Ensemble for Medieval Music. Benjamin Bagby, Director

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Program Archive

Lost Songs of a Rhineland Harper

III. Songs of the Harp

In the 10th and 11th centuries, two types of harp (Latin: lira, cithara) were known: an archaic, rounded shape with a very few strings all of the same length, and the more familiar, triangular shape with many more strings of varying lengths. From the Canterbury manuscript, these are songs of praise to the harp itself, instrument of kings, healers and magicians, an instrument whose strings vibrate in the hands of the harper like the resonating human soul in the hands of the Creator.

Caute cane, cantor care

(Rhineland, early 11c)

This intriguing song was possibly designed as a prelude to a longer work, now lost. It is a playful and yet highly virtuosic meditation on the role of the human body and soul as "instrumentum" in the praise of God, in which the sinews of man become strings of the harp, and his larynx becomes a flute. Astonishingly, each word of this virtuosic text begins with the letter "c".

Text: Sing circumspectly, sweet singer; let the windpipes puff together brightly, let the strings make a harmony resound elegantly, take an easy path; bridge the valleys. Join together head, heel, and heart, skilled in the paths of the body. Make melody with one string, make melody with more, make melody to the creator with your windpipes!

(Translation: Jan Ziolkowski [abridged]).

Magnus cesar Otto

(Rhineland, early 11c)

A praise-song to the three German Emperors named Otto, beginning with Otto I "The Great" (936-973) who defeated the Hungarians. It seems the Kaiser slept as his palace burned one night. His servants, afraid to disturb his sleep, finally called his harper, who played the emperor's favorite tune until Otto woke up, and thereby saved his life and the empire. In memory of this event, the song was immortalized as Modus Ottinc. The likely date of composition for this song is between 996 and 1002, making it something truly "millennial" for us today.

Text: As great Emperor Otto, to whom this tune refers in its title (called "of Otto"), on a certain night settles his limbs in sleep, by a sudden mishap the palace burst into flames. Attendants of the king stand by, they fear to touch the sleeper, and by striking the strings they awaken and save him, and they attached the name of their lord to the song.

Awakened, he arose as a hope for his people, soon to come as a great dread to his adversaries; for at that time the rumor was flying that the Hungarians had raised their standards against him. Armed, they were encamped along the riverbank; they lay waste cities, fields, and villages far and wide. On all sides mothers lament that their sons have been driven into exile, sons their mothers. "Alas" said Otto, "For a long time, too long, I have been warning the sluggish soldiers in vain. As I have been tarrying, the slaughter has been ever increasing. Therefore, put an end to delays and confront the Parthian foes with me!"

Fearless Duke Konrad, than whom no one is braver, says "May the knight perish whom this war frightens. Take up your arms.... I myself as standard-bearer shall be the first to shed enemy blood." Set afire by these words, they roar for war, call for arms, shout for their foes, follow the standards; and everywhere a great clamor upon trumpets arises, and a hundred Teutons mingle among thousands. The few attack, the many fall; the Frank presses on, the Parthian flees. A lifeless mob blocks the waves; the Lech, reddening with blood showed to the Danube the slaughter...

After the victory by a small band, and after bequeathing his name, realm, and excellent conduct to his son, he passed away. After him, youthful Otto reigned for many years....a just, merciful and brave emperor, he failed in only one respect: for he rarely triumphed in celebrated battles.

But his remarkable offspring Otto, a glory of youth, was as brave as he was fortunate... brave in war, powerful in peace, in both nonetheless gentle, amid triumphs, war and peace, he always showed regard for his poor, for which reason he is called "father of the poor".

Let us now put an end to this tune, lest perchance, for want of talent, we be blamed for detracting in any way from the virtues of such great men; for even renowned Vergil would scarely be equal to their virtues.

(Translation: Jan Ziolkowski [abridged]).

Rota modos arte

(Rhineland, early 11c)

This little song praises not only the harp, but the entire cosmos which it embodies, and which is represented in Pythagorian theory by musical measure.

Text: Let us sound melodies loudly upon the harp with musical skill, so that the constant soul may take pleasure in them. As renowned Pythagoras learned from smiths, as he comprehended harmonies by means of four hammers, he determined the intervals of the seven planets, from which celestial music comes into being, as the arithmetic rule of numbers relates, giving all things first principles. May the king, ruling all wondrously, rule us for ever!

(Translation: Jan Ziolkowski)

David regis inclita proles

(Rhineland, early 11c)

A song of rejoicing which introduces and amplifies the liturgical "Sanctus" text, while putting harps into the hands of almost everybody in the universe and repeating the refrain (Davitice = "in the manner of David") like a mantra.

Text: The famous progeny of King David, playing on their harps...

(Refrain): in the manner of David, of David, of David, then, they call out, in the manner of David, of David, of David, then, they call out, in the manner of David, of David, of David, then, they call out for Saul!

Before the throne of the living God King David sits; on his knees David has a harp; King David causes great joy playing on his harp! In the manner of David.....

The blessed stand before the throne....playing their harps to honour Christ, son of the living the manner of David....

The Cherubim and Seraphim too, do not cease from calling out 'Holy, holy, holy!' the manner of David...

(Translation: Jan Ziolkowski [abridged])

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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