, Brynhild plunges a knife into her own breast, and asks to be burned on a funeral pyre with her beloved Sigurd. Gudrun is devastated by her loss of her love. She wanders the wilderness like a mad woman. Her mother presses her to marry King Atli, Brynhild's wealthy and powerful brother. Gudrun protests, but to no avail. And as she predicts, Atli soon plots to acquire the gold Sigurd left when he died.

Atli invites Gunnar and Hogni to visit, but when they arrive, they are captured. Atli offers to trade Hogni's life for Sigurd's gold. Gunnar demands his brother's heart instead, and Hogni laughs as his heart is cut out. Gunnar too chooses to die rather than tell Atli where the gold is hidden. The secret of the gold dies with him in a pit of vipers.

Gudrun gives Atli food and drink, which turn out to be the flesh and blood of their two young sons. Mourning fills the hall, but Atli has drunk himself to sleep. Gudrun stabs her husband and then tosses flames across the doors, barring exit. Fire consumes all within.

The seeress returns. She recalls the first war in the world, the first oath to be broken, misery, death and destruction for gods and men. Then she sees life return and all is well. But a dark dragon too has returned. And over the land it casts a dark shadow.

Introduction to the Edda Project

By Benjamin Bagby

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 humor, 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 dreadful 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 and can be translated as "the prophecy or vision (spá) of the seeress (völva)". These are 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 a conflation of medieval sources and his own fertile imagination, in which Brynhild becomes Brünnhilde, Sigurd becomes Siegfried, and the terrifying 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 extravagant 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 are using material from this saga to fill in the gaps in the story where the Edda 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

22 August 2024
Brauweiler, Germany (Abteikirche St. Nikolaus Brauweiler), 7.30 pm
Musen der Sphären (World Premiere)

24 October 2024
Prague, University of Prague (Boethius 150th anniversary)
Boethius - Songs of Consolation (Quartet)

14 February 2025
Kulturzentrum Peterskirche, Kempen
Musen der Sphären

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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