Fragments of Anglo-Saxon stone carvings incorporated into a later medieval parish church in Wirksworth, Derbyshire, UK. Although these stone carvings might be contemporaneous with the oral tradition that produced Wulf and Eadwacer, the context and history of these images, and the identities of most of the figures depicted, are no longer known.

4. Early Medieval Text and Contemporary Musical Composition

The decision to use an early medieval text as the starting point for practice-based research in musical composition requires further scrutiny. Wulf and Eadwacer is a highly ambiguous, possibly fragmentary poem preserved in a manuscript folio that survived when many others did not. If Wulf and Eadwacer is understood as a cultural and historical artefact, the decision to subject it to a composer’s methodology might be seen as unnecessary interference, or even as an act of cultural vandalism. 

In response to these arguments, my initial research questions were shaped precisely by the belief that valuable insights can be gained when contemporary arts engage with material from the past. In my work, the justification for this approach is, in part, born from the fact that so little of the context for a poem such as Wulf and Eadwacer survives. There are no contemporaneous sources that describe how Wulf and Eadwacer would have been performed (as a song or spoken, with or without musical accompaniment). Evidence of secular music from the Anglo-Saxon period is largely limited to fragments of musical instruments found at archaeological sites. Investigations such as the European Music Archaeology Project have focused on the reconstruction of ancient instruments rather than on the potentially more speculative process of reanimating an ancient oral culture.1 In contrast, the composer Stef Conner has focused much of her research on both Old English texts and the composition of new music for reconstructed ancient instruments, demonstrating a creative approach which has more in common with my own.2


However, while the work of Conner and others is indicative of the many insights that can be gained from imaginative recreations of ancient music, this is not the focus of my practice. Instead, I was interested in exploring the more abstract aspects of the text’s emotional, affective content. I was drawn to Lucile Desblaches idea that, in using untranslated medieval Occitan texts in the opera L’Amour de loin, Kaija Saariaho emphasised a sense of timelessness.3 I was keen to investigate the ways in which my use of Old English poetry might achieve similar results. If the core of Wulf and Eadwacer relates to universal themes of interpersonal relationships and human emotions, why should my musical response be limited to an imagined idea of a particular historical moment?


Nonetheless, while much of the content of Wulf and Eadwacer appears timeless, its context is not. In their written form, early medieval texts arguably carry a far greater sense of orality than modern text-based media. As Stephen Roger Fischer has noted, the idea of reading in most medieval European languages denoted reading aloud; reading was not a silent activity.4 Texts such as Wulf and Eadwacer, as sonic artefacts of an early medieval oral tradition, have become fossilised in the silence of the printed page. Consequently, my research questions arose from the desire to reclaim the orality of early medieval language and to engage with the vast spectrum of vocal sound.

< Previous Next >