One of the hallmarks of the Viking era in Europe was the tradition of poetry- the tradition that gave us the Icelandic Eddas and the great Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf. Historical research and archeological discoveries have affirmed that these poems were, in all probability, not just recited, but sung. And the plucked string instrument that accompanied these early bards was the lyre.
The instrument I have attempted to re-create is a 6-stringed round lyre, fashioned after the type of instrument found in the ship burial excavation at Sutton Hoo. This instrument is also modeled after a similar lyre used by Benjamin Bagby of the early music group Sequentia in his performances of Beowulf and the Eddas.
Although evidence exists that the earliest triangular frame harps were in use by the 8th century, the excavations at the Sutton Hoo site in England verify that the 6-stringed Germanic round lyre was used several centuries earlier by the bards of that era.
This instrument was made by taking two boards, often of oak or maple, and hollowing out a resonant sound chamber on the lower half of the instrument. It was strung with either gut or roped horsehair strings, with wooden tuning pegs. The original bridges were often made from amber.
This modern reproduction of the lyre is strung with nylon or gut strings; the tuning suggested is the pentatonic scale used by Benjamin Bagby and is described by him as “speculative”; it is a c’ d’ e’ g’ a’
As we have no way of knowing exactly what modes or melodies may have been used before the 10th century in Northern Europe, we can only speculate as to what to use for singing poems of various kinds, including the Eddas. A familiarity with folk and traditional music of Scandinavia and Germany may be useful; other sources would be Icelandic traditional music. It may work best just let the imagination roam and sing whatever melodies come naturally to one.
The figure carved on the top comes from picture stones found on Gotland in Sweden and represent Odin astride Sleipnir.
Over the years, I have had the extremely pleasurable experience of seeing 3 performances of Beowulf by Benjamin Bagby here in Boston. I first saw this great piece of work back in 1994, a concert that led me to many new discoveries. Bagby’s presentation consists of the first fourth of the poem, up to the death of Grendel. He does the work seated on a stool onstage without a break or intermission in a marathon performance that lasts well over an hour. He also accompanies himself on a 6-stringed lyre, based on instruments from burials dating from the Viking era. He sings and recites, acting out the parts, and the entire performance is in Anglo-Saxon!
I was so moved by the performance I first saw at the Longy school of music those many years ago that I wrote to Mr. Bagby asking for information about the instrument he was playing. His reply was as follows:“The lyre which I am currently using is one of two different models built for me by Rainer Thurau of Wiesbaden, Germany, based on the remains of 2 instruments found in a 7th-century alemannic nobleman’s grave in Oberflacht, south of Stuttgart. The fragments of one instrument were lost in WWII, but the second instrument (in fragmentary form) can be seen at the State Museum in Stuttgart, which has also published detailed studies on all the objects found in the grave. The instrument was carved from one oak plank, hollowed out and closed up again. The dimensions are 70.5cm x 19,5 x 1.5; string length ca. 43. Following consultations with Thurau, I am using gut strings in various gauges between 1.1 and 0.75, and one of several hypothetical tunings could be (pentatonic- see below.) The second instrument based on Oberflacht originals is longer and narrower. Thurau also makes a copy of a very small lyre (7th century) found in a Christian tomb in Cologne. The original fragments, destroyed during the bombing of Cologne in 1943, are well documented in photos, and a primitive copy was built in the 1920’s.”
Based on this information, I went to the library and did some research on the Sutton Hoo version of the same instrument. I found the book “Voyage to the Other World”- the Legacy of Sutton Hoo, (ISBN 0-8166-2024-5) published by the Medieval Studies department at the University of Minnesota. This marvelous collection included an article titled “Beowulf and Sutton Hoo: The Odd Couple”, by Roberta Frank. In it, she tells us about the relationship between the Sutton Hoo excavation and the poem:“ By the late 1950s, Beowulf and Sutton Hoo were so inseparable that, in study after study, the appearance of one inevitably and automatically evoked the other. If Beowulf came on stage first, Sutton Hoo was swiftly brought in to illustrate how closely seventh-century reality resembled what the poet depicted; if Sutton Hoo performed first, Beowulf followed close behind to give voice to the former’s dumb evidence. And just as, after years of living together, husband and wife or man and dog start to look and sound alike, so now — fifty years down the road, the two at moments seem to merge, to become interchangeable. Because the Danish king in Beowulf picks at a stringed instrument, we are informed that the king buried at Sutton Hoo was an accomplished performer on the harp...”In another chapter from this same book, Robert Payson Creed tells us about his performance of Beowulf:“Sutton Hoo played a role in one recording of Beowulf. This recording was made in 1977-78 in New York City, not in seventh-century East Anglia. A reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo musical instrument accompanied my performance of parts of Beowulf for a pair of radio broadcasts. Although the twentieth-century recording was designed for contemporary audiences, it was also intended to be as authentic as possible. So the producer, Charles Potter; the technical director, David Rapkin; and I were delighted when Rupert Bruce-Mitford, then Keeper of Medieval and Later Antiquities in the British Museum, lent us a working copy of the second reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo instrument. Mary Remnant, a musician-musicologist who teaches at the Royal College of Music in London, accompanied me with several simple pentatonic melodies that give some indication of what the range of the original instrument might have been.”
Thus we see that Bagby’s instrument is by far not the first reconstruction of its kind. As far as the dating of the instrument and the relationship between the date of the Sutton Hoo burial and the dating of the poem, he tells us:“Some scholars have argued for a very late date, as late as the generally accepted date of the making of the single surviving manuscript of the poem, that is, between 975 and 1025. Such a date would effectively sever any relationship between Sutton Hoo and Beowulf. By that time there is evidence for the existence in England of the true harp, possibly in addition to possibly replacing, the round lyre that the Sutton Hoo instrument seems to have been. The true harp is characterized by its triangular shape, a design that accommodates strings of different lengths. The round lyre, referred to in some medieval documents as cythara teutonica, seems to have been a flat, bilaterally symmetrical instrument with strings of roughly the same length, though probably not of the same thickness. The strings run across a resonance chamber formed by the hollowing out of the thin lower part of the instrument and, in the case of the Sutton Hoo instrument, most of the arms that support the yoke. This instrument is represented in several early Anglo-Saxon paintings. Representations of triangular harps appear toward the end of the Anglo-Saxon period. It has been conjectured that the word harp (Old English hearpe) was transferred to the triangular instrument after referring to the symmetrical instrument.”Bruce-Mitford’s reconstruction of the Germanic Round Lyre was in part based on a painting: Creed says,“Yet I cannot help pointing out that a painting made in Canterbury between 730 and 740, a painting that was useful to the Bruce-Mitford's in reconstructing the round lyre from the Sutton Hoo fragments, shows a battery- a pair of scribes- flanking the historical King David is he composes the Psalms... At the very least, the painting tells us that round lyres existed or at least were known in southeastern England in the first half of the eighth century and that they were used — or thought to be used — to accompany psalm singing. The two scribes in the painting may suggest the idea and even the existence of an Anglo-Saxon recording studio. but again, we cannot be sure.”In addition to Bruce-Mitford’s definitive “Sutton Hoo”, I found further reference to his reconstruction of the lyre in another book, “The Treasure of Sutton Hoo” by Gronskopf. In it, the author describes the recreation of the Sutton Hoo instrument:“In 1948 the musical instrument was reconstructed as a small, quadrangular harp, but additional fragments, originally thought to belong to the roof (of a building), proved to be part of the instrument. Newly reconstructed in 1969, it is a round lyre, 29-inches long, 8-inches wide, with six gut strings each 20-inches long, of varied thickness and tension. It has been tuned to a pentatonic scale, with a pitch between alto and tenor registers. The new reconstruction is supported by comparisons with manuscript illustrations as well as with fragments of lyres found on the continent. Beaver hairs were identified on the outside of the frame of the instrument and it is believed that it was kept and buried in a beaver skin bag with the fur inward. The maple wood fragments that led to the reappraisal had originally been boxed and cataloged as roof remains, and at that time it was thought that all that survived of the instrument had been contained in the bronze bowl. The old reconstruction was based on these fragments found in the bowl; many photographs were reproduced, and the music was recorded. But even if it was not an accurate reconstruction of the one in the Sutton Hoo burial, Dr. Bruce-Mitford maintains that it “is still of interest as recreating a type of instrument which it seems did exist in this era.”The next step in my pursuit of the idea of an authentic Viking era musical instrument was to build one. I went to a woodworker's store here in Cambridge and found a bundle of unusually wide and thin sheets of cherry wood- just the right size to make the soundboard for the lyre. I got a plank of cherry that was 9 inches wide and had it cut into lengths 29 inches long. Then I used a router to hollow out the resonant area in the lower half of the instrument. After I glued on the facing sheet of cherry, I cut out the open area in the upper half. For tuning pegs, I sent away to Robinson’s harp supply shop in California for a set of steel tapered tuning pegs. I also had to buy a tapering tool to cut the wood at just the right angle so that the pin would fit snugly into the hole.
I used old lute strings and using Bagby’s ‘speculative tuning’, I tuned it up. The tuning suggested is the pentatonic scale used by Benjamin Bagby and is described by him as “speculative”; it is a c’ d’ e’ g’ a’. This tuning will be seen to yield a number of interesting intervals and chords, including an octave, 3 perfect 5ths, 2 perfect 4ths and 2 minor 3rds. The combination of the 1st, 4th and 6th strings gives a chord consisting of the 1st, 5th and octave; add the 2nd string to make it a minor. The 2nd, 4th and 5th strings yield a major chord, to which the first chord is the relative minor. With a little experimentation, including various other tunings, an amazing variety of modes will present themselves.
Along the way I took several questionable turns. I forgot the exact shape of the Bagby’s instrument, and something in one of the books led me to believe that the lyre was more or less rectangular, even though it was clearly described as a “round” lyre. The first six lyres I built all are very square-shouldered, for better or worse. Also, the lyres should be divided almost in half between the open upper part and the lower hollow part; I made mine about 1/3 third open and 2/3rds closed. Oh well- they seemed to work well enough. My current version of the lyre is of curly maple, and use two pieces 1/2 inch thick, hollowed out and then glued together. These use wooden tuning pegs and gut or nylon strings.
Bagby plans to produce a CD-Rom version of his Beowulf performance, but he wants to make sure that as an interactive CD for the computer, that it does exactly what he wants it to do. He still hasn't come up with the final solution. So we have no recording or video of his performance. All I can say is that if you ever have a chance to see him, by all means go and experience it for yourself.
Meanwhile, there is a great store of material to be performed with the lyre that goes beyond Beowulf. There is the Poetic Edda, including the Volsunga saga. There are numerous Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon and German poems. There is the German Nibelungenlied. It takes time and patience, but I’m sure that much can be done to find ways of singing the great works of the bardic/skaldic tradition.
The good news is that Benjamin Bagby’s early music group Sequentia has been doing their own staging and recordings of the Eddas! Here is Bagby’s explanation of the Edda project as he saw it taking shape back in 1994:“Sequentia is currently preparing a theatrical Edda project for 1996, together with scholars, an actor and stage director. I spent a week in Reykjavik working on the source materials and meeting various Edda experts, and we plan to finish the basic research by the end of this year (1994). Whether this production will subsequently be a video or CD is not yet clear. I’m afraid you won’t find much in the way of verifiable traditional Icelandic music which predates the late 18th century, but there are some intriguing elements to the huge collections of ri’mur and tvisóngur. The only surviving medieval musical ms. is a 13th century office for Saint Thórlak, written in Latin and displaying a musical style typical for the continent.”The good news is that 2 CDs have come out this project ( Edda- deutsche harmonia mundi 77381-2, and “The Rheingold Curse”. a double CD set: Marc Aurel- MA 200164) On these, you can hear how the lyre can be used to accompany musical settings of old Norse poetry at its best!
I am continuing to make and sell lyres, and will make them to order from various types of wood. I am working on a reconstruction of the “Gunther” lyre shown on the carvings from the “Sigurd door” from a Norwegian stavkirk.
I have also done research into the earliest European triangular frame harps as shown in the ‘psalter” illustrated manuscripts of the Psalms. I’ve finished the first of these, with fairly good results.
The goal is to be able to learn to perform these poems in the original languages, using authentic instruments. These can also be used to good effect in blots and sumbles. I have played the lyre to accompany the guided meditation portion of blot with the Gothi of a local kindred; I also accompanied Laurel Mendes in that wonderful song that that she likes to sing at seidhr, at Trothmoot in Indiana. I have done a series of music workshops at several East Coast Things, and encourage folks to use music, either live or recorded in blot and sumble. I have put together a suggested playlist of recorded music for a FreyR blot. For more information, contact me at email@example.com
(note- parts of this article first appeared in Marklander in vol 4, 1997, and was reprinted in Idunna #53 Autumn 2002)