Ensemble for Medieval Music. Benjamin Bagby, Director

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Sequentia celebrates its 40th anniversary in March 2017




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Searching for the Lost Voice of My Germanic Ancestors

or Is it still possible for us to enjoy ancient songs about Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer, Brynhild the Valkyrie, and Attila the Hun?

By Benjamin Bagby

A version of this essay was published in Early Music America Magazine (summer issue, 2002). This is an early version of the essay later developed and expanded into the article published in the collection "Performing Oral Narrative" (ed. Vitz, Regalado and Lawrence).

Recently, my wife and I happened to watch a monumentally bad 1954 movie about Attila the Hun, starring Anthony Quinn and Sophia Loren, both wearing “historical” costumes I’m not likely to forget anytime soon. But it was the music written for this film which I found most intriguing (let’s just say that the soundtrack did not exactly transport us viewers to fifth century Europe), and it got me to thinking about how our attitudes towards music of the distant past can be formed in the most unlikely and insidious ways. Like many film-lovers of my generation, I grew up nurturing an almost unconscious musical association between various important historical peoples of cinema fame (Romans, Egyptians, the Ancient Hebrews, to name a few) and the exotically bombastic symphonic scores of soundtrack composers working for major film studios, in Hollywood and elsewhere. The on-screen Roman emperors and centurions (who, inevitably, spoke with upper-class English accents, at least until the advent of Monty Python) were usually accompanied by noble brass fanfares in parallel 5ths; for the Egyptians and Hebrews a few sinuous oboes, plus harps and gongs – don’t forget the tambourines in the ubiquitous dance/orgy scene – were thrown in (along with some more “ethnic” spoken accents), making for an intoxicating, oriental swirl of Viennese and Southern Californian voluptuousness. These preposterous musical codes long ago became our “default music” for cultures of the distant past, just as the sweeping scores of John Williams have become the default for outer-space adventures set in the future. And so I was all the more pleasantly surprised, years later, to learn that the exotic peoples of antiquity actually possessed documented musical arts of great subtlety, and probably something we would very much enjoy hearing today, in short: World Music. The problem is, we can’t hear their music. It is long gone.

Those few of us who labor on the outer chronological fringes (some would say the lunatic fringe) of early music find ourselves irresistably drawn to the earliest-known musical cultures. Although the chances are slim that I will end my professional days crouched in an accurately-reconstructed she-bear cave, rhythmically grunting obscure syllables as I pound two historically-informed rocks together, the hunger is always there for something tangible to replace those awful Hollywood clichés. And yet for obvious practical reasons I know that I must limit my field of inquiry to a culture whose language and musical structures most closely approach the medieval European repertoires I have studied and performed over the past 35 years.

Which historical people does that leave me with? My own people: the Germanic tribes of post-Roman northern Europe, not to mention the various lusty and enterprising eastern folk who invaded them (“Go West, young Goth, go West!”) and intermingled over a period of hundreds of years. Later yet, arriving from the north, another dynamic seafaring people known as Vikings spent considerable time and energy plundering, raping and abducting my own ancestors from their pathetic seacoast hamlets. There is one thing we must never forget: during this entire period, all of these people – in their huts, their fields, their boats, on horseback , around their cooking fires, their pagan shrines, and even in the first Christian monasteries – were singing, listening to song, myth, instrumental music, and long sung tales of their ancestors’ deeds, real and imagined.


How shall we ever succeed in defining the ever-expanding chronological limits of “early” music? For example, there are contemporary musicians who have brought to life – either through reconstructive processes or through the power of revelation – musics from the murkiest depths history, from the ancient cultures of Greeks, Babylonians, and even the Psalms of King David. For that matter, what about the fragmentary remains of a bone flute found in a Neanderthal-era excavation in Slovenia: if an accurate reconstruction of this tiny aerophone renders up a few weird tones when blown into, are we not able thereby to “hear” some fragments & snatches which would have sounded familiar to VERY early mélomane hominids?  On the other end of the spectrum, if we manage to accurately reconstruct the comparatively primitive electronic instruments available to avant-garde composers of the 1950’s, making use of magnetic tapes, knobs, dials, and vacuum tubes (don’t forget the cigarettes), and if, in recreating their compositions, we follow their scores and technical instructions without recourse to computers or digital technology, are we not engaging in historically-informed performance practice, even if the term “early” refers – in this case – to a period many of us can still remember?  We no longer need to ask “what is early music?” but rather “what’s left that isn’t early music?”.

Regardless of the historical period which interests us, the concept of “historically informed performance” thrives on the conviction that today’s performers can find knowledge and instruction in the documentation which has survived from past musical practices: musical notation, descriptions of performance situations, treatises, methods, visual representations of music-making, playable instruments, etc.  Unfortunately, all of this documentation, which we performers assiduously devour and study, is still missing the one crucial element of musical performance which we would most need and desire to possess: the actual sound, the presence of a living master. Barring the discovery of time-travel, we shall never meet our master (and of course, there is always the terrifying sub-scenario of this time-machine fantasy: what would happen if we had access to the original sound and to the master’s living art, but we simply did not like what we heard?). Deprived of this essential face-to-face musical experience, we are forever doomed to confront our own past musical cultures “through a glass darkly.”

This situation is challenging enough in the cases of most early European repertoires, but it has obviously not kept generations of performers and scholars from fashioning a thriving early music scene, complete with living masters and identifiable traditions, so that our vision of the past seems bright and clear. However, the situation becomes much more complex and clouded when we seek to perform the musical arts of medieval cultures which were largely pre-literate, which knew neither notation nor treatises, and from which we possess only a few descriptions of performance or surviving fragments of instruments. What kinds of witnesses have survived from the early Middle Ages which we might use to reconstruct a performance art that has been silent for a thousand years and more?  Are there other sources of information to which we might turn in making such an attempt? The notationless world of medieval epic song is one such musical culture to which I am drawn, and these are some of the questions I have tried to answer in my re-constructions of northern European oral epics such as the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, and more recently, the Icelandic Edda, which is the subject of this article.


Sequentia’s first production of Eddic poems (songs of the pagan Norse gods Odin, Thor, Loki and others) was premiered in 1995, with a CD released in 1999 (Edda: Myths from Medieval Iceland / deutsche harmonia mundi/BMG Classics, 05472 77381 2). The ensemble’s most recent production of the Eddic poems (staged in 2001 by the New York director Ping Chong and recently released as a double-CD entitled The Rheingold Curse: A Germanic Saga of Greed and Revenge from the Medieval Icelandic Edda / Marc Aurel Edition, MA 20016) includes tales of envy, gold-lust, revenge and the horrible power they have over that most sacred and holy human institution: the family. The 3 singers and 2 instrumentalists tell of the boy-hero Sigurd, who kills the dragon Fafnir to obtain the gold; of the ill-fated Burgundian king Gunnar and his beautiful sister Gudrun; of Attila the Hun and his passionately suicidal sister, the ex-valkyrie Brynhild. This terrifying family epic is set in poems which 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 in which the names of actual places and people are freely mixed with the old pagan 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. In the new production, the epic is framed by the prophecies of an immortal female oracular being, who tells how the world came about, and also how it will end in an apocalyptic conflagration.

If this story sounds 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 their 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 final, terrifying battle between giants and gods becomes Götterdämmerung. But Wagner was not the only one to “rediscover” this story: 800 years ago an anonymous southern German court poet produced a hugely successful and extravagant verse retelling of the tale, the Nibelungenlied; and not long thereafter the famously literary Icelanders themselves were re-acquainted with the whole deadly family affair through the prose Volsunga Saga.

The Edda (itself an enigmatic Icelandic word whose meaning today is obscure, although it once might have meant something like “ancient knowledge”), is a medieval collection of 29 poems in Old Icelandic: including 10 which deal with the Norse gods & mythology, and 19 which recount stories of Germanic heroes, a few of whose characters can even be identified with actual historical figures, including Attila the Hun (who died in 453, although the actual cause of death was a bad nosebleed after some heavy partying on his wedding night, and he was probably not – as the Edda tells us – dispatched by his vengeful wife Gudrun). This astonishing collection, copied in an unassuming parchment manuscript in 13th-century Iceland (by which time Attila had been dead – and stories about him in constant oral circulation – for 800 years) is universally recognized as a precious treasure of European culture, and one of the only detailed witnesses we possess to the practices, beliefs and myths of pagan Germanic peoples. The Eddic texts are set in the sophisticated, Germanic alliterative verse-forms which the Icelanders practiced and valued long after other poetic forms prevailed on the Continent, and they were transmitted in the uniquely oral tradition of tribal and itinerant “singers of tales” over a period of hundreds of years. They have not survived in the other Germanic languages in which they were originally sung, but thanks to the profoundly literary-minded medieval Icelanders (who were themselves newcomers to that volcanic North Atlantic island, arriving from the western Norwegian fjords in the 9th century, re-shaping the texts in their own Norse language) we can still hear today much of the sound of an ancient storytellers’ art. 


The New York stage director Ping Chong writes: “…Although the Edda is dramatic, it is not a play. It is story-telling…It was clear I had to pay homage to the oral tradition this work developed from while creating a dramatic theatrical experience that would satisfy contemporary audiences. I have tried to animate the Edda in a way that gives it a theatrical flavor and a visual atmosphere without interfering with what it essentially is: a primal tale sung and told before an assembly, a gathering by firelight, in a world still filled with awe and wonder.”

For all practical purposes, this is the music of my family’s deepest ancestors (who were, in Roman eyes, nothing more than distasteful Northern Barbarians, and in Viking eyes, nothing more than potential slaves), a music later saved from oblivion by Icelandic singers and scribes. How could I possibly resist trying to rediscover a voice for these thrilling and mysterious oral poems which were once performed during long winter nights, not only in Iceland but all across the north of Europe? It seemed like an impossible task at first, fraught with the pitfalls of droning kitsch and new-age banality, but I was determined to draw upon my long experience in performing medieval song, together with a series of carefully-considered reconstructive tools – which I explain here briefly –, to bring these sung poems out of the printed page (where they were never intended to be) and back into the world of storytelling, where the human voice becomes an instrument of cultural identity and transformation.

Although we know – from descriptions of performance situations – that medieval epic poetry was the domain of tribal or itinerant bardic entertainers, no written musical sources of the Eddic poems dating from the Middle Ages are known to exist. In fact, 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 world of the scriptorium and the noble or ecclesiastical collector, not to the world of the practicing musician (and a Christian scribe can hardly have looked kindly on songs about the pagan gods, at least not while his abbot was watching). We can assume that the performing traditions of the Edda in Iceland itself were already in decline by the time the oldest and most important text manuscript, the Codex Regius, was copied by a sympathetic scribe in the 13th century. Given this situation, how can we possibly reconstruct sung performances of Eddic poems as they would have been known in, say, around the time of Iceland’s official conversion to Christianity in the year 1000?

The earliest witness we possess to musical settings of 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 for de la Borde by a musician at the Danish Royal Court, Johann Ernest Hartmann), we find a strophe from the Edda set to a simple melody. Unfortunately, we will never know if this melody indeed survived in this rather pedantically-notated form since its origins as an oral formula for the vocalization of Eddic poetry, or if it represents part of an unrelated Icelandic folk tradition of the 17th and 18th centuries, or if it is merely an example of how musique ancienne Islandaise might have sounded in the fantasy of a homesick Icelander in 18th-century Copenhagen.

Manuscript sources of secular medieval song from northern Europe are extremely rare, and the sources of surviving Christian music in Scandinavia tend to come from a late medieval, Latin-speaking, ecclesiastical milieu which had strong contacts with continental Europe. Although individual religious pieces can indeed demonstrate unusual, regional characteristics (such as the prevalence of parallel 3rds in the Saint Magnus Hymn from the Orkneys), they do not shed much light on the performance of oral poetry in the pagan world hundreds of years earlier.

In searching for paths to the vocalization of the Eddic texts, it was obvious that more musical information would be needed than late-medieval church music or a scrap of melodic material from the late 18th century. It was at this point that I decided to make use of the techniques “modal language” which Sequentia has developed over the years in our practical work with medieval song, a view of musical language which has many parallels in other modal cultures. Briefly stated: we identify a mode not as a musical scale, but rather as a collection of gestures, codes 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. (Here, the word authentic – the dreaded A-word of early music – is not used in a historical sense, but in the sense of recognition: in a crowd of strangers and imposters you would always recognize an authentic member of your own family). But like the powerfully magic mead-drink which gives the Norse god Odin the gift of poetry, this “modal mead” is a concoction which can be both inspiring and dangerous. An examination of the practice of singing epic poetry as it still exists in various non-European cultures will often show us how such modal performances can be given both a structure and a soul, and in this way help us to temper the seemingly limitless freedom of modal intoxication.  

Having temporarily put aside the examples of Monsieur de la Borde, where did I turn first for the basic ingredients of this modal brew? To Iceland, of course. To give one example: in the Icelandic sung oral poetry known as rímur – which in itself is a tradition dating from the late Middle Ages, but whose roots certainly touch much earlier, skaldic poetic practices – I found a vast repertoire of modal material, which clearly could be grouped into several modal families. During research residencies in Reykjavik in 1995 and again in 2001, I was allowed to work in the tape archives of Iceland’s historical text institute, Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, where I listened to hundreds of historical recordings of rímur and related song-types, making notes, analyses and family trees of the types and uses of modal materials. The result of this process of rumination (which included a weeding-out of obviously later melodic types, including – in one delightful case – a contrafactum of “Oh My Darling Clementine”) was a series of modal vocabularies grouped by structural "signals", which could be transmitted orally to the other singers and applied to the sophisticated metrics of the Eddic texts, as taught to us by the Icelandic philologist Heimir Pálsson. Everything was learned in a process which is inspired by oral tradition: we worked only with our Edda texts and our memories; there were rarely any written musical documents, and certainly nothing which could be called a “score”.  And in light of this knowledge, the melody found in de la Borde began to make sense. However one chooses to see its transmission, one thing is clear: the melody demonstrates characteristics which point to the use of a specific modal vocabulary consisting of a few limited elements which are constantly repeated and varied.  And so, an attentive listener might hear its "genetic code" echoed in some of 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.

This is the beauty and sophistication of modal song: the vocalist makes use of a seemingly simple matrix of tones to support an infinitely complex textual structure, so that all elements – tone, text and performer – merge into one organic process. The possible addition of an instrumental partner allows for elements of dialogue, commentary, support and interlude, all of which only serve to make the brew richer. When examining oral epics as they are still sung in various non-European cultures, one hears a surprisingly similar attitude to the usage of modal structures in vocal style and instrumental participation.

Words are sounds, and an essential musical element of these texts is the sound of the language itself. Since no decisions about modal usage in vocal performance can be made independently of the needs of the Icelandic language, Heimir Pálsson not only taught us the complex metrical structures of our texts, but also tutored us intensively in the sounds of Old Icelandic. Although almost identical to the language spoken by 270,000 Icelanders today, the language of the Edda does contain different word-forms as well as a pronunciation which was obviously quite different before the mid-12th century, when the first documents in Icelandic attest to a phonetic system which places particular emphasis on vowel quality.

In cases where two or three 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 traditional musical cultures. In addition, there are vestiges of improvised polyphonic vocal practices, one of which – known as tvisöngur – we can still hear sung in Iceland today. Other aspects of the reconstructive work include a study of Icelandic sources besides rímur, as well as a study of the ancient monophonic dance-song melodies of the Faroe Islands, where, situated on a small group of islands between Scotland, Norway and Iceland, the 45,000 Faroese still dance and sing ancient ballads telling the story of Sigurd and the Rheingold. Surviving modal musical documents from elsewhere in the world of the far-ranging Vikings have also been helpful in understanding the ways in which modal gesture may have been understood in the early medieval north.

Equally important in these musical reconstructions are the instruments, especially the harp, flute and fiddle, which are mentioned in early northern souces describing or depicting music-making. The harp which is used for the Edda, is a copy based on the remains of instruments found in several 7th-century Germanic burial sites, as reconstructed by Rainer Thurau (Wiesbaden, Germany). We also call it a lyre, although the Edda itself refers to the instrument as hörpo (= harp), in order to differentiate it from the triangular cithara which we still recognize as the most common harp form.

This earliest type of harp would have been known throughout the northern world. Such instruments have very few strings (the Thurau reconstruction has six), and the possible tuning systems – based on medieval theories of consonance, the limitations of medieval string technology, and harp-tuning traditions from other cultures – yield a series of basic intervals which in turn can inform the text being accompanied. One possible tuning (used in my work with the Edda) involves a series of three perfect 5ths and the resulting perfect 4ths, but a straight hexachordal tuning system is certainly also plausible.  The tuning system of any such instrument will be closely related to the mode which the tradition of the song demands, 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 the elaborate melodies with accompanying chords which we tend to associate with later harps. Instead, we have here a harp type (such as is still known and played in several non-European musical cultures) which has as its means of expression the use of pattern, inversion and variation, and on the “playing out” of modal vocabularies. Just as the singers rely on a small repertoire of potent modal gestures for the vocalization of their texts (the “matrix” I mentioned earlier), 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 we have used is based on one of the earliest depictions of a bowed instrument in northern Europe, dating from the early 11th century, and was created by Richard Earle (Basel, Switzerland) 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. Likewise, the use of flute in our work with the Edda is based on concepts of tuning and consonance from the early Middle Ages. One instrument in particular has an almost shamanistic quality: a tiny flute made from a swan’s bone, reconstructed by Friedrich von Huene (Boston) based on the remains of a 10th-century instrument found near the Rhine. In collaboration with flautist Norbert Rodenkirchen, much was learned about the placement of finger holes, and therefore the tuning system, of such an instrument. In developing instrumental pieces and accompaniments, the players have made use of the same modal vocabularies and language as the vocalists, but then they have factored in the particular playing and tuning characteristics of their own instruments. There is no “improvisation” as such, but then there are also no written scores aside from a few sketches; we prefer to think of ourselves as working within a rather strict oral tradition.

We can never know if our performances precisely duplicate the art of a particular medieval bard, in Iceland or elsewhere; nor can we ever rediscover the “original melody” to which any epics were sung in the early Middle Ages, since the original melody certainly never existed for any one story. In each local tradition, in each language and dialect there were varieties of originals being passed along in their own oral traditions. However, I am convinced that by making careful use of specific information and techniques, as described here, coupled with an intuitive spirit based on a working knowledge of both medieval song and the essence of sung oral poetry, it is possible to reconstruct highly plausible performance models which allow our venerable ancestral stories to live again.

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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