Tanglewood: Sequentia Courtly music


LENOX -- "Carmina Burana" it wasn't. Amid the crashing of thunder and the beeping of cellphones, three members of the medieval-music ensemble Sequentia traveled back to Charlemagne's court in song at Tanglewood Tuesday night.

Instead of Orff's raunchy, gluttonous monks, Charlemagne's poets wrote verses in praise of emperor and God, and knights engaged in bloody battle. Instead of Orff's pounding rhythms and rioting chorus, songs for one and two voices were sometimes as delicate as old parchment.

The program was "The Lost Songs Project," a re-creation of the vocal heritage coming out of the court of the Frankish king who ruled as emperor from 800 to 814.

An opening hymn to "David" was actually flattery of Charlemagne for his love of poetry and antiquity.

An aging monk, leaving to teach, bid sorrowful farewell to his cell.

A swan, suggesting a soul, was delivered from death in a storm. (Orff's goose is roasted alive on a spit.)

A father and son engage in knightly combat, the son not knowing who his enemy is.

These and nine other songs were bards' work -- a sequel to Sequentia director Benjamin Bagby's re-creation of "Beowulf" and "The Rheingold Curse" in storytelling and song in previous Tanglewood visits. Where those projects benefited from the dramatic stories of heroes, battles and gods, this project was a collection of individual songs from the 8th to 10th centuries.


Though grouped by theme ("The Carolingian Renaissance," "Songs of War and Exile" and "The Carolingian Successors"), the 13 songs told 13 stories. The arresting performances by Bagby (voice and medieval harp), Norbert Rodenkirchen (flute and cithara) and Wolodymyr Smishkewych (voice) illuminated each by character and dramatic content.

Subtitled "Frankish Phantoms," the program recalled Charlemagne less as unifier of the Holy Roman Emperor than as patron of learning and the arts through his court. Gregorian chant emerged from this music, but so did these songs, in which sacred and secular mingle, often allegorically. (Who is emperor and who is God?)

The songs, mostly in Latin, were reconstructions from various fragments. The melodies were in the medieval modes, which, to modern ears, lack resting places but carry echoes of cathedrals and palaces. A screen carried translations of the texts for the audience.


The performances were enlivened by Bagby's dramatic flair and sonorous baritone voice. He is a short, compact man but, pointing a finger or swooping an arm through the air like a bard before courtiers, he vividly evoked a survivor's account of the battle of Fontenoy in 841, in which the empire began to crumble. Another warlike song lamented the death of Cleopatra, who would rather die than submit to an enemy. Rodenkirchen provided attractive flute interludes.

It was all long ago, but these musicians made it present.


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