Recent Press

Bagby's imaginative re-creation of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem… is a double tour de force of scholarly excavation and artistic dynamism.

…Bagby conjures up a drama as varied and enthralling as an MGM costume epic.

All of this, in true bardic fashion, has the air of material that is first mastered and then semi-improvised… The sense of dramatic freedom is everywhere.

Those old Saxons weren't so very different from us after all - a lesson that Bagby's enthralling work makes perfectly clear.

San Francisco Chronicle, October 28, 2010

Benjamin Bagby — medievalist, musician and 21st-century bard — bewitched his listeners with the tale of Beowulf… and if that sounds weirdly exotic or off-putting, rest assured that it was anything but.

…the Old English rolling off his tongue, as rich and delicious as dark beer.

…an astonishing and accessible entertainment.

Bagby mesmerized his Berkeley crowd, which included its share of medieval buffs and scholars…But while it was happening they might as well have been children sitting around a campfire, listening to ghost stories… — the theater was stone silent.

His chants and songs carry clear echoes of Gaelic music, sea shanties, Appalachian hill tunes and bluegrass numbers, Eastern ritual chants and prayer calls. The talking blues is in there too; at times, Bagby's "Beowulf" doesn't seem that far from early Bob Dylan.

His one-man show is a surprise and a delight.

San Jose Mercury News, October 27, 2010

Reviews from ‘Beowulf’ performed at the Radovljica (Slovenia) Festival 2010

The event was unique, especially because it succeeded – with an exceptional and boundless (typical of Bagby) performative energy – to give a very direct insight into the time before the written traditions and into the almost disappearing medium of art transmitted by live performance, and a chance to rethink the meaning of art, artistry and performance.

…Bagby's composition (based on the tropic formulas of the six-stringed harp) of colourful, supported, tender and thundering vocal formulas, of consonant combinations and vocalizations, of measures and metrical accents, of childishly genuine but at the same time wisely remote grimaces and gestures.

Jure Dobovišek, Delo, 25 August 2010

…Bagby is a unsurpassable master. His performance moves between gesticulating, singing (and adhering to a few melodic formulas based on a mode which reminds of the pentatonic), and some sort of middle-ground recitative-like parlando.

Bagby's command of the Anglo-Saxon language (he performs the epic by heart) and his ceaseless adaptation to the inner meaning of the poetry are astonishing. It seems that he rightfully adheres to a middle point: his performance is not a mere recitation of literature nor is it singing. It's a (re)presentation of the epic.

Gregor Pompe, Dnevnik, 25 August 2010

The Art of memory: Benjamin Bagby sings Beowulf

Everywhere around me leaving two great concerts at Tanglewood this week, the talk was of those phenoms of memory, Benjamin Bagby and Pieter Wispelwey. Mr. Bagby spoke, sang, and roared Beowulf...

Mr. Bagby gave a concentrated performance that flowed out naturally. This was especially remarkable because the sounds he made ranged all the way from yelps and groans to finely judged singing, with everything in between. He moved among all of these vocalizations with cohesion. By the end I heard his human voice as something different, something more capacious and full of surprise, something that took the ear almost like a phrase of Mozart's, quick to change and alter. He showed me something about the epic style, the bellicose tale of conquest and defeat. Lists of arms, for example, were trumpeted out, like the finale of the narration they followed. This made sense. The heavy but somehow jumping rhythms of the Anglo-Saxon propelled the flow of sounds various and arresting. Bagby made me understand how Odysseus, loved by the young Nausicaa, could have wept as the Cretan bard sang of fallen Troy, thus betraying himself and saved at the end only with the help of his young lover, never to see her more.

Keith Kibler, Berkshire Review for the Arts, July 2010

Beowulf, sung and recited by Benjamin Bagby at Tanglewood
Seiji Ozawa Hall, Thursday, July 22, 2010

Benjamin Bagby has been performing Beowulf now for twenty years, usually to sold-out houses, especially in New York City. (I’ve tried and failed to get tickets more than once.) Audiences and critics rave about Bagby’s ability to create a spellbinding effect in his recitation/singing over the hour and forty minutes of its duration — all in what is practically a foreign language, even if most people call it Old English. With brilliant success, Bagby has transformed what was once the bane of American English majors — all too long ago: that last of those required to address the older stages of our language are hoary of head and halting in gait — into a thrilling entertainment full of color and expression. It is as if the early music movement had finally spawned their Stokowski. The effect is so essentially baroque. What Lear or Hamlet has speech, declamation, and singing in his dramatic quiver? In this way Bagby has bridged the language gap and made it possible for modern audiences to share something like the enjoyment a medieval scop’s audience would have experienced in a bardic performance. Of course today we sit decorously in Seiji Ozawa Hall or some place like it, and there is no mead or beer at hand. On the rare occasion that a line comes out as comprehensible modern English, we laugh. Our eyes flit back and forth to and from the supertitles...

As powerful and fascinating as the performance is, a distance remains, evident on a more profound level in the almost caricatural way Bagby conveys the heavy, northern Germanic sarcasm of Hrothgar’s response to Beowulf’s self-introduction. The rationale behind this comes from Bagby the performer rather than Bagby the scholar. Here exaggeration is necessary: otherwise modern audiences wouldn’t get it. By contrast the mystery and horror of Grendel’s visitations communicate directly to us. For this Bagby needs no more than the storyteller’s poise and expression, at the very least a rich and highly seasoned brew...

If not every student of Beowulf has found this primal voice, Bagby certainly has, and, as an artist, he is able to re-create it with his voice and fingers, not to mention other parts of his body, like his feet, which he taps and stamps on occasion. The enormity of sound produced in the famous opening word of the poem, Hwaet! (Listen!), always a strong word whenever it recurs, lets us know that this will be a performance on a very large scale, true to the concept of epic. Bagby shapes each meaningful narrative unit, whether it is a basic half-line, or two or three. This expressive attention to detail makes the verse — and the story — intensely vivid to all but the least interested in the audience, even if they don’t know the poem at all and are struggling along with the supertitles — or at least I imagine so. He combines this with a fine sense of timing and narrative shape, so that the narrative succeeds in musical and dramatic terms as well. And then there is his robust and infectious sense of humor!

From the uproarious applause of the audience, I imagine that many of its members will come back to hear Benjamin Bagby sing Beowulf again. I have already acquired the DVD of his performance together with some invaluable interviews and discussions. His performance is overwhelmingly captivating, but I do recommend a little preparation for full access to its wonders. If you, first example get hold of an introductory book, like Peter Baker’s Introduction to Old English (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), also available online as The Electronic Introduction to Old English, and learn to pronounce Old English and come to understand the meter, so that you can read a few lines aloud, it will open up even more of the pleasures contained in the performance. Benjamin Bagby will take care of the rest.

Michael Miller, Berkshire Review for the Arts, 31 July 2010