I am a trained actor and singer who has studied Old English and translated large portions of Beowulf and other Old English pieces. I trained in voice privately for four years at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and took acting classes there. I’ve performed professionally in many musicals and operettas and sung both classical and popular repertory in concerts. I became interested in Beowulf and Old English and medieval literature in high school and returned to these sources for inspiration and enjoyment repeatedly in my private life. I had the opportunity to teach Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf and other medieval British texts as a high school teacher until my school cut its British Literature curriculum. I have no doubt that this program is a result of my loss of Beowulf as a regular part of my teaching life. I studied Old English, the Beowulf text, and Heaney’s translation at Harvard University. I purchased and began working with my first lyre in the summer of 2018 and developed this performance in about three months, including developing and adapting the script from the Old English text and existing translations of Beowulf, and writing the music for the performance. These recordings represent a couple of firsts for me. They are from my first live performance with a lyre and my first first performance of this material. My practice sessions were alone or in front of my wife in the kitchen. I have since purchased two more lyres to enlarge my repertoire and have been working to develop new material and my playing skills in private lessons and look forward to a return to live performances in the US when we have the Corona-virus under control.
How the Performance Came about
My 2018 Beowulf performance was commissioned by a newly-formed literary arts group known as The Convivia, for a Halloween literary reading. My goal was to tell a cohesive story, while staying as true as possible to a basic English translation of the Beowulf manuscript. I also wanted to use my Anglo-Saxon lyre to create the performance. It can’t be said I started from scratch as I own a small library of Beowulf translations. I also had as a precursor early music scholar, Benjamin Bagby’s performance of the poem, done entirely in Old English with an Anglo Saxon lyre. I knew that I wanted to create a new performance and not mimic Bagby’s work or to recite another translator’s words verbatim.
Music in the Age of Beowulf?
The music in my performance is of my own composition, which I derived by playing with my lyre until I discovered themes that appealed to me. The music of the 6th century that would have been played by the scops and gleemen in the courts of the Danes or Geats can only be guessed at because the earliest musical notation in Europe would only begin in the 9th century. However, 9th century musical notation would bewilder any contemporary musician not trained in reading it and in general leaves out much of the information that would allow two different players to reproduce the same song. Musical notation that modern musicians might recognize and play came about between the 14th to 17th centuries. To put it in linguistic terms, by the time musicians were notating in a recognizably modern manner, English speakers were speaking a form of English that you or I would find quaint, but basically understandable. The formal poetic Old English of Beowulf requires special instruction to read, and the time period of the historical events mentioned in Beowulf are older than the poem’s composition. The poem’s actual date of composition is an unsettled matter of scholarly debate.
Playing and Composing on an Archaic Instrument
Though recordings and textual hints at what 6th century music sounded like are unavailable, modern players of archaic lyres have used old images of people playing the lyre, as well as our ears, practice and common sense to determine what a 6th century bard might do with the instrument. Images of people playing lyres that come to us from England, but also Greece and Egypt support the playing of the instrument like an archaic guitar, using one hand to single out chords and the other to strum. Lyres are more primitive instruments than modern guitars. They have no fret board and lack the ability to foreshorten the strings allowing one string to produce a number of pitches. A string of a lyre, when plucked, struck or strummed, plays the one pitch that the string is tuned to. Chords can be produced by muting the strings the player doesn't want to sound. Modern players refer to this as “block and strum” because the unwanted pitches are blocked by muting those strings while the player strums only the strings they wish to sound. An entire community of old Germanic lyre players (termed because these instruments were found in countries that spoke a form of a Germanic language that was probably commonly understood across Northern Europe, long before the advent of the nation states we recognize today) exists online and the block and strum method is the most commonly used playing style I see. With these ancient images and with stories that suggested that kings and cowhands played the lyre, that it might be passed around a room and most people could play a tune with it, suggests to me that this was at least one technique that could have been used. Striking individual strings or multiple strings as one strikes a guitar string (as opposed to plucking strings by pulling them back and releasing, as a harpist does) is another technique that produces, to my ears, one of the loveliest sounds the instrument makes. I wanted to make striking a common element of my performance, but I also wanted to include block and strum to show the wider range of the instrument, to include its full character. As a beginning player, there are certainly other playing techniques that are not included. I do not play harmonics and do not play different rhythms with right and left hands.
My Musical Score
My musical composition makes use of motifs, or little theme songs, that I associate with particular characters and moods. Nineteenth century composer Richard Wagner popularized this practice, but it will be more recognizable to modern audiences in John Williams’s soundtrack to Star wars, where Darth Vader is typically introduced with a particular melody, etc. I developed themes for the characters Beowulf and Grendel that, though similar in construction, use different intervals to produce different characters. I find Grendel’s mournful and threatening, while Beowulf’s theme is brighter and more martial, more heroic. I think the similarity of style in these characters’ echoes the similarities that the source text unexpectedly builds between Beowulf and Grendel themselves. My motifs also communicate particular emotions. I have a set of chords that I employ for generalized sadness that I play while describing Grendel’s misery, but also the misery of Hrothgar and his men upon discovering Grendel’s destruction. I also have a set of chords that I play to support passages describing violent action: Grendel’s attack and his struggle with Beowulf--this is one of the examples of the “block and strum” technique in the performance. There are other chords and effects sprinkled throughout the performance. I try to employ a glissando when the test refers to the harp, which is almost certainly anachronistic (and challenging to do with six strings!) I run a pick across the strings below the bridge of the lyre to produce a spine-tingling effect as I describe Grendel’s horrifying wail, a very effective sound for the moment!
The obvious precursor for my performance is the early music scholar Benjamin Bagby’s ground-breaking performance of Beowulf entirely in Old English with a lyre of similar construction. My background differs from Bagby’s in that, while we are both singers, Bagby’s training was in music, while my training was split between singing and acting. As a late-comer to instruments I definitely lack Bagby’s knowledge of music theory and composition, but my long history of singing gives me some insight into his performance and his descriptions of his process. Bagby has said in interviews that he started his process of composition by determining what the instrument was capable of and tuning it to provide him with a variety of intervals. He has varied those intervals to produce a very pleasing sound that would nevertheless be difficult to identify a melody in. According to Bagby, as I understand him, this was purposeful. My instrument came with a particular tuning and I played with the available pitches until I found my motifs. I’ve seen Bagby perform his Beowulf live and have seen another program of Old English poems and texts he presented with a group of medieval lyre players and I am a definite fan of his work. The one drawback I find in Bagby’s various performances is his lack of using the block and strum method, which I think adds to the range of the instrument and seems attested in multiple ancient and medieval images of lyre players. I am sure that Bagby, as a music scholar, has a reason for not using this technique, though I’ve never heard him discuss it. While I love the sound of the lyre when played by struck strings, I personally find that this technique lacks the energy that strumming the chords produces and that especially longer performances tend to become sedate. Thankfully, this is not a problem in Bagby's Beowulf because he is such an animated and powerful performer.
Video Game Musical Inspiration
I developed my Beowulf performance while playing World of Warcraft’s Battle for Azeroth, and found that a simple, yet eerie musical theme that plays intermittently at certain times of this game to be a teaching device. The four note repetition that plays in the cursed land of Drustvar taught me that a simple musical phrase could go a long way. World of Warcraft players will hear the four-note progression thousands of times in the area, and yet, for me, it remains effective and never manages to drive me crazy. To be clear, I don't use World of Warcraft themes in the performance, but my themes are built in a similar way.
For the consummate nerd, another interesting, though unrelated connection between the online franchise Warcraft and Beowulf is in its title. Forms of a term that could reasonably be translated as warcraft appear repeatedly throughout Beowulf, once in the section I perform, in the phrase Grendles gúðcræft, which as a long-time Warcraft player, I ached to translate as Grendel’s warcraft. Gúð is one of the Old English words that mean war. The phrase Grendles gúðcræft, however, is generally translated as Grendle’s “power” or “might” in war. Cræft, or craft, is used more frequently to describe physical strength in the poem, but it is also used in the more common modern senses of the skill of an artisan and also deceit (craftiness) and Dr. Benjamin Slade of heorot.dk, for one, is not above using the term warcraft, though not in this particular instance.
Why use the lyre?
The lyre has come to be associated with Beowulf, though in the poem the instrument that is played in various scenes, is called a harp. The Sutton Hoo archaeological site, in Suffolk, England, unearthed a trove of treasures from the time period when the datable events of Beowulf take place, the 6th century. Among the finds were the remains of a wooden lyre with ornamented gold fittings. Modern lyre players bristle when this instrument is referred to as a harp, though harp, or its archaic form hearpan, is the common word used in Old English poems, including Beowulf. The Sutton Hoo lyre is one of several instruments found in archaeological digs across northern Europe that bear similar enough constructions to be considered the same instrument and to support the belief that an instrument like this is probably what the Beowulf poet was referring to when he wrote hearpan. Most of the modern players of the lyre differentiate the instrument from the modern harp because, although similar to the eye, the instruments are built and played differently. But it seems most likely to me that the Sutton Hoo lyre would have been referred to by people who played it as a hearpan, or a harp.