Friends of Chamber Music presents ‘Beowulf’ in old style
When I was a boy in elementary school, I always looked forward to spending my hard-earned allowance on Scholastic Books. Once, a particular title caught my eye: “Beowulf the Warrior: A Tale of Monsters.”
As a monster connoisseur who had seen countless horror movies and owned an enviable collection of monster models and a subscription to “Famous Monsters of Filmland”, I grabbed this book right away. Since then, I have been a fan of “Beowulf”.
The Friends of Chamber Music will present “Beowulf” as it might originally have been heard in an Anglo-Saxon mead from around AD 700 to AD 1000. Early music scholar Benjamin Bagby, accompanying himself on a five-string harp, will sing the Elder Was in Old English on October 29 at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral.
Bagby was also introduced to “Beowulf” when he was just a child.
“I think I was in seventh grade or something when a teacher handed me a modern English translation of ‘Beowulf’, and she said ‘I have a feeling you are going to like this'” , Bagby said. “And I did. I didn’t know any old English or anything. I just read a great story, and that’s all I really knew. He had a monster, he had a dragon, he had a hero, he had a long-suffering king.All these things that we love.
Bagby has been deeply involved in music from an early age. He has always focused on classical music, although it will take him some time to learn about early music, a field in which he is today one of the world’s leading experts. He spent his early years in Chicago, but when he was 14 his family moved to Prairie Village.
“By the time we moved to Kansas City, I was really into opera,” Bagby said. “I will never forget a performance of ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’ at the Kansas City Lyric Opera. It must have been 1965 or something. I really wanted to be close to it one way or another, and I managed to get a role of spear bearer on foot. It allowed me to hang out with all the opera singers, which I found incredibly cool.
After his family returned to Chicago, Bagby participated in a summer choir in Michigan conducted by Robert Shaw. Bagby expected to sing Haydn and Mozart, but he discovered music that would change his life. He attended a workshop given by New York Pro Musica, America’s first early music ensemble in the 1960s, and, as Bagby says, “my mind was blown away.”
“They were playing 13th century French music and I was totally captivated,” he said. “I ran to the nearest library and found everything I could about these composers and music. And, of course, like kids do, I started a set. It was basically a high school garage band, only we played medieval music.
Bagby eventually traveled to Europe to study medieval song on a scholarship, and has made his home there ever since. After founding the famous early music ensemble Sequentia, Bagby made a series of highly acclaimed recordings, including the complete works of medieval mystic and composer Hildegard von Bingen. But perhaps his most daring project is his one-man show of “Beowulf”.
“As I started to work on medieval music and became more interested in its roots, in the early 1980s I kind of put two and two together to say that the text ‘Beowulf’, that we consider English literature, not English literature, ”Bagby said. “It’s a performance document.
By studying the text closely and consulting storytelling traditions from other parts of the world, Bagby realized that “Beowulf” was meant to be performed, sung accompanied by a harp, and not read as a poem.
“There are formulas that keep coming back,” he said. “It’s the improvising poet’s way of buying time to think about the next thing he’s going to say. It’s kind of like in rap, you have formulas that you use and you have new things that you have interwoven.
Bagby began to create his solo performance of “Beowulf”. For his harp, he turned to a luthier who worked with an archaeological museum in Germany to reconstruct a harp from the Merovingian period, around the year 500 to 750. The instrument was found in an excavation at the beginning of the 19th century. century near Stuttgart. The museum gave the luthier all his research and x-rays, his analysis of the wood and everything he would need to make an accurate reconstruction of it.
“He made one for me and he made another and he made another and made another,” Bagby said. “So I have four of his instruments. There’s one that I particularly like because it’s pretty stable, and that’s the one I play in Kansas City.
Beowulf the character has qualities that today would be considered, shall we say, off-putting. One of his “virtues” which is praised throughout the poem is “lofgeornost”, being the most eager for praise.
“Everyone feels it but they don’t talk about it anymore,” Bagby said. “In an illiterate society without writing and without documents, the only thing that survives you is your reputation. You don’t leave any pictures, you don’t leave money, you don’t leave any memories. What survives is your reputation. Beowulf was motivated by his need for praise but also by his need to remember. And I think we all want to be remembered.
Even with English surtitles, you would think that in a world flooded with tweets and TikTok videos, a guy singing in Anglo-Saxon for over an hour, accompanied only by a five-string harp, would be a hard sell. . Bagby says that when people give “Beowulf” a chance, after 15 minutes, they get hooked.
“It’s a little strange at first,” he says. “Then they settle in and people move on at a slower speed. He calls on childhood associations to listen to adults telling stories. ‘It’s going to be great. He’s going to scare me to death. Entertainment today always knocks us out with all that is over the top. Let’s go back to a guy who tells a story by plucking strings from sheep gut.
“People told me that they could have listened to it indefinitely. I take that as the biggest compliment.
7:30 p.m., October 29. Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, 415 W. 13th St. $ 25- $ 40. 816-561-9999 or Chambermusic.org.
KC VITAs Octoberfest
The downtown St. Mary’s Episcopal Church was built in 1887 in the Gothic Revival style. The church definitely has a gothic vibe. This is a place where Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde could have stopped for Evensong. St. Mary’s, in fact, has a reputation for being haunted. Yes, I love this church.
KC VITAs conducted by Jackson Thomas will host their Octoberfest choral concert in St. Mary’s on October 29th. In addition to the background music, Charles Everson, the gracious pastor of St. Mary’s, will share stories about the church’s haunted past.
It will be a night of living composers, as the candlelight concert will feature newly written works appropriate for All Hallows Eve. After the concert, Bavarian pretzels, beer and other spirits will be served.
7 p.m. October 29. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 1307 Holmes St. $ 15- $ 20. kcvitas.org.
You can reach Patrick Neas at [email protected] and follow his Facebook page, KC Arts Beat, at www.facebook.com/kcartsbeat.