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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Reconstructing Medieval Instruments

Interview with Beth Adelman for Early Music America article (May, 2005)

What I really want to know is how the process works. In other words, when you read something or see a picture that suggests an instrument but the instrument itself no longer exists, how do you take it from the idea to the object you hold in your hands and play?

First of all: the early harps (or lyres) I'm interested in sometimes actually do exist, if only in fragmentary form. It is then the task of the instrument maker (who has often been given a commission by the museum holding the fragments) to do the necessary research on how the instrument was constructed, its size, its materials & shape, and all the other factors which will determine the likely optimal pitch, and hence the way it will be tuned, played and resonate. This was the case with the early germanic harps made by harp-builder Rainer Thurau. For these early harps, we have also a certain number of Christian manuscript illuminations depicting harps being played (principally by King David, of course) or by musical legends such as Boethius or Pythagoras. These depictions are very useful for learning about how the instrument might have been held, its size relative to human bodies and hands, and the way the player's hands interact with the strings. So, to generally answer your question 'how do you take it from the idea to the object you hold in your hands and play?': the process involves information, imagination, knowledge of materials, of traditional musical/instrumental styles in living cultures, and a willingness to spend a lot of time finding out how the reconstructed instrument actually 'speaks'.

This is really my only question, but I realize it is a very big one. However, I do not want to ask you write my article for me. So, a modest attempt to break it down: Can you talk about one instrument you have played for which no models exist that can be copied?

All of the instruments I've played are based, to some extent (but never 100%), on models. The models are often tangible, but when the models are drawings, sculptures or illuminations, the resulting instrument will be based on similar types of known instruments for which there are some pieces of wood you can inspect and analyse. This will be the case for all harps from before the 15th century. Harp builders know a lot about traditional instruments and the techniques used to build them, and apply these techniques to the 'lost' instruments for which we have only pictures. Dimensions are usually based on depictions showing instruments near (or held by) actual people, but often we are in the dark with things like string-numbers, since medieval artists were not particularly fussy about these kinds of details (plus the fact that it's extremely hard to render multiple harp strings accurately in a tiny miniature...try it!).

How did you decide what instrument maker to work with to make this instrument?

Usually one develops a good working relationship with a certain maker, and s/he tends to be the one to whom one turns again and again over the years. For me, this has certainly been the case with builders such as Lynne Lewandowski, Geoff Ralph, Richard Earle and Rainer Thurau.

Since no models exist, what information did you use to determine what this instrument looked like, sounded like? How do you translate written descriptions and ancient images (which are notoriously inaccurate – think of all those medieval illustrations of elephants) into a three-dimensional object?

Medieval depictions of harps are usually much better than depictions of elephants, since the artists saw many more harps than elephants and didn't need to rely on hearsay. Of course, from time to time you get a real klunker of a medieval harp drawing, made by someone who obviously had no clue. But there are some astonishingly detailed depictions of harps, especially in the 13th and 14th centuries. Probably the most famous of these is the 'harpe de melodie' in the Newberry Library in Chicago.

How do you figure out how it was tuned, played?

The tuning will largely be a function of string-length and the gauge of the gut strings, about the manufacture of which in the Middle Ages we know little. Strings can only be tuned up so high before they break, or down before they start to lose focus. I tend to tune my lyres (which have only 6 strings) using 3 string gauges, starting from the lowest pitch which the largest gauge can comfortably produce. This pitch tends to correspond to a comfortable note in my middle vocal register. Then I work my way up (either through an octave or a hexachord), using perfect 5ths and 4ths. The resulting tuning more or less encompasses my entire vocal range. Multiple tuning schemes are possible, but only 5 or 6 are really likely to have been widespread. Tuning schemes, as we know from traditional music, tend to be regional or even personal, and there was no agreed-upon way to tune any instrument in the European Middle Ages. In this regard, the Muslim world (including what is now Spain) was much more refined and interested in uniformity. For more details about my tuning work with the lyre, as well as some info about other instruments, please see an article I wrote which will be published soon in the collection 'Performing Oral Narrative' (ed. Vitz, Regalado & Lawrence). I will try to send it to you as a pdf in the next day or so.

This seems to be to be a very, very close collaboration between maker and player; how does that work?

Many workshop visits, eMails, phone calls, and sometimes even instruments sent back for revision. A lot of time is spent discussing the available visual materials and making sketches. But in the end: the builder has to build it, and I have to play it.

You mentioned "a willingness to spend a lot of time finding out how the reconstructed instrument actually 'speaks'" and I wonder what that entails.  

Once an instrument has been reconstructed, the player simply has to spend a lot time with the object in hand, trying various stringing and playing techniques, until the sound begins to manifest itself (on the assumption that every instrument has a kind of optimal sounding 'zone' where everything – material, string tension, playing technique – comes together harmoniously), or what I call finding its voice, so that it begins to 'speak' (some might say 'sing' but I don't make a distinction). There is no fixed method for going through this process: it is often hit-and-miss, and sometimes an instrument simply never speaks. The walls of many a musician's home are decorated with the strung-up corpses of these beautiful mutes.

Upcoming Concerts

9 June 2017
Essen-Werden (DE), St. Lucius Kirche

25 August 2017
Basel (CH), Festtage Alte Musik

See full concert schedule



Benjamin Bagby's recent activities as teacher/lecturer, linked to his performances

At the invitation of the music department, Benjamin taught a performance workshop on the music of Hildegard von Bingen for students at Princeton University (29 March), where he also performed 'Beowulf' in a collaborative production with digital light designer Craig Winslow. Following this, at the invitation of the medieval studies program and the English department, he gave a lecture on his work with reconstructing the 'Beowulf' performance, at Yale University (3 April).

At the Université Paris – Sorbonne, where Benjamin is on the faculty, the yearly 'Entretiens de la musique ancienne' were held this year in honor of his life-long work with reconstructing 'lost songs'. The main event was his performance of 'Beowulf' (11 May), with French video titles, in the Amphithéâtre Richelieu of the Sorbonne, followed by two days of symposium at the university's Centre Clignancourt, sponsored by the historical music organization IREMUS and the musicology department of the university. During this symposium, Benjamin gave a lecture on his work with reconstructed harps and the kinds of clues they can provide ('Beowulf ': dans l'atelier d'un conteur d'histoires).


2017 Barbara Thornton Memorial Scholarship awarded by Early Music America to string-player Allison Monroe

This scholarship is given by EMA to “an outstanding and highly-motivated (and possibly unconventional) young performer of medieval music who seeks to widen his/her experience through more advanced study and/or auditions in Europe.”  The recipient is chosen by a jury of musicians who knew or worked with the great medieval music specialist and teacher, Barbara Thornton (1950-1998), who co-founded Sequentia together with Benjamin Bagby in 1977. Read more about Allison here.

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