We’ll never know what a performance of “Beowulf” might have sounded like at the time the 3,182-line Anglo-Saxon epic poem was created. In fact, scholars are still debating over the date of “Beowulf,” which might have been composed as early as the sixth century (but survives in a single 11th-century manuscript).
Regardless of the distance in time, Benjamin Bagby does a remarkable job of bring “Beowulf” to 21st-century life, as he did Saturday evening for a rapt Early Music Guild audience. Accompanying himself on a replica 7th-century six-stringed harp, the medieval-music expert sang, chanted, declaimed and occasionally growled his way through the dramatic tale of the hero Beowulf and his epic battle with the evil monster Grendel. (There’s considerably more to the story, but the defeat of Grendel is a handy stopping place.)
The performance was in every way an impressive feat. Bagby is a great storyteller, with a resonant, expressive baritone voice and a well-developed sense of drama. He is a compelling actor, taking on the personae of the aging king Hrothgar, the powerful Beowulf and the jealous, tipsy Unferth. Bagby also has an imposing memory, able to memorize more than an hour and a half of almost nonstop Anglo-Saxon narrative (fortunately translated for the audience into modern English supertitles). He recites and sometimes sings this text while underscoring the words with plucking and strumming on the harp, which has a rather limited expressive range and sounds somewhat like a Japanese koto.
As the drama unfolds, it’s not hard to imagine yourself sitting in a medieval mead hall, listening to a bard in a communal setting that recalls the contemporary experience of sitting around a campfire and listening to stories. Bagby’s “Beowulf” takes us back to an era in which listeners had fewer distractions, the power of the spoken word was supreme and there were no cell phones. (Despite warnings displayed beforehand in the supertitles that failing to silence phones would incur “the wrath of Grendel’s claw,” not everyone complied.)
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If you’re curious about Bagby’s remarkable “Beowulf,” a 2006 DVD version of his performance is commercially available. No video, however, could do justice to the sheer communicative force of being there in person, as Bagby reanimates this ancient saga into something newly compelling.
Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.