Hildegard and Medieval Music: A Conversation with Benjamin Bagby

Benjamin Bagby is the Director of Sequentia, one of the world’s most respected and innovative ensembles for medieval music. He was gracious enough to share a few moments with us to discuss his work, his inspiration, and his thoughts on the significance of medieval music as well as our namesake, Hildegard von Bingen.

About Benjamin Bagby and Sequentia

sequentia ensemble

Sequentia’s Hildegard ensemble during the CD production of ‘Celestial Hierarchy’ (2012). Left to right: (top row) Benjamin Bagby, Esther Labourdette, Sabine Lutzenberger, Lena Susanne Norin, Norbert Rodenkirchen, (lower row) Christine Mothes, Elodie Mourot, Agnethe Christensen, Lydia Brotherton. Photo: Maximilien Ciup

Sequentia is headquartered in Paris but draws musicians and singers from an all over the world to perform and record Western European music from the period before 1300. The ensemble forms in different sizes and disciplines depending on the repertoire. The production of The Complete Works of Hildegard von Bingen, required a large ensemble of 15 or 16 performers, but other works may only call for a duo.

Founded in 1977 by Benjamin Bagby and the late Barbara Thornton, Sequentia has an exemplary record, spanning 40 years of international concert tours. Performing throughout Europe, North and South America, India, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Australia, Seqeuntia has given life to over eighty innovative concert programs that span the spectrum of medieval music.

Sequentia’s comprehensive discography includes more than thirty recordings dating back to its first in 1981. The most recent release is the comprehensive works of Hildegard von Bingen, a project that spans nearly the entire life of Sequentia. This 9-CD set, released in its entirety by Sony in September 2017, is the culmination of work that began in 1982 when the ensemble was located in Cologne, Germany.

Under the direction of Benjamin Bagby and Barbara Thornton, over the course of 31 years, almost 60 vocalists and instrumentalists participated in the Hildegard von Bingen project. More about this amazing work can be found here at Sequentia.org.

Awards in Medieval Music

The complete works of Hildegard von Bingen is among several award-winning works by Sequentia, including: the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis (1993), two Netherlands Edison Awards (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 one million copies worldwide and was nominated for a Grammy Award as best choral recording. Recordings made by Sequentia have also been included in soundtracks of several major films.

About Benjamin Bagby

Medieval Music Ensemble Sequentia Ben Bagby

Ben Bagby (Photo by Frank Ferville)

Benjamin Bagby is probably descended from a Germanic clan, which emigrated from Jutland to northern England in ca. 630, from where his branch of the family immigrated to the colony of Virginia almost a millennium later. Following 321 years of subsequent family wanderings, he was born on the shores of the Great Lakes, and twelve-years later was captivated by Beowulf.

Several years after moving back to Europe in 1974 he founded – together with the late Barbara Thornton, the ensemble for medieval music, Sequentia, which was based in Cologne, Germany, for 25 years. Both Mr. Bagby and Sequentia are now based in Paris.

In addition to his activities as singer, harper, and director of Sequentia, Benjamin Bagby writes about performance practice and teaches widely in Europe and North America. He is currently on the faculty of the Sorbonne University in Paris, where he teaches in the master’s program for medieval music performance practice.

In addition to his work with Beowulf, Mr. Bagby and Sequentia have produced two CDs of musical reconstructions from the medieval Icelandic Edda, one of which, ‘The Rheingold Curse’, was also staged by Ping Chong. Of the ensemble’s most recent CDs, ‘Fragments for the End of Time’ explores early medieval songs about the Apocalypse, and ‘Boethius: Songs of Consolation’ contains Latin songs from the ‘Consolation of Philosophy’ as they were set to music in Canterbury in the 11th century.

A DVD production of Mr. Bagby’s ‘Beowulf’ performance, filmed by Stellan Olsson in Sweden, became available in 2007. It contains numerous extra features, including interviews with noted Anglo-Saxonists and the performer.

Q&A With Benjamin Bagby

What is it about medieval music that makes it so important and relevant to us today?

The surviving medieval music is principally vocal (plus a small number of instrumental pieces), having texts in Latin or vernacular languages dealing with subjects which have always concerned thoughtful men and women: the purpose of human activity, the mystery of belief, expression of hopes and fears, reflections on the proper way to live.

Much of the surviving secular music is also about the challenges and mysteries of love and sexual passion, and of course songs of politics, or even storytelling. What has survived – some thousands of songs – represents a very small amount of the music, which was actually heard in the Middle Ages. Most of it was simply never written down.

These songs are no less or more valid today than any other kind of music, and therefore completely important and relevant for today’s listeners. The largest problem is our access to the music, since so little of it has survived, and that which does survive is usually the documentation of an oral tradition. Manuscripts of medieval music were almost never musical ‘scores’ to be used by practicing musicians; they were documents designed to be consulted, to refresh the memory, or to remind wealthy and literate collectors of their glorious traditions.

At what point did you discover the work of Hildegard von Bingen?

I discovered Hildegard’s music while studying medieval music in Switzerland in my mid-twenties. In that context her work was presented as a curious anomaly, or a poor imitation of Gregorian chant, or as a late and decadent spiritual song using a limited number of melodic gestures. Most church musicians did not take her music seriously, and the performances one could hear in the 1970’s were generally of a very poor quality, actually really boring and stiff.

What was it about her music that drew you and Sequentia into such a long and focused project?

There were many reasons, but first and foremost is the deeply musical quality of her creations, their expressiveness and the way the uniquely modal melodies work with her dense and surprising texts, which were newly-created for these songs.

The long project we undertook was justified by the fact that we had before us a surviving corpus of 77 songs (plus a full music drama, Ordo Virtutum) brought to parchment by a Benedictine woman, making this a unique creative phenomenon from the Middle Ages.

Hildegard is not only one of the first known female composers, but she is also the first known composer of a music drama in any language. As Hildegard’s fame began to spread throughout the 1980’s, we found ourselves at the center of a larger movement, which was not necessarily concerned with her music but more with her teaching, healing arts, and spirituality. But as the interest in female composers grew generally, Hildegard was always at the top of the list, as one of the most venerable and accomplished of women who created music, and whose music survived.

Why do you think Hildegard’s music speaks to so many people in modern times? Is there something tangible – or intangible, about her work that predisposes it to such affinity?

People today usually cannot understand the texts (which are in themselves very powerful) so it must be the actual melodies that speak to people today. Even a mediocre performance has a quality that attracts listeners, and the best performances are utterly compelling. In those recordings, which make use of instruments, drones or added rhythms (all of which are elements not found in the sources), we are dealing with modern additions to the basic songs, and I don’t believe it is this kind of ‘arrangement’ that creates the modern affinity. It resides in the core of the work itself.

Your experience with Hildegard’s music is long and storied, how did bringing her music to life shape you as a performer, as a person?

It’s impossible for me to know the answer to this question. I cannot say if any music I have performed shaped me in a particular way. I’m sure it must have, but I am not able to perceive it or describe the process.

What were some of your most memorable or rewarding experiences along the way?

Performances of the music-drama Ordo Virtutum in various medieval churches in Germany, where one felt a very strong connection to this music’s roots, were always memorable.

The most moving performance was the one given by Sequentia in the church of St. Ursula (a saint much venerated by Hildegard) in Cologne, on the feast-day of Hildegard in 1998 (the 900th anniversary of her birth), with the terminally ill director of the women’s ensemble, Barbara Thornton, in the audience. This was a mere seven weeks before her death from a brain tumor. Barbara was enraptured, and during the final applause went up to the altar to take a bow with her singers. One week later she collapsed and never walked or spoke again. It was her final moment on stage, and a very joyful one.

Obviously your talent and experience as a musician and vocalist opens you up to a different kind of experience when you encounter medieval music, but what do you think the layperson can learn from inviting medieval music into their life?

It’s impossible to give an authoritative answer to this question. My guess would be that this music is acoustic and monophonic (one voice), without any added sounds or complex polyphony (part-writing), and no beat, no rhythm, and as such is very powerful, direct, seemingly slow and deliberate.

For most of us, the day is filled with a million distractions, a constantly-changing circus of images and sounds, social media and all the rest. We are never allowed to slow down, rest, calmly listen and simply be. Medieval music (some of it but certainly not all of it) demands a slow listening and a stopping of all activity. It can become a real oasis for our over-stimulated and superficially-manipulated souls.

Your current endeavor, The Lost Songs Project, seeks to re-vitalize the lost tradition of oral storytelling and performance art within the human experience. What do you think we have lost along with it – or are at risk of losing, as we have progressed into the purely literal world of print?

We are in danger of losing the ability to listen and imagine without the aid of the various media that render our lives simpler and more digestible. Listening is an essential human function, which we are slowly losing as we become more impatient, more distracted, and more expert at ‘sharing’ without always perceiving that which we share.

You have talked previously about how our reliance on the written word has perhaps pushed music out of what you call the “human sphere” and sequestered it into the “literate sphere”.  Given we are a long way from the oral tradition, what do you hope to accomplish by elevating music and vocal expression back into the stories of our lives, the human sphere?

At best, we can hope for the sensation of listening to an ancient tale and at the same time understanding its meaning (through subtitles). It stimulates a long-dormant part of the brain for most of us today. At least to hear these ancient tales, in their original languages (which are themselves a kind of music) we can find again the sensation, which is something deep and important in the definition of what it means to be human.

You credit your encounter with Beowulf as a young man for awakening your interest in the medieval period. And now some decades later you have confirmed Beowulf as the cornerstone of the Lost Songs Project. What was it about that particular work that first drew you in? And what is it that makes it such a powerful vehicle for re-affirming the significance of the oral tradition?

Medieval Music bagby ben sequentia beowulf

Ben Bagby, Performance at the EPOS Festival of Oral Poetry and Storytelling (Vendôme, France) on 20 July 2009; Photo by Gilles Juhel, © 2009

Yes, Beowulf was essential to my project and the whole idea of daring to reconstruct lost oral traditions. But one doesn’t ‘choose’ Beowulf: it is quite simply the only surviving epic text in Old English, and its importance is clear to everyone, and has been since the 18th century. Luckily for us, it is an incredibly well-crafted text and shows the hand and voice of a great master at work.

Hildegard’s view was that music was an “instrument of God” and that performing it was one of the highest human acts; a means to bring one in contact with some divine force that connects all life. A pretty lofty opinion of music. Out of respect for your personal faith, we can keep it general. What do you believe are the essential attributes of music that make it universally important? What power(s) drive its essence?

As I mentioned before, only a Latin-speaker would be able to ‘understand’ the texts of her songs by merely listening today, and yet the music itself can be understood, simply as melody, and as a manifestation of the medieval modal art, the crafting of melody within a given modus.

It is this modal quality which defines and drives the art, and then in Hildegard’s case the refinements which she brings to it, and her own very personal voice, as she expresses her own texts. Add to this the lengths of her pieces, which are sometimes extremely long by our impatient standards. A simple antiphon of hers could be 7-9 minutes long, followed by psalm-chanting, and then the same antiphon sung again.

With our short attention spans, we cannot begin to appreciate the beauty of the extreme length of the medieval Benedictine liturgy on certain feast-days. It becomes a time out of time, more like a meditative experience and nothing at all like attending a ‘church service’.

In a time when music and art are far too often casualties of the economic shears of progress, what can we do as individuals – and as a community, to preserve and re-affirm music as the essential human element it is?

There can be no investment more necessary and useful than promoting music-making for children, and music-making in schools. If this is neglected, then children and young people learn that they only need to push a button to ‘consume’ some music produced by strangers, that they might then purchase, thinking it belongs to them (‘my music’).

They are given unrealistic models to which they aspire, mostly fictions created by the pop industry. It’s a sterile world designed to make money. But if children do not study music or learn to sing, or to play an instrument, they will forever be little more than ignorant consumers.

This state of affairs is already fairly advanced in certain prosperous countries, and does a great disservice to young people and also to music. Luckily, there are still schools where music is taught, and valued, with opportunities for students to participate in pop, jazz, band and choral ensembles. But classical music is simply too demanding, too time-intensive (and perceived as too ‘elite’) and medieval European music has always been a part of the so-called classical tradition, whether we like it or not.

Any upcoming projects or performances you would like to share with our readers?

I wish there were performances of Hildegard’s music in the works, but these days it has become far too expensive to tour with an ensemble of vocalists who have the appropriate skill set for performing her music.

Our last tour, in 2014 in Canada and USA, was an artistic success but a financial disaster, and so we are unlikely to repeat that mistake. We live in hard times for live musical performance of ‘serious’ music. My ensemble rarely can afford to travel with a group of more than four musicians, and that is insufficient for performing the liturgical music of a 12th-century Benedictine such as Hildgard. Those who are interested can follow my ensemble’s activities on www.sequentia.org or Facebook.

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