Lively Version of Beowulf to be Performed at Georgetown
February 22, 2012 – A rare opportunity to hear world-renowned vocalist and harp player Benjamin Bagby perform his interpretation of the medieval poem "Beowulf" takes place tomorrow night in Georgetown’s historic Gaston Hall.
“Wherever there’s a strong medieval studies department there’s usually a lot of interest in oral poetry and in the reconstruction of lost oral traditions,” says Bagby, who was invited by the university’s Medieval Studies Program.
Bagby, who has been performing the poem in Old English for 20 years, has been interested in the famous tale of heroes and monsters since he was a child.
“In most cultures of the world, stories are transmitted orally and are only written down later on,” he adds. “That’s the case with the 'Beowulf' epic. It was probably transmitted for hundreds of years orally before being written down by Christian monks in about the year 1000.”
Bagby uses a harp, which he calls “a quintessentially medieval instrument with roots in antiquity,” to accompany his performance as well as a screen to translate the material.
He says many viewers are open to experiencing "Beowulf" in a wholly different context.
“In many ways, modern audiences are interested and open to new sounds and unusual sounds,” Bagby says. “The sounds of the music are strange sometimes for people because it’s a different harmonic system and the sense of time is different. But I think anyone who enjoys looking at a medieval manuscript … would just as easily enjoy listening to medieval music.”
In order to stay true to the epic's original dialect, Bagby trained for years with Anglo-Saxon coaches who helped him perfect the pronunciation and metrical structure of the piece, which uses “all kinds of sounds we don’t make anymore.”
He also studied the storytelling traditions of cultures around the world, especially in Asia and Africa.
Glory and humor
Bagby says "Beowulf" has something for everybody.
“It has a monster haunting a people, an old king who’s powerless to defend himself and his people [and] an ambitious young hero who is hungry for glory and travels abroad to do some incredible deed of heroics to prove himself,” the performer explains. “It has elegies, deaths, and humorous episodes.”
The performance takes place tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. in Gaston Hall. Click here to purchase tickets.