The earthy, secular side of medieval monks’ musical life comes to life in a concert on Thursday, April 28, at 7 pm, in Dartmouth’s Rollins Chapel, by musicians known for making the past feel immediate and alive.
The program is The Monk Sings the Pagan: Medieval songs of heroes, gods and strong women, by Ensemble Sequentia, a peerless early music group led by renowned singer, musician and scholar Benjamin Bagby. Bagby is known for assembling meticulously researched programs that transport you back in time—as he did for Hop audiences in 2009 with his solo performance of the epic sung poem, Beowulf.
“Benjamin Bagby’s peculiar genius has less to do with virtuosity than with daring and imagination,” wrote The New York Times. “His art is speculative reconstruction, and…his results have often been startlingly different from those of his peers, mainly because he is willing to take leaps that others are not.”
Wrote The Boston Musical Intelligencer, “Bagby is both a brilliant actor and re-enactor. You never doubt his authenticity: consider his eyes, posture, pronunciation of the thorniest linguistic entanglements (and his gorgeous rolled r’s!), his hands and the many ways he modulates his voice…If I ever go time-traveling to the Middle Ages, I want Sequentia as my guide—and my entertainment.”
The Monk is the newest of the nearly 70 programs Bagby has created in the 39 years since he co-founded Sequentia with the late Barbara Thornton, and the latest program in Sequentia’s “Lost Songs” series—European musical repertoires for which the surviving manuscripts do not provide enough information for a reliable transcription. The ancient tunes for Beowulf were another of the “Lost Songs” projects.
The musical lives of monks in the Middle Ages, when the great monasteries dominated Europe’s politics and culture, consisted of more than Gregorian chant, the solemn intoning of Latin texts that accompanied the monk’s liturgical day, week, season and year. A closer look at medieval monastic manuscripts from the 9th to 12th centuries shows that many monks were singing other songs as well, with texts which were sometimes anything but Christian. To learn Latin, the language of the Church, they had to study the texts that survived from the Roman Empire. Many of these texts were not only read, they were sung, including ancient works by Horace, Terence and Homer and Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, from the 6th century.
The survival of these songs, sometimes very fragmentary, provide us with a rich treasure-house of European vocal art, and witnesses to a vibrant culture where the Christian monk gave voice to his pagan ancestors, passing on stories and ideas which resonate to this day. To restore and stitch together these fragments, Sequentia worked for years with leading medievalists, including musicologist Sam Barrett of Cambridge University. Sequentia performs them accompanied by harp, flute and cithara (an ancient form of lyre). .
Celebrating its 39th year, Sequentia is one of the world’s most respected and innovative ensembles for medieval music. An international group of singers and instrumentalists based in Paris and directed by Bagby, it is dedicated to the performance and recording of Western European music from the period before 1300. The ensemble’s size is determined by the repertoire being performed, ranging from duo to large group.
In addition to the Beowulf epic, Sequentia’s “Lost Songs” project has also brought forth reconstructed musical settings of the deep reservoir of stories found in the Icelandic Poetic Edda; the Old Saxon Heliand; the Old High German Muspilli, the Hildebrandslied and Otfrid von Weissenburg’s Evangelienbuch; and the Latin and German lyrics found in the 11th century manuscript known as the Cambridge Songs.
Sequentia’s comprehensive discography of more than 30 recordings spans the entire Middle Ages. In 1981, the ensemble began to release the first of many LPs and CDs encompassing the entire spectrum of medieval musical practice. Many of these recordings, including the complete works of Hildegard von Bingen (7 CDs), have received awards: the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis (for Vox Iberica, 1993), two Netherlands Edison Awards (for Hildegard von Bingen recordings, 1987 and 1998), a French Disque d’Or (1996), the CHOC of Le Monde de la Musique (2002) and Diapason d’Or (1995 and 1999). Sequentia’s best-selling CD, Canticles of Ecstasy, has sold more than 500.000 copies worldwide and was nominated for a Grammy Award as best choral recording. Recordings made by Sequentia have been integrated into the soundtracks of several major films.
Sequentia has inspired new generations of young performers, trained in professional courses given by Benjamin Bagby and other members of the ensemble. As an extension of this work, Bagby teaches in the masters degree program for medieval music performance practice, which he helped create in 2005 at the Université de Paris, Sorbonne.