Ensemble for Medieval Music. Benjamin Bagby, Director

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Program Archive

Lost Songs of a Rhineland Harper

V. The Harper in the Snakepit

Atli sendi ar til Gunnars

(Iceland, 10c.)

This is the Old Icelandic Atlakvida ("Lay of Attila the Hun"), the earliest-known retelling of the famous Rhinegold tale and its violent end. In earlier tales, we learn of how Sigurd (in later versions known as Siegfried) killed the dragon Fafnir and stole the gold, and of the ensuing miseries caused by this theft. At this point in the vast legend, Sigurd's widow, Gudrun, has been remarried to the Hunnish King, Atli (Attila), who wants to lure her brothers to visit him, to force them to reveal the whereabouts of the cursed gold. The story takes place in Germanic lands, along the Rhine, even in the mythical "Mirkwood Forest", and it was certainly known to our harper in its orally-transmitted Germanic version. But it has survived in writing only in Iceland, as part of the famous Edda collection. This tale of gold-greed, betrayal and murder is sometimes called ‘The Greenlandic Lay of Atli’, and as such was probably among the first European songs heard in North America, as Norsemen inhabited the earliest white settlements in "Vinland" (now in Newfoundland) more than a thousand years ago.

Text: Atli sent a messenger, and invitedthe brothers Gunnar and Hogni for a banquet, promising rich gifts, but their sister Gudrun sent a warning to her brothers. She hid a message on a gold ring with a wolf's hair wrapped around it. However, Atli's men detected the warning and altered the ring before handing it to Gunnar. The wolf's hair remained as a dire omen. Despite protests and tears, dreams and premonitions against going, a warrior's courage despises caution. Then Gunnar and Hogni rode toward their fate. The valiant warriors galloped through Mirkwood toward their doom. The earth shook as the brave men rumbled across the plains. Gunnar and his men were welcomed into Atli's splendid compound hung with marvelous shields, lances and pennants. But Atli's watchtowers were full of sharp things.

(Gudrun:) "You have been betrayed, Gunnar. Atli intends to kill you. You should have stayed in the saddle, for now the snake-pit lies waiting for Hogni and you."

(Gunnar:) "It's too late now, sister, to summon the Nibelungen - we're a long way from our valiant fighters on the Rhine."

Gunnar was captured, bound and tied. But Hogni fought on. Seven men were cut down by his sword and the eighth was shoved into a fire. Then Hogni too was captured. They asked Gunnar if we would reveal the hiding place of the Rhinegold in exchange for Hogni's life.

(Gunnar:) "Hogni's heart must first lie in my hand, cut bleeding from the breast with cruel-slitting knife".

Trying to trick him, they cut out the heart of Hialli and gave it to him on a platter.

(Gunnar.) "This is the heart of Hialli the coward, look how it quivers on the platter, just as it quivered in his breast."

Then Hogni laughed, deep and loud as the blade plunged into his breast. The bloody heart was placed on a platter and brought before Gunnar.

(Gunnar:) "Unlike the heart of the feeble coward, Hogni's heart hardly quivers. When it was in Hogni's breast it quivered even less. Atli, now that Hogni is dead, only I know where Fafnir's gold is. The Rhine shall be master of the metal of men's strife, the god-sprung river will rule the inheritance of the Nibelungen, in rolling waters and not shining in the hands of the Hun's children."

Then the valiant warrior wrapped in chains rode a chariot through a gawking crowd on his way to dying. Gunnar was lowered into a pit squirming with poisonous serpents. And in the pit, with hate in his soul, he played the harp (which Gudrun had sent him) with his bound hands. He played it fearlessly and sang of his fate. And so the valiant warrior died.

Then Atli with his men, drunk on victory, were received by Gudrun who fought back her rage and tears. She offered her husband a personal toast, with gilded cup.

(Gudrun:) "My lord, accept this toast from your wife who rejoices as a wife should, but who as your enemy's kin mourns as she should. You are welcome, here in your hall, to enjoy Gudrun's freshly-killed young game to eat."

With gleaming face the daemonic woman darted to bring more drink. Thick with ale, Atli barely heard Gudrun's words. He downed her gift of ale. His warriors, too, knee deep in drink, noticed nothing strange. Then Gudrun served tasty morsels of meat to Atli, and the horror spewed forth from Gudrun's lips.

(Gudrun:) "My lord, blood mixed with ale you are drinking, human flesh dressed with honey you are chewing. Never again will you bounce our two boys on your knees. Never again will you teach them your warrior's skills. Never again will they ride their fine stallions. My lord, from their little skulls, you eat your children's flesh."

A monstrous moaning filled the victor's splendid hall, the weeping and howling of an entire clan, all except Gudrun. Then she scattered all the gold of the kingdom to whomever desired it. She cared nothing of gold, it was gold that brought this horror about, it was gold that killed her love, it was gold that destroyed kith and kin. Then Gudrun stabbed the drunken Atli where he lay, and with the sword-point she gave the bedding blood to drink. She set loose the hounds and servants, and then tossed flaming firebrands across the entrance doors, barring exit. The ancient timbers came crashing down and smoke and fire consumed all within.

The whole tale is told: never after her will any wife go thus in armor to avenge her brothers. She caused the death of three kings, that bright lady, before she died.

(Translation: based on the translation of Ursula Dronke, as retold by Ping Chong and Benjamin Bagby [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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