Thursday, February 6, 2025, 7:30 PM
Friday, February 7, 2025, 7:30 PM

Blacksburg Presbyterian Church, 701 Church Street SE, Blacksburg

Presented with modern English supertitles

These performances will last approximately 85 minutes with no intermission. 

*Run times listed here are based on information provided at this time and are subject to change. 

$30 general admission
$10 students with ID and youth 18 and under
15%-25% subscription discounts available

"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 New York Times

Vocalist, harpist, and medievalist Benjamin Bagby delivers a gripping solo spoken performance of the famed poem Beowulf. Experience this epic tale in the most epic way — reverberating through the chapel of the Blacksburg Presbyterian Church. 

While now familiar as a written work, Beowulf’s medieval audience would have known it through the performance of a scop, or bardic storyteller, as Bagby portrays here. Accompanying himself on the Anglo-Saxon harp, Bagby uses the entire range of his voice to deliver this gripping tale in Old English, as it could have been experienced more than 1,000 years ago.

About Beowulf

The Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf survives in a single manuscript source dating from the early 11th century. Although scholars do not agree on the dating of the poem, it is clear that the story has its roots in the art of the scop, who would retell the story in song and speech, perhaps accompanying himself on a six-stringed harp. His pre-literate audience was attuned to the finest details of sound and meaning, meter and rhyme, timing and mood. The performance — which, for the entire epic, might last between four and six hours — would never be exactly the same twice, as the scop subtly varied the use of poetic formula to shape his unique version of the story. 

The central dilemma of any attempt to revocalize a medieval text as living art is based on the fact that a written source can only represent one version (and possibly not the best version) of a text from an oral tradition in which musical notation was unknown. The impetus to make this attempt has come from many directions: from the power of those oral storytelling traditions, mostly non-European, which still survive intact; from the work of instrument-makers who have made careful reconstructions of seventh-century Germanic harps; and from those scholars who have shown an active interest in the problems of turning written words back into an oral poetry meant to be absorbed through the ear/spirit, rather than eye/brain. But the principal impetus comes from the language of the poem itself, which has a chilling, direct, and magical power that modern translations can only approximate.

The Instrument

The six-string harp used in this performance was built by Rainer Thurau (Wiesbaden, Germany), based on the remains of an instrument excavated from a seventh century Alemannic nobleman's grave in Oberflacht (near Stuttgart). The study of this instrument also informed the reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo instrument, now on display at the British Museum. The remarkably intact pieces of oak clearly show a thin, hollow corpus with no soundholes. There are strong indications, supported by contemporary iconography, that such an instrument had six gut strings, a tailpiece, and a free-standing bridge.

This scop’s instrument serves as a key piece of evidence in reconstructing the performance, for it provides the “singer of tales” with a series of six tones. Although several possible tunings present themselves, the six tones used in this performance were arrived upon through a careful study of early medieval modal theory. 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.

About Benjamin Bagby

Bagby has been an important figure in the field of medieval musical performance for over 40 years. Since 1977, when he and the late Barbara Thornton co-founded medieval music ensemble Sequentia, his time has been almost entirely devoted to the research, performance, and recording work of the ensemble. Apart from this, Bagby is deeply involved with the solo performance of Anglo-Saxon and Germanic oral poetry.

In 2017 he was awarded the Artist of the Year Award by REMA, the European Early Music Network. In addition to researching and creating over 75 programs for Sequentia, he has written about medieval performance practice and taught courses and workshops all over Europe and North America. Between 2005 and 2018, he taught medieval music performance practice at the Sorbonne – University of Paris. He currently teaches medieval music performance at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen, Germany.

This is Bagby's first performance in Blacksburg.

Photo by Hillary Scott