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Season 2016-2017 with:
Aaron Concert Artists
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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.
17 March 2017
Basel (CH) Predigerkirche, Freunde Alte Musik
Monks Singing Pagans
25 March – 2 April 2017
Lafayette College, Vassar College, Princeton University, Yale University
Benjamin Bagby Beowulf tour USA
1 April 2017
New York City, Symphony Space
Book release event for ‘The Inquisitor’s Tale’
11 May 2017
Paris, Université de Paris – Sorbonne, Amphithéâtre Richelieu
Benjamin Bagby has recorded the only surviving Old High German epic fragment, the Hildebrandslied (The Song of Hildebrand), for inclusion in an audiobook version of Adam Gidwitz’s new book for children and young adults, The Inquisitor’s Tale, just released by Penguin/Random House. He also recorded harp accompaniments to go with portions of the reading of the story. A release event is being schedule for New York City in early April, 2017.
New program given birth at Cambridge University
Following working sessions in 2014-15 with University of Cambridge musicologist Sam Barrett in the USA (Harvard University and Ohio State University) and in Cambridge (Pembroke College), Sequentia was in residence at Cambridge in April for the final rehearsals of the new program 'Monks Singing Pagans'. An informal video of a rehearsal made by the university became a YouTube sensation, with over 500,000 views. In addition to their rehearsals and working sessions on the songs of Boethius, Sequentia gave a masterclass and the premiere performance of 'Monks Singing Pagans', immediately followed by the US premiere during a residency at Dartmouth College (USA). The week spent at Dartmouth included teaching activities in music history, performance practice, Latin poetry and manuscript studies. Sequentia returned to Cambridge in late June to prepare a special program of the Boethian songs, which was given as part of a symposium on medieval Latin song, with a special concert on 2 July in Pembroke College Chapel.
Teaching in Basel and Milano
Benjamin Bagby will be teaching performance courses on medieval song at two music academies this year:
Schola Cantorum Basiliensis (Basel, Switzerland): 31 October to 1 November 2016 and 13-14 March 2017
Scuola Civica di Musica Claudio Abbado (Milano, Italy): 2-3 December 2016 and 16-18 February 2017