Songs of a Rhineland Harper

Songs of the Harp:
Caute, cane, cantor care
Magnus cesar Otto
Rota modos arte
David regis inclita proles

The Harper in the Snake Pit:
Atli sendi ár til Gunnars

Desire and Seduction:
Advertite, omnes populi
Puella turbata
Suavissima nunna
Veni, dilectissime

Sequentia [Benjamin Bagby (director, voice, lyre & harp), Agnethe Christensen & Eric Mentzel (voices) & Norbert Rodenkirchen (flute & lyre)]

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 27 August, 2007
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

I wonder if the Proms had ever hosted music as old as this, even in its Millennium of Music day back in 2000. Here we had a three-part programme given by Sequentia of works that around one-thousand years old, mostly from 11th-century Rhineland, but also including a central section from 10th-century Iceland (although also about the Rhine).

The outer sections were taken from a collection now in Cambridge that came from the Rhineland via Canterbury and which is now known as “Carmina Cantabrigiensia”, with various scholarly techniques to reconstruct possible melodies to the various texts within.

Sequentia is led from the lyre (or harp) by Benjamin Bagby, whose solo recitation of the first half of “Beowulf” self-accompanied on the Anglo-Saxon harp has to be seen and heard to be believed (and is now available on a Region 1 DVD). Here, with his three fellow Early Music exponents, Bagby started this lunchtime programme with a set of ‘praise songs’ all including direct references to harpers (I had always assumed that those that played the harp were ‘harpists’, but no, seemingly they are ‘harpers’!).

“Caute, cane, cantor care” (Sing circumspectly, sweet singer) – with Agnethe Christensen’s distinctive voice – urges to make your whole body an instrument, while “Magnus cesar Otto” praises three great emperor Ottos, the first of whom was notably saved from a fire by none-other-than-a harper! A Rhineland harper’s life as an itinerant educator was illustrated by “Rota modos arte” (Let us sound melodies loudly) which quotes Pythagoras, while that Biblical harper of note, David, was celebrated in “David regis inclita proles” (The famous progeny of King David).

The middle section turned to an Icelandic forbear of Wagner’s “Göttterdämmerung” (which concludes his ‘Ring’ cycle) and, at less than 15 minutes, it was intensely more dramatic, telling of brothers Gunnar and Hogni as they set out, leaving sister Gudrun, to battle with Atli. Captured (but not before Hogni has slayed eight of his enemies, seven by his sword, the other by being pushed into flames), Gunnar refuses to tell Atli where the Rhine-gold is until his brother’s heart is placed in his hand. First they try to trick him by cutting out coward slave Hialli’s heart, but Gunnar sees through the trick, so Hogni is also killed. Then Gunnar is thrown into a pit of snakes, where he shows his utter disdain for Atli and his punishment by playing the harp! It was left to Gudrun to avenge her brothers…

Here, seated with harp on his left thigh, Bagby revisited the heroic style of tale-telling I recognised from his “Beowulf” rendition, dramatic gesturing melding with his rich baritone speaking (and sometimes intoning) voice. Here he had the luxury of hand-held drum and a flute to help the telling (one of the advantages of having fellow-performers), as well as Agnethe Christensen’s taking of Gudrun’s lines. One could easily understand why such roving performers were both important and lauded a thousand years ago, with such bloody tales of derring-do.

The last section was more sensual; also including was a purely instrumental piece entitled ‘Girl Perturbed’, about a girl who, out of wedlock, is pregnant. Of the three songs, “Advertite, omnes populi” tells of an errant wife, who had sired a child by another while her merchant husband was shipwrecked. On his return she claimed she had been made pregnant by snow, but the husband – eventually – turns the tables on her. He takes the now eight-year-old boy on a trading trip and sells him as a slave, returning to tell his wife that, shipwrecked on a sandy shore, the boy had melted in the sun…

A nun’s attempt to not be tempted was the subject of the penultimate song, “Suavissima nunna”, while the final song – “Veni, dilectissime” – with its ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’, needed little extra-musical elaboration.

In essence, this was like the original medieval version of “Carmina Burana”, so memorably refashioned in orchestral and choral style by Carl Orff (to stunning effect). While much of the music sounded very similar, the intrigue of the texts and the very fact – even in renditions that have to rely on guess-work as much as scholarship – that this is music sounding again after one-thousand years, made this a most unusual, and successful, Proms Chamber Music recital.

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