Madison Early Music Festival

I’ve been enjoying Madison’s musical riches this summer. First there was the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. This week, it’s the Madison Early Music Festival. We attended the concert on Tuesday evening by Liber. The program was entitled Flyleaves and focused on music found in random manuscript pages. Much of the music was transcendent and there were several surprises. There were the usual Marian hymns but also a hymn to the Trinity, and others in praise of Ss. Catherine and Barbara.

The concert ended with an Ite Missa Est from the chapel of King Edward III, c. 1350-1360. It was remarkable and left me wondering if other sections of that mass setting survived.

Last night we heard Benjamin Bagby perform Beowulf. What a delight! It’s been over a decade since I taught the text in Humanities. To be honest, I always found it difficult to get a handle on. Bagby’s performance accompanied by a replica early-medieval harp, was transfixing. Translations just don’t convey the beauty of the language and to hear it, with supertitles above, is to experience something of the otherness of the world of Beowulf. Part of its inaccessibility to me was that it seemed to take place in a world very different than the early medieval world with which I was familiar. Of course that’s because the early medieval world I know is literate, Christian, and Latinate.

The other interesting thing for me last night was discovering how religious and how biblical the text is. Commentators are quick to point out that the poem does not articulate a particularly “Christian” perspective, that it seems careful to reference stories from the early chapters of Genesis, and its God seems shaped by those chapters. The Biblical imagery at times seems to lie lightly on the text as a whole. But there are also clear moments where the author is critical of his characters for their paganism and alludes to the thorny question for later generations of Christians whether their ancestors were damned.

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