This weekend I made the 696 mile round trip (within 24 hours) to see Sally Beamish’s ‘The Seafarer Trio’ performed at Corbridge Chamber Music Festival. Corbridge is a pretty little town a few miles out of Newcastle. The buildings are all beautiful stone, and lush countryside surrounds everything. The river and marshy land on the outskirts stops it feeling completely landlocked.
The town church, St Andrews, couldn’t have provided a more fitting venue for a performance of ‘The Seafarer’. A Saxon window remains of the original church, built in the eight century, and ruins crouch in the church yard. The performance took place at the front of the chancel, between the nave and altar. The trio arranged themselves around a throned narrator, with a screen displaying animated drawings by Jila Peacock providing a beautiful backdrop.
Throughout the long train ride from London to Corbridge, I had Frantzen’s definition of ‘history’ in mind, that it is ‘the reconstruction of the past by those who did not know it first hand’. It seems to me that Beamish’s ‘Seafarer Trio’, playing in this setting, with the potent images swirling above was just such a reconstruction, just such history in action. So what could we expect to learn about the past from this performance, if anything? And if the performance can tell us nothing about history, what knowledge does it convey?
Members of the audience, in the Q and A before the performance, asked lots of questions to do with the facts of Anglo-Saxon England – so some of them clearly expected to gain a type of knowledge from the performance. Indeed, two ladies behind me exchanged a whisper, one admitting to the other that she had not come across Anglo-Saxon poetry before, quipping that ‘BBC 2 isn’t doing its job’. Again I was reminded of Frantzen’s text, as he explains that Anglo-Saxon literature and culture does not appear in Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy or Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. The fact that Anglo-Saxon still very much remains the preserve of a minority of English graduates means that events such as Beamish’s ‘Seafarer Trio’ performance are often the only time when Anglo-Saxon culture meets the public.
Perhaps it is this characteristic – of being unknown – which makes Anglo-Saxon poetry such a great resource to artists who themselves begin with little knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon world. Following the performance, I spoke to Beamish about her Seafarer pieces, and she talked animatedly about her interpretations of the poem, and her interpretation is very, very personal. Perhaps the fact that her interaction with Anglo-Saxon poetry has been only through translation means that she feels at liberty to form personal interpretations of the text.
I’ll try now to offer some ideas on what sort of knowledge might form from such interactions with Old English. Between the Q and A and the performance proper, the narrator for the piece began a final sound-check as we settled into our seats. He boomed over and over ‘this is the truth’, the first line of Wallace’s translation, the text used to accompany the music. The process of performing The Seafarer had already begun – I felt transported back in time, even before the house lights dimmed and the trio and narrator became lit by candle-light.
I found Peacock’s projected images matched the music incredibly well. As an image of Peacock’s bird soared above the narrator, Beamish’s violin sang like a bird, the use of glissando, or sliding notes, sounded at once natural and alien. At other times, crashing waves full of harsh strokes came into view, whilst the melody of the music became so disjointed – now stoccato, now playing full ponticello (the violinist plucking notes on a bridge, creating an icy sound), hopping from major to minor, before a return back to the major – and so the audience witnessed a turbulent world, one at once desperate, yet with a glimmer of hope.
The role of the narrator within the trio was most interesting to me. Beamish tells me that she has written the words into the score; however, she leaves dynamics up to each performer (and even doesn’t mind if performers also ignore her placing of the words within the music). This was something she was anxious about at first, afraid that the music and poetry would compete for attention. The Corbridge performance, Beamish tells me after, is one such performance where the narrator took the expression of the poem into their own hands.
The Corbridge narrator added in the vocalising and humming along to the music, sometimes crying like a gull, other times bellowing and raising his arms as though to cast a curse. Beamish says that some friends at the performance didn’t like his interpretation, ‘some people just felt it was all about Nigel’, she laughs. However, for me, the narrator matched his pace with the music well, as the narrator recounts life on land, the music and images are smooth, and so he lowered his voice, and spoke somewhat slowly. But as he reached ‘And heralding his summer hoard of pain… foreboding bitterness of breast’, and a new, low, jerky theme begins in the bass of the music, he began to add a sinister darkness to his voice, before building up to a forte fortissimo climax, shaking his fists as the violin bow shook over the instrument and the foreboding ‘Nor can his sinful soul, quaking before his God… On him will heaven benisons bestow’ echoed around the church. The piece at this stage is visceral to play – in the intimacy of the church you could hear the breathing of the string players, and see every muscle complete jerky movements to accompany the staccato music. As the piece closed, and the instruments begin a diminuendo, the narrator repeated ‘amen’ three times as the lights completely dim, taking it upon himself to emphasise the religious ending.
I ask Beamish after the performance what, if anything, she thinks that people learn anything about Anglo-Saxon culture through listening to ‘The Seafarer Trio’. She ponders that ‘the way I’ve illustrated the poem’ can reveal the ‘sinister role of the cuckoo’ especially, but ultimately, ‘the music becomes clear because of what’s being said’. I push her to explain what she thinks an audience member learns by listening to the music, but Beamish replies only ‘you can learn something about what I think about the poem’. It is of course the job of each listener to do the work of interpreting. Her response is notably different to those that textual translators of the poem often give. Compared to translators Alexander, or Crossley-Holland  who outline in their introductions what they think the reader will learn from their works before they read it, for Beamish it is not her place to define the knowledge that a listener might gain, and perhaps we stand to gain more because of this.
 Allen J Frantzen, Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition, (New Brunswick, 1990), (p. xi).
 Frantzen, Desire for Origins, (pp. 9-10).
 See Michael Alexander, The Earliest English Poems, and Kevin Crossley-Holland The Anglo-Saxon World.