Star of medieval music Benjamin Bagby listens Ukrainian classical music

Everyone interested in studying or listening to early music knows Benjamin Bagby. He is a very famous vocalist, harper, and scholar and an important figure in the field of medieval musical performance for more than 30 years. He studied in the USA (Oberlin Conservatory and Oberlin College) and Switzerland (Schola Cantorum Basiliensis). 

Benjamin Bagby and the late Barbara Thornton formed an ensemble for medieval music, Sequentia, in 1977 in Cologne, Germany. Mr Bargy created more than 70 innovative medieval music and music drama concert programs, giving performances in Europe, America, Africa, the Middle East, Japan, Korea, and Australia. 

“Sequentia” released many LPs and CDs and has received awards: the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis, two Netherlands Edison Awards, a French Disque d’Or, the CHOC of Le Monde de la Musique and Diapason d’Or. 

Sequentia’s best-selling CD, Canticles of Ecstasy, has sold more than 500.000 copies worldwide and was nominated for a Grammy Award for best choral recording. 

In addition to researching and writing more than 70 program books for festivals and concert series and writing (or co-authoring, with Barbara Thornton) more than 25 CD booklets, Mr Bagby has written about performance practice, with articles appearing in Early Music, Early Music America, in the Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music (IU Press) edited by Ross Duffin, in the Basler Jahrbuch für Historische Musikpraxis, and in a recent collection of essays, Performing Medieval Narrative.

As a guest lecturer and professor, he has taught courses and workshops. Mr Bagby and Mrs Livljanic were visiting instructors at Harvard University in 2011. This year, he was also awarded the Howard Mayer Brown Lifetime Achievement Award by Early Music America. Since 2005 Bagby has been on the music faculty of the Université de Paris – Sorbonne, teaching in the master’s programme for medieval music performance.

The XIX International Lviv Early Music Festival invited the ensemble “Sequentia”. They were performed by the world-famous medieval music: Songs of the medieval warrior (8th-10th centuries) and Two Scenes from the Beowulf Epic

Before listening to music, Benjamin shared his thoughts about creativity and the social situation in Ukraine, which he managed to see.

What was the first impression and perhaps surprise in Ukraine now?

Benjamin Bagby: I’m, of course, surprised because in the media in Western Europe, we can see pictures of devastation and war. And when I came here, to see that life is continuing was a big shock. Because we imagine what we see in new reports, and here we see a great collative, life, energy, and positivity. Just what we see in this city – is fantastic.

What was your first experience with early music?

Benjamin Bagby: I discovered medieval music as a child, basically, and I was always interested. However, there was no way to study medieval music at the time in our place. So I had normal musical training, conservatory, classical music with a focus a bit on early music, a bit on Bach and even earlier repertoire, and increasingly being allowed to study medieval music.

You have teaching experience. What are the principles that you use in teaching?

Benjamin Bagby: I mostly teach singers. So principles of singing lie in the communicative abilities of the text. Because we don’t sing ‘aaaa’, we actually sing about something, or we are telling a story. We try to convince somebody, offer a belief, a point of view, or a psychological reality. We have a very big job as singers, so in my teaching, I always try to make a connection between the use of the voice and the communication of the text. 

How often do you go (for advice) to your teacher after you have finished studying?

Benjamin Bagby: I’m older, and all my teachers are dead (laughs).

Maybe, in the past?

Benjamin Bagby: Most of my teachers in the past were not so interested in this music. So I had to take what I could get good from them and transform it into something useful for me. A few of them were interested in this early music, but then sometimes they had ideas not focused so much on the importance of the piece’s content but more on the effect of the piece, so working from the outside in instead of working from the inside out.

What are the important principles you use when representing and researching early music?

Benjamin Bagby: For me, it’s about communicating and emotion. Research elements of almost everything involving this music were already done in the 19th century. There’s really not so much to research; you will not discover any new manuscripts. Maybe there are one or two still undiscovered, but nobody has found anything sensational for many-many years.

So that’s not really what is important; it’s how those documents will be transformed into stages, just like more processes. It’s a connection between musicology and performance; that’s not so much research as this work with transformation, almost like alchemy taking some symbols from the page, transforming them into sound so they can make sense to an audience today.

Thanks for your answers, and now I will show you Ukrainian classical music.

Victoria Poleva – Psalm 50

Benjamin Bagby: I want to say that I hear choral music, which is for my ears because I don’t understand the text. I hear some unison chanting, which leads me to believe that it’s liturgical music, something to do with the liturgy, possibly orthodox liturgy, but not necessarily. It borrows from certain orthodox singing technics and has mysterious qualities with clusters of notes, drawings with clusters, and the text on top of that. So it’s borrowing from some medieval technics and both the west and the east. I think it’s the combining or synthesis, but since I couldn’t understand the text, I didn’t even hear what the language was.

Vitaly Hodziatsky – “Fractured surfaces”

Benjamin Bagby: In this music, there is a very important use of time for silents. Here time and silence are managed closely, and rhythmic elements are extremely important, focused, and controlled. That’s also live silences, but there are no open silences there; it’s silence in time.

Silents in modern music are very important because, in live performances, they breathe for the performer.

Borys Liatoshynskyi – First prelude from op.38

Benjamin Bagby: Well, there’s the music like Chopin. The piano has its sound language, which sometimes transfers composition techniques and periods of music history. But I know this piece was written during the war, actually in a very bad year, in 1942. There was a particularly horrible time, and I can imagine it is a statement of something that we don’t know.

Maksym Berezovskyi – First Symphony

Benjamin Bagby: These composers were everywhere in Europe. They were not sitting in cafes with intellectuals making music for other musicians. They were working for aristocrats, and they had a job to do to provide entertaining music for the court. It was good, fantastic music, but it wasn’t always written for other musicians and minded as pleasing the employer.

This is an outdoor concert for people standing around the orchestra: it’s designed to be enjoyed by the physicality of violins and other musicians. Something we enjoy watching is the physical act of playing music, and it goes with a certain kind of festive atmosphere and celebration of being together.

We know that culture represents a country and is used to promote different regimes. What are the main criteria for a full-fledged cultural process in any country? Taking into account your personal experience in France.

Benjamin Bagby: First, when I talk about my personal experiences in France, it’s a very difficult concept to say ‘this is French music’ because you have trouble already saying who is a French person. Because there are many different kinds of French people, they all define themselves differently. And we don’t have unified stereotypes about French people or French culture; it’s become extremely varied. As the country has absorbed more and more colonial past and become more international, it’s no longer possible to say ‘this is French culture’.

It’s a lot of aspects, maybe something more academic, maybe something more pop-culture, maybe something more experimental, many different strata of culture. And the second thing which makes the first thing even more difficult to define is that everybody uses the same media, and there are, through this media, people under thirty no longer see something like national boundaries. They’re living in a space which is above national boundaries.

Read also:

Antonio Greco: “I had only one way to demonstrate that I am really with you”

Latvian composer Peteris Vasks: “Our most popular piece is the National Anthem of Ukraine”

Christian Filips: Sing-Akademie zu Berlin, Bach archive and Ukrainian music

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