Beowulf in Toronto

Have you ever heard of a “scop”? The term refers to a “singer of tales,” the one-person storyteller, musician, entertainer and archivist who was the centre of community life in Europe a thousand years ago. The Toronto Consort, Canada’s outstanding period music ensemble which specializes in the music of the Middle Ages, Renaissance and early Baroque, brought such a scop to Trinity-St. Paul’s Jeanne Lamon Hall last week in the person of Benjamin Bagby. His performance was utterly mesmerizing.

For over 90 minutes, Mr. Bagby told the first third of the epic story of Beowulf, all in Old English. Most of the sold-out audience, like me and my friend, would have understood next to nothing of the archaic language of the poem but for the surtitles projected on a screen behind him. The amazing thing is that it made no difference. Like the lyrics of a foreign-language opera, the language of the poem brought its own magic which became the more seductive as the ear became attuned to hearing the words.

Recreating what would have been the performance of a millennium ago, Mr. Bagby brought with him a six-string harp, a replica of the remains of an instrument excavated from the grave of a 7th century nobleman in Germany. The harp is totally integrated into the performance, sometimes played and sometimes not, to add colour and drama to the story which Mr. Bagby recited or sang, as the poem required.

As Mr. Bagby explained in the Q and A which followed the performance, he came to the poem not from the perspective of English literature, which first attracted his interest as a boy. After pursing a career in music, he realized that the true beauty of Beowulf was its production value as an oral and musical performance, which had been its role in the pre-literate Middle Ages. How to recreate Beowulf as a production became the challenge. Initially, he spoke no Old English, so he had to learn from experts the pronunciation, metrics and tonality of the language. Then he had to figure out how to tune the harp correctly. Given the several possible ways to do so, he settled on the six tones used in the performance, as the program indicates, “through a careful study of early medieval modal theory, yielding a gapped octave which contains three perfect fifths and two perfect fourths. The resulting series of tones serves as a musical matrix, upon which the singer can weave both his own rhetorical shapes and the sophisticated metrics of the text.” I don’t understand the musical theory, but the “musical matrix” was clear to everyone and worked wonderfully well.

And so, a 21st century audience was drawn under the spell of the single scop and his harp. We learned about the royal family of the Danes, how Hrothgar built a great banquet hall which he called “Heorot” (Hart), and how the monster Grendel, living nearby in the marshes, terrorized the warriors reveling in the hall such that it could no longer be used. Twelve years later, Beowulf, a hero from the kingdom of the Geats renowned for his extraordinary strength and bravery, learns of Hrothgar’s dilemma and travels to Heorot to help. All the Danes greet Beowulf with enthusiasm except the jealous Unferth who chides him about his past exploits. Beowulf puts Unferth in his place and then prepares to deal with Grendel. At night the Danes leave Heorot to sleep elsewhere, as Beowulf and his men occupy the hall in anticipation of Grendel’s arrival. Eventually Grendel appears, protected by a spell from harm by any weapons. Beowulf discards his helmet, chain-mail and weapons, and vows to destroy Grendel with his bare strength. After a ferocious struggle, he grasps Grendel’s arm with its fearsome claw and pulls it from its socket. Grendel slinks away to die, Beowulf mounts Grendel’s arm high in the hall to mark his victory, and later enjoys the gratitude of the Danes.

It’s an epic story that would have been repeated over and over, with different variations and in less formal settings, throughout the Middle Ages. Benjamin Bagby’s recreation of the tale is a powerful reminder of our Nordic roots and of the continuing strength of the oral tradition. One need only watch American politics to see how it resonates today. History as entertainment. The hero as saviour. We know about that.

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