The saga literature of Iceland is the most prolific collection of literature (in poetry and prose) to survive from the Middle Ages. They tell of the great migration to and settlement of Iceland, of feuds, of political machinations in Norway and Viking warfare in the British Isles. Heroes, witches, sea-voyages, and contests of wit–the sagas have them all. Their pull on historians is irresistible–although many were written down in the 12th century or later, they preserve tantalising traces of earlier times. Although we today appreciate them largely as written works, however, the sagas undoubtedly began their life as orally told stories before they were transcribed into literature.
Today, we can enjoy a sense of the sound of the sagas thanks to the efforts of the early music group Sequentia, which produced a CD of saga material in 1996. The tracks themselves are a mixture of voice and reconstructed musical accompaniment, culled from the vast amounts of saga texts. Haunting, lively, and powerful, they relate some of the most intense moments from Icelandic legend, recalling the island’s eternal landscape and its mediaeval peoples, as well as the mythic ending of the gods: Ragnarok.
The intrinsic appeal of the music is substantial, but my own appreciation is heightened by an awareness of historical rediscovery. The musicians of Sequentia reconstructed the pieces from traditions rooted in a society living over 1,000 years ago, with no musical notation and dozens of texts. In this sense, the creation of the music is almost as compelling as the music itself, a process described by Benjamine Bagby:
“If I am not performing a single epic with one text, the actual preparation of a programme from a collection of texts is a very long process which begins with a reading of all available sources. Since I must ultimately distill a huge amount of material into a format which fits the norms of 21st-century concert life, it is largely a process of searching for essential elements, seeing how they might fit together into a whole, looking for balance and logical structure, and a dramaturgy which makes sense and does not distort the original…. During this period, we may also work as a seminar with a philologist or other expert. There is no ‘score’ and no master plan which everyone receives on the first day of rehearsal. The work is done with the human beings who inhabit that space at that time. It is an organic process.” (Interview, August 2011)
For listeners, then, the journey is two-fold, as the music of the Eddas first takes one back into the storytelling tradition of mediaeval Iceland, and then onward, into the stories themselves.