Friday, March 17, 2006

Benjamin Bagby's Beowulf:
The Power of Performance

[Sorry to have taken so long to post anything. I was in NY, recording a complete course of Science Fiction lectures for Recorded Books. The recording went really, really well, but it is physically exhausting to do fourteen 35-minute lectures in two days. In related news, I just learned that Barnes and Noble is going to be carrying the course I recorded in December, Rings, Swords and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature, which is exciting. If you're interested, look for their "Portable Professor" section in stores. Hopefully they'll pick up the Chaucer and Science Fiction courses (and more things are in the works: with any luck, two more courses next year for Recorded Books and a Beowulf podcast on my own)]

And now to my main topic (which is avoiding grading more papers and writing my paper that I'm giving in Italy):

I had seen Benjamin Bagby's performance of Beowulf several times previously, which was why I arranged to have him come to Wheaton and perform last week. Ben will be premiering a new, extended version at Lincoln Center this summer, so you have a chance to see him there and, I assume, other places afterwards. It is a remarkable performance and it gets better each time I hear it. (Even though this time I was running the supertitles and thus couldn't just relax into the performance, close my eyes, and listen to the language).

I was also immensely proud of the Wheaton community: we filled the 300+ seat Weber Theatre on the Thursday night before Spring Break (and the performance was only mandatory for my ten Beowulf students). Bagby got a standing ovation at the end of the performance, and afterwards people were lurking around the corridors of Watson Fine Arts talking about the performance. Ben really makes Beowulf (from the beginning through Grendel's death) into a riveting performance, and he shows, I think, that all of the various "digressions" in the first 852 lines of the poem contribute to the suspense and excitement of the piece. Honestly, after you hear Ben's performance you absolutely believe that Beowulf was performed for an audience, not just written in a silent scriptorium.

Finally, I had the great fun of being allowed to play Ben's harp (lyre, if you want to be technical, but the same instrument was called a harp in Anglo-Saxon England). Even with no harp training, I was able to play a few little runs and accompany myself singing the first eleven lines of the poem (for the purpose of sound check only, and Ben was too polite to tell me if I sounded awful when I was singing the OE). I think I may get myself a lyre this summer as a "teaching tool," (and thus eligible for my Prentise Professorship stipend), and I may include some lyre-playing on the Beowulf cd/podcasts I am developing.

Ben's longer performance will soon be released on DVD, and I encourage you to buy it (and will post a link when it's up). But even more I encourage you to see him perform live. You won't forget the experience.

Thær wæs hearpan sweg, swutol sang scopes.


Frank said...

This is probably something you've already seen, but I thought I'd just point it out in case you haven't.

Frank said...

Sorry, this is the link. Don't know what happened with the first one.

Richard Reitz said...

I have listened to Bagby's performance of the Volsunga Saga entitled 'the Rheingold Curse' with Sequentia. I recommend it; it is haunting.

Brendan said...

I'm a little late on this one but I think it should be noted that a talented actor or singer could make the back of cereal box sound interesting, deep and meaningful even, if he or she put it nice music and created a suitably reverential atmosphere for it to be performed in.

The fact of the power of Mr Bagby's performance of Beowulf is of no consequence in any debate about the nature of the medieval poem.