Benjamin Bagby reanimates Beowulf | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
click to enlarge "Hwaet!": Benjamin Bagby
"Hwaet!": Benjamin Bagby

Europe's Dark Ages were a low point: Life was short and brutish, culture and learning out of reach for most people. But musician Benjamin Bagby looks upon that bleak period with particular pride -- his distant ancestors, the Jutes, sailed from Denmark along with the Angles and Saxons to invade Britain in the seventh century as part of a mass migration of Germanic peoples.

Pursuing twin interests in medieval song and Germanic literature, Bagby became one of the first "early music" specialists in the '70s, after graduating from Oberlin Conservatory. His Cologne-based ensemble Sequentia (co-founded with the late Barbara Thornton) spurred interest in the now-famous abbess/composer Hildegard Von Bingen, and took on the major project of musically interpreting the Icelandic Edda, a collection of poems about mythological Norse gods and mortal heroes.

After such feats of derring-do, it seemed logical for Bagby to tackle the most important piece of Anglo-Saxon literature -- Beowulf. For those who missed high school English class, it's the saga of a Geatish hero who battles the cannibalistic monster Grendel, murderous scourge of the realm of Hrothgar, king of the Danes. Beowulf finally defeats Grendel by ripping his arm off, sending the howling miscreant back to the swampy fens from whence he emerged.

Bagby sings in Old English (with modern subtitles), ranging between speech, a kind of speech-song, and true song, accompanied by a six-string harp built in Wiesbaden, literally modeled on the remains of one found in a seventh-century nobleman's grave. Despite the limited musical modes this harp can generate, Bagby weaves mesmerizing motifs that transfix the listener, accompanying every nuance from the very first "Hwaet!" ("Listen!").

The concept of historically accurate performance reconstruction is something with which Bagby struggles, as much as any other early-music performer. While even medieval songs boast some extant musical texts, there's no absolute way of knowing how a Dark Ages bard really sounded while spinning his web of meter and verse, as men of renown shouted lustily and drank mead in the great halls.

But with his expertise, Bagby probably comes closer than anyone else to date in recapturing the long-lost oral tradition of his Germanic predecessors. In a 2002 essay in Early Music America Magazine, he acknowledges that the past can be seen only through the lens of the present, but claims plausible performance is possible "by making careful use of specific information and techniques ... coupled with an intuitive spirit based on a working knowledge of both medieval song and the essence of sung oral poetry."

Such analysis could get a bit dry and academic. But in a live setting, audiences soon realize that -- despite being removed from us by a millennium and a half -- these Jutes and Saxons told stories as enthralling as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. "We must never forget," says Bagby, that "all of these people -- in their huts, their fields, their boats, on horseback, around their cooking fires and pagan shrines, were singing -- listening to song, myth, instrumental music and tales of their ancestors' deeds, [both] real and imagined."

Benjamin Bagby's Beowulf. 8 p.m. Sat., Feb. 10 (Pre-concert talk at 7 p.m.). Synod Hall, 125 N. Craig St., Oakland. $15-30 ($10 students). 412-361-2048 or

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