Sequentia, Edda: Myths from Medieval Iceland (DHM, 1999)

Sequentia are an early music ensemble, co-founded and led by Benjamin Bagby but employing a rotating cast of performers depending on the needs of a particular project.  Bagby's goal with Sequentia is to recreate pieces of Medieval music in as authentic a manner as possible.  With the project Edda: Myths from Medieval Iceland, released in 1999 but based on several years of preliminary work and performance, Sequentia created musical presentations of Norse myths and sagas preserved in Icelandic texts in an attempt to re-create the kind of storytelling that likely took place in the great Nordic halls of the early Middle Ages.  The album marked the end of an era for Sequentia for unfortunate reasons; Bagby's wife and musical partner Barbara Thornton succumbed to a brain tumor before Edda could be released.

On Edda, Sequentia consisted of Bagby on vocals and lyre, Thornton and Lena Susanne Norin on vocals, and Elizabeth Gaver on fiddle. The source text used in Edda is derived from two 13th century Icelandic manuscripts. The Prose Edda is the work of Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic scholar and historian who singlehandedly saved much Nordic folklore from being lost to history. The Poetic Edda, from which Sturluson quoted in his own work, had actually been lost for several centuries before re-appearing in 1643. The poems from this text are best known in contemporary terms for their influence on the music of Richard Wagner and the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien.  To create the melodies and backing music, Sequentia needed to go beyond existing sources and take a few leaps of faith.  With next to nothing written down to serve as a guide, the group had to work backward from more recent traditions, trying to identify in existing music the primeval modal structures from which the music evolved, then developing song patterns based on these modes that fit the texts being used.  For the fiddling, Gaver identified the older elements in the musical structures within the Norwegian hardingfele tradition, and then applied the style to more primitive fiddles that existed at the time the stories in Edda would have been musically performed.

From an academic standpoint, Edda is an extremely impressive accomplishment.  Years of research went into making this recording, and it can be fairly said that Sequentia open a door to a place and time in the distant past and breathe new life into it. I felt that much of the music seemed to be missing something, though, that I'm having trouble trying to tangibly define. I've been a fan of contemporary folk music from Scandinavia for most of my adult life, and parts of what attracted me to it is that I feel a certain primal spark in much of it that probably does have Medieval roots. It was only in the last few tracks on Edda that I felt that Sequentia started to find that spark. "Ragnarok," the fiddle interlude between the two portions from "The Prophecy of the Seeress," was Gavner's strongest contribution to the project. It was almost like I could hear her going to a bunch of workshops and instructional sessions on the hardingfele, immersing herself in the tunes and the styles until, just like that, one day it clicks. Likewise, there's a point in the last part of "The Prohecy of the Seeress," where Bagby enters the musical narration with the two women and everything just seems to start working (although I also got the sense that there was room for some percussion in their arrangement).

The music on Edda: Myths from Medieval Iceland may be more fascinating than breathtaking, but it was a worthwhile endeavor, and I can certainly appreciate the amount of work that Sequentia undertook to present the stories in as authentic a manner as possible. People interested in Scandinavian folklore and musical traditions will enjoy giving this a few listens.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

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