Beowulf: The Medieval Legend with Benjamin Bagby

Photo by Mark Satola
Photo by Mark Satola
Featured Audio


The Medieval Legend

“A double tour de force of scholarly excavation
and artistic dynamism. Enthralling…”
 - San Francisco Chronicle

NOVEMBER 13, 14 & 17, 2015

Benjamin Bagby, singer/storyteller & medieval harp

Apollo’s Fire is proud to present the renowned Benjamin Bagby in his legendary interpretation of the Tolkien-esque medieval drama, Beowulf.  Bagby’s performance at Carnegie Hall last year was chosen as one of the “Best concerts of 2014” by the New York Times, which wrote:

“Mr. Bagby comes as close to holding hundreds of people in a spell

as ever a man has... That is much too rare an experience in theater.”

The untitled Anglo-Saxon epic poem known as Beowulf survives in a single manuscript source dating from the early 11th century (British Library). Although scholars do not agree on the dating of the poem – theories range between the sixth century and the date of the manuscript – it is clear that the story has its roots in early medieval England, when the art of the bardic story-teller and reciter at formal and informal gatherings was essential to the fabric of tribal society. The bard (or scop) would re-tell the story of Beowulf, in song and speech, perhaps accompanying himself on a six-stringed harp.

As a seasoned scop or troubadour of the 20th century, Bagby is world-renowned for his rendition of Beowulf.  As an example of the international reach of Bagby’s work, consider this review by Pyotr Pospelov, one of the most prominent critics on the Russian classical music scene:

“It turns out that orcs were not invented by Tolkien...Bagby has been performing the poem for many years, and this piece is burnished up to brilliance: the singer works with the sounds of the Old English language, obscure to modern English speakers, and with the sound of his expressive and resounding baritone... the artist reaches an impressive intonation and rhythmical diversity... reciting, chanting, singing long melismas, switching to a complex pattern of text, savouring each syllable.... Modern teenage culture with its trolls and orcs presented itself in Bagby’s performance in its original purity. Nowadays an ethno-performer could probably be glad to know that an ancient bard at a feast in a castle used similar rhythms and techniques…”

                 - Vedomost (Moscow newspaper), translation by Danil Ryabchikov

The Anglo-Saxon ear was finely tuned to a musical web of sounds and syllable lengths. Stories were always experienced as aural events – the music inextricably bound up with the story being told.

Bagby’s ‘bardic’ instrument is a specially created 6-string harp built by Rainer Thurau (Wiesbaden, Germany) and based on the remains of an instrument excavated from a 7th century Alemannic nobleman's grave in Germany.  A similar instrument was unearthed at Sutton Hoo in England.  The instrument serves as a key piece of evidence in reconstructing the Beowulf performance; it provides a series of six tones which serve as a musical matrix upon which the singer can weave his own rhetorical shapes and the sophisticated metrics of the text.

Note:  This is a 100-minute solo performance by Mr. Bagby, sung and spoken in Old English, with projected modern English supertitles.


Pre and Post-Concert Experiences:   

AF presents an “Afterglow” (post-concert party) following the Friday, November 13 performance at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. A cash bar will serve Medieval fare (cheeses and apple tarts). Meet Ben Bagby along with Jeannette Sorrell over live lute music in Tucker Hall (St. Paul’s) after the concert!

AF will continue its popular Pre-concert Talks for the 2015-16 Season. Join the large and lively crowd that attends these FREE talks, one hour before the concerts.  The speaker for the “Beowulf” talks is Don Rosenberg, music critic and editor of Early Music America Magazine.


Single Tickets range from $21-$68 with special rates for students, seniors, and young adults (under 30). Single tickets are available for purchase now by phone (216) 320-0012 or (800) 314-2535 or online at


Fri., Nov. 13, 8:00 PM         St. Paul’s Episcopal Church               2747 Fairmount Blvd., Clev. Hts., 44118

Sat., Nov. 14, 8:00 PM         Reinberger Chamber Hall (Severance)                11001 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, 44106

Tues., Nov 17, 7:30 PM       First United Methodist Church                                        263 East Mill St., Akron, 44116


Benjamin Bagby Biography:

Benjamin Bagby ( is descended from a Germanic clan which emigrated from Jutland to northern England in ca. 630, where they remained until his branch of the family emigrated to the colony of Virginia almost a millennium later. Following 321 years of subsequent family wanderings, he was born on the shores of Lake Michigan, and twelve years later was captivated by Beowulf. Several years after returning to Europe in 1974 he founded -- together with the late Barbara Thornton --  the renowned Sequentia ensemble for medieval music, which was based in Cologne, Germany, for 25 years.  Both Mr. Bagby and Sequentia are now based in Paris.

In addition to his work with Beowulf, Mr. Bagby and Sequentia have produced several CDs of musical reconstructions from the early Middle Ages, all part of the ‘Lost Songs Project’: 2 CDs based on the medieval Icelandic Edda (traditional oral poem), ‘The Rheingold Curse’ (2002), which retells the story of the cursed Ring of Power, which provided the inspiration for Tolkein’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings as well as Wagner’s Ring cycle.  Other projects include ‘Lost Songs of a Rheinland Harper’ (2004), which explores Latin and German song in the period around the year 1000, using as its source the famed ‘Cambridge Songs’ manuscript;  and ‘Fragments for the End of Time – 9th-11th centuries’ (2008), featuring some of the earliest apocalyptic texts in Old German, Latin, and Old Saxon.

A DVD production of Mr. Bagby’s Beowulf performance, filmed by Stellan Olsson in Sweden, was released in 2007 and includes interviews with noted Anglo-Saxonists and with the performer. In addition to his activities as researcher, singer, harper and director of Sequentia, Benjamin Bagby writes about performance practice and teaches widely in Europe and North America. Since 2005 he has been on the faculty of the University of Paris - Sorbonne, where he teaches in the graduate program for medieval music performance practice.

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