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Concert Preview: Sequentia: The Rheingold Curse

January 5, 2010

Benjamin Bagby performs with Sequentia in a program titled The Rheingold Curse as the third concert on EMG’s famed International Series on Saturday, January 23 at 8PM at Town Hall.  A pre-concert lecture will be given at 7PM.  Tickets ($42/$37, based on location) are available at www.earlymusicguild.org, or by calling (206)325-7066.

Edda © University of Pennsylvania Press

Introduction to the Edda Project

By Benjamin Bagby

The Norse legends of the cursed Rhinegold–of the boy-hero Sigurd, of King Gunnar and his beautiful sister Gudrun, of Attila the Hun and his Valkyrie-sister Brynhild–are contradictory, weird, and seem to take place in a dreamscape which blending Tolkein’s Mirkwood forest, the storied Rhine River, and the glaciers of Iceland.

It is a legend in which names of real places and people are freely mixed with old Germanic gods, cunning dwarves, dragons, shape-changers, magical swords and horses, supernatural beings and talking birds; an archaic story which enthralled many generations of northern Europeans as they listened to their bards and minstrels weave and reweave the fabric of their tribal memories.

As centuries passed, many old orally-transmitted tales lost their immediacy or were utterly unrecognizable or lost. But in a far corner of Europe, in Iceland, dozens of these stories lived on in the language of the Vikings and–luckily for us–were copied in the 13th century into a small parchment book which is now the greatest single cultural treasure of the Icelanders.  It is called the Edda.

The poems found in it represent the highest art of bardic story-tellers and singers. Their masterful style makes use of ingenious meters, a telegraphic, pithy diction perfect for vocalization, employing gnomic devices and poetic circumlocutions intended more to arouse associative imaging than to deliver information.

Despite a marked tendency towards unsentimentality, pragmatism, even grisly humor, these Old Norse stories are full of the uncanny, the dreamlike. The Edda manuscript includes these tales of envy, gold-lust, revenge and the horrible power they have over that most sacred and holy human institution: the family.

In the 12th century, an anonymous German poet wrote an extravagant epic based on the same legendary materials. This Nibelungenlied was very widely known, and ready for adoption by 19th-century Romantics, fascinated all medieval stories and legends. Somewhat later, Icelanders rediscovered their epic heritage in a prose version of the story called the Volsunga Saga.

But the old Norse version only reappears in history, when an Icelandic bishop sent the manuscript as a gift to the King of Denmark in 1643. It wasn’t until 1815 that these Eddic poems were translated into German; it is this edition, along with the Nibelungenlied, which were mined by industrious young composer named Richard Wagner as source materials for his music drama The Ring of the Nibelung.

In our reconstruction, we use material from the prose saga to fill in gaps in the story, but our main goal is to rescue the original old-Norse poem from the printed page, and make it live again in the care of chanters and storytellers, who created it so long ago.

13th century manuscript of the Nibelungenlied

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