Ensemble for Medieval Music. Benjamin Bagby, Director

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Sequentia celebrates its 40th anniversary in March 2017




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Between Music and Story-telling

Benjamin Bagby spoke with Katarina Šter in the context of a performance by Sequentia of The Rheingold Curse at the Radovljica Early Music Festival (Slovenia) in August, 2011.

Slovenian version (SIGIC)

Q: In the book Le chant de la memoire, a series of interviews with Marcel Pérès, he said that amongst the first singers of Ensemble Organum, Dominique Vellard and you have been »les plus aguerris pour la musique médievale«. He wanted to say that you were most eager to explore the Medieval music in your own way and that you understood it as an adventure, a sort of a "quest" – that is why you have founded ensemble Sequentia. What sort of a challenge did the Medieval music mean for you, or: how is that you have decided to explore and perform Medieval song (if I may use such a »wide« expression)? How and when did you get so involved in re-creating Medieval epic?

A: I was fascinated by medieval music from the age of 16, when I first heard a concert of 13th century French music. I immediately formed my own ensemble with some fellow students and have basically been doing the same thing ever since. I never viewed it as a 'quest' or a 'challenge'; it was always simply curiosity, fascination and pleasure. In founding Sequentia, in 1977, Barbara Thornton and I wanted to establish a professional forum for bringing medieval song into the musical mainstream. We were lucky in choosing both Germany and Cologne for this project, since the 1980's and 1990's were a particularly fruitful time for the arts in general. Looking back, I now see that we lived in a 'golden age' which the young performers of today will probably not have the good fortune to experience.

The idea to get involved with the reconstruction of epic came later, in the early 1980's, when I was considering some magnificent texts (Beowulf, the Edda, the French chansons de geste, and others) for which no musical notation survives, but which we know were performed, sometimes with instrumental accompaniment. This was too tempting to resist, and I felt I could make use of my considerable experience in medieval song to approach the making of reconstructions. This ultimately evolved into the Sequentia 'Lost Songs Project'. I was aided at the beginning of this project by interactions with scholars, such as Anglo-Saxonist Thomas Cable (University of Texas at Austin/USA), musicologist Leo Treitler (CUNY/New York) and instrument builders such as Lynne Lewandowski (Vermont/USA) and later Rainer Thurau (Wiesbaden/Germany). In the ensuing years, many more scholars and artists have assisted me, in addition to my wonderful musical colleagues.

Q: The audience of Radovljica Festival (Slovenia) knows you mostly by your projects of Medieval epic (Fragments about the End of Time, Beowulf, The Curse of the Rheingold) although you have also worked on several other projects with Sequentia and other ensembles.

In the pieces mentioned you somehow represent(ed) a sort of a bard for us. In the Middle Ages, there was a story-teller who told and sung a tale in the society which understood it and was well acquainted with its context(s). But we are not much involved in it from the beginning; we come from outside to listen to a concert for an hour. There we have a story; we don't know much (if anything) about the customs and codes of the society in which the story is going on. There must be some kind of »translation« for us, the performer has to make the story work for us. You didn't choose to perform it in the modern language (we understand it because we have subtitles, that is true) neither to »modernize« its contents in a way many other performances of musical works do. But the story still works, it has all our attention, it will remain in our mind even after the concert and it conveys some kind of a message. How is it that such a thing is possible? To which limit do you think the modern public can follow you into that remote world (i.e. does it still work without the subtitles ...)?

A: I think we humans are 'hard-wired' for storytelling. When I was about 14 – before I even knew about medieval European music – I heard a performance of medieval Japanese epic, the 'Heike Story', performed by the great singer Kinshi Tsuruta, accompanying herself on a venerable Japanese plectrum-lute called biwa. I understood very little about the story being told, and of course I understood nothing of the language (which is archaic and even difficult for modern Japanese to understand), and yet this performance was completely captivating and obviously entered into some unconscious and archaic part of my brain which immediately 'understood' everything. Such storytelling energy – using music as its motor – transcends mere 'information'. I am always happy when the audience for my performances can read the translation of the text being sung, but this is not the central point, and many people have told me that they understand everything essential without reading the subtitles. That seemingly 'remote world' is actually a part of all of us and I have a great trust in its power and beauty.

Q: Before the performance is ready a lot of work has to be done. You are working mainly with the Medieval songs which come from an oral culture, but the main access to them goes through written sources. The written text is the first and sometimes the only firm thing we have. Within it the work begins. How long does it take to choose a text and to study into detail its characteristics (i.e. the pronunciation, the sound of the language, the poetic structure of the text ...)? How does this process of working on the text looked like, for example, in the case of Rheingold (or some other case)?

A: If I am not performing a single epic with one text, the actual preparation of a programme from a collection of texts is a very long process which begins with a reading of all available sources. Since I must ultimately distill a huge amount of material into a format which fits the norms of 21st-century concert life, it is largely a process of searching for essential elements, seeing how they might fit together into a whole, looking for balance and logical structure, and a dramaturgy which makes sense and does not distort the original. Later, during the working process with the performers, begins the work on pronunciation, metrics, the musical realisation, the use (or non-use) of instruments, and the assigning of roles to various performers. It is a long process of trial and error, and cannot be worked out on paper beforehand. During this period, we may also work as a seminar with a philologist or other expert. There is no 'score' and no master plan which everyone receives on the first day of rehearsal. The work is done with the human beings who inhabit that space at that time. It is an organic process.

Q: Language is the basic foundation of music of these works. As you have put it: Words themselves are sounds, the sound of the language is an esential musical element of the text. We don't know any original melodies, but »original melodies« as such did not exist in the world of the Medieval epic. To define the nature of this music, you have also researched Icelandic folk songs. There is a sort of formulaic material, »collection of gestures, codes and signs which can be interiorized, varied, combined and used as a font to create musical texts [...]« - this is a phenomenon which you describe as the modal language of music.

Which are the main musical qualities of the old Icelandic language?

How do the above mentioned little patterns and gestures of music sound like – how would you describe their characteristics? Do you try to find special music patterns and gestures, which you can combine and vary, for every single project, or do you have a special base for the whole treasury of old Icelandic poetry on which you are working?

A: It is impossible to describe with words the 'main musical qualities' of any language, so I am unfortunately unable to answer that question. The modal gestures which I describe have characteristics which are sometimes specific to a certain piece, but sometimes can be applied to a whole genre of music. In modal music, we are always thinking about the behaviour of individual tones in relation to other tones, to cadential formulae, to recitation tones, to a finalis which is the primary point of orientation. Like in dance choreography, there will be movements which the voice makes naturally – taken from everyday experience – and other movements which are unusual, or even awkward. The totality of these movements (maybe only three notes, but sometimes more) make up gestures which can be recognized, manipulated and combined with texts in various ways, just as in choreography. In the case of the Icelandic sources which I studied, I have made from them repertoires of modal movements – some simple and ordinary, some unusual and strange – which make up the vocabulary of the 'language' which the singers will use to speak their texts. The putting-together of mode and text is a long process involving an enormous amount of trial and error, but also intuition. If it is deemed necessary, the instrumentalists will then add to this the unique characteristics and playing techniques of their instruments (plucked, bowed, blown), using the same modal materials, the same prima materia. The resulting mix is one modal 'language' but spoken in several dialects, and all telling the same story.

Q: The works that you perform in the concert are sung by heart. There is a large number of verses, some of them are repeated from time to time, they have similar poetical structure ... But the story sometimes doesn't go on in a very straight-forward manner, sometimes there are vast descriptions of the heroes etc., and the melodic material we hear seems variable but still very homogeneous almost all the time. So you always have to have a very clear idea where you are in the text; there must be a perfect concentration all the time. For the ancient bards it is known that they could remember thousands of verses also because these firm verse structures were sung on special formulas. Do you think that just the fact that this poetry, this story-telling is sung helps you to remember the whole in its details? How long does it take to »learn« such an extensive piece as Beowulf to the point where it can be performed (with all its nuances of the language and music)?

A: Of course the musical aspect of storytelling aids in memorizing long texts, since each modal element brings with it a uniqueness and therefore points of references for aiding memory. The learning process is a very long one and continues long after the piece is being performed. When I first had to prepare a one-hour version of Beowulf for a festival in 1990 (the Utrecht Festival commissioned the performance), I was given only 5 months to prepare and that was extremely difficult, but since I had no choice the work was done on time. However, I was unable to finish the memorization process and performed from a text. Since then, I am continuously working on Beowulf, even though I have been performing it now for more than 20 years. Certainly the nuances of language and music have intensified over the years, especially now that the text is like an old friend. There is a sense of joy and discovery in every small detail. There was never a 'score' or any kind of musical document to which I could refer, so that all of this work takes place within a one-man oral tradition. I am both teacher and student in this process, and – although it is a very lonely one – I feel a certain stability as a result. I would hopefully pass this tradition on to the next generation, but I don't sense that this kind of tedious work is interesting to young performers who have grown up in a completely transformed musical world where everything is easy, interconnected and instanteneous.

Q: For the performance you don't have a firm score from the beginning; »score« is also a term which is foreign to the oral culture. Once you said that your work was more a »work within the strict oral tradition« than a sort of improvisation. Is there one final version of the performance or are there some elements which can be arbitrary varied and combined in each single performance?

How do you form a whole out of it? Do you rely mostly on the text and its dramatic culminations and then you also add some stronger musical meanings of expression (e.g. raising of the voice, screaming ...) or is the musical structure and combination of certain gestures also important for the shaping of the whole story?

A: Although many elements of my performance have become fixed over the years, there are always junctures and sections which are never the same twice, and so I cannot refer to any one performance as definitive. But even the less stable sections are never arbitrary and will adhere to certain limitations which my 'oral tradition' (also the mode and the instrument) has imposed.

The whole structure is always the result of long years of performance and study and is organic, not the result of an intellectual process. The ultimate guide is always the text itself, which has an enormous clarity and strength. Any decisions which I may make will come from the text and my need, as storyteller, to make my imagination of that text clear to the listener. This includes decisions about adding 'unusual' sounds (whispering, speaking, shouting, calling, etc.) within the overall modal context dictated by the instrument. Of course, another singer would make other decisions, so these are personal and cannot be considered as essential to the text, but to me they seem obvious, natural, and even essential.

Q: What will be your future projects?

A: At the moment Sequentia is just beginning to perform a new programme called Frankish Phantoms: Songs from the Carolingian Courts (8th-10th centuries). This is also part of the 'Lost Songs Project', and explores the musical world of the Carolingian clan, especially Charlemagne (d. 814) and his successors, whose realm stretched across what is now most of Western Europe. Much is known about Christian liturgical chant under the Franks, but for this programme, using all of the available manuscript sources and reconstructing lost melodies with the collaboration of musicologist Sam Barrett (Cambridge University) and others, I have tried to bring back to life all manner of lost musical works from a golden age of European song, when scholars and poets from England, Spain, Francia and Germanic lands flourished under those enigmatic and powerful rulers. More info:

Other future projects will include reconstructions of the metra of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy (early 6th century); a programme of classical texts sung in medieval monasteries and cathedral schools in the 9th-12th centuries; and ultimately, a programme dedicated to Martianus Capella's 5th century masterpiece The Marriage of Philology and Mercury. This highly influential work (like the Consolation of Boethius) was widely studied in European intellectual circles and is itself a fascinating fantasy story linked with music and all the liberal arts.

In addition, there has been discussion of possibly recording the final CD of Hildegard von Bingen's complete works (we are 9 songs away from finishing that huge project). This idea has been inspired by the fact that Hildegard (1098-1179) will be declared a saint and a magistra ecclesiae in 2012.

Q: We all wish you a lot of success with your future projects!

A: Thank you; we will need all your good wishes. In the current economic and artistic climate of our busy & distracted world, it is more and more difficult to find a widespread interest in specialised projects such as these, which do not have the wide popular appeal of, say, something under the banner of 'Carmina Burana'. But we will continue to hope for the best and keep offering these programmes to the ever-dwindling worldwide audience for serious music. By keeping our ensemble as small as possible, and offering performances which are carefully-crafted and also filled with honesty, we hope to survive the coming years.

Q: There is another (hypothetical) question for the end (you don't have to answer it). In several articles you have stressed the difference between our knowledge about the Medieval music performance and sources on one side and its actual sound on the other side. We can sometimes be too self-confident in our belief that – with enough knowledge – we can achieve a perfect »historically-informed practice«. Of course it is worth trying to approach as near as possible to the known ideals of performance of a certain time, since it brings new possibilities and means discovering new sound worlds. But this is also an illusion. We have to admit that we actually can not know anything definite about the living sound of the past.

In several of your articles you mention a »terrifying sub-scenario of the 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?« If you had a chance to go in the past once, would you go there? Why (not)? Do you think there would still be a place for imagination and re-invention of this music for/in our time if we knew too much and tried to be faithful to the »authentic« sound in the unauthentic milieu?

A: Of course! Who could resist? In any case, even though my imagination would certainly be stimulated by what I heard, I would come away from that encounter with memories tainted by my own perceptions and prejudices. More likely: I would encounter something completely unexpected and surprising (positive or negative) which would shake my priorities and perhaps release some new kinds of creative (or re-creative) energy. I do not think it would damage the role of imagination.

The role of imagination might, however, be destroyed if we were given the chance to pass many months (or years) with a medieval master, studying with him/her on a daily basis and then returning to our time. Probably then, we would return loaded with the certainty of 'correct dogma' and fixed ideas, something like a 'medieval truth', which would make us into joyless tyrants and dictators in our own time and place. Dogma and music don't usually mix very well, and in any case there were probably as many musical truths in the Middle Ages as there were musical traditions.

Q: Thank you very much!

A: Thanks for your stimulating questions and comments!

Upcoming Concerts

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

See full concert schedule




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


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