Fragments of an Icelandic Portrait
For a long time, Iceland was a small, remote and isolated country. In 1947 - the year that Karl Aage Rasmussen and Anders Eliasson were born - a music exhibition in Reykjavik featured a picture of an orchestra (and conductor!) with the following note in the accompanying booklet:
"Icelanders have always been good with horses, and they know that it requires aptitude and knowledge to tame them. The same applies to conducting an orchestra. The conductor is the tamer, and a bad tamer can ruin a promising young colt..."
Three years later the Iceland Symphony Orchestra was founded.
Just half a century ago, in 1944, Iceland's union with the kingdom of Denmark came to an end; while the Second World War raged all around them, the Icelanders declared their new and independent republic at the ancient meeting-place of Eingvellir. Allied troops had invaded the old saga island and turned its world upside down: it no longer lay at the ends of the earth, but in a key strategic position in the North Atlantic. "Freedom" was celebrated in various ways, among others with a musical competition that was won by the composer, poet, playwright, painter and critic Emil Poroddsen (1898-1944). His salute to independence took the form of a piece of patriotic choral music in the old-fashioned Danish (or should we say Nordic or German?) style.
For centuries, Icelandic music has been linked to the spoken word, to poetry, to the voice. This also applies when we limit ourselves to discussing art music; a century of struggle for independence produced vast quantities of patriotic verse, mostly served up by idealistic bourgeois amateurs composing settings in the Danish tradition (Gade, Mendelssohn, Leipzig ...). The music "transported," as it were, the poetry; it had no independent value in principle, but was nevertheless extremely important.
There are literally only three Icelanders from the period 1875-1945 who could write idiomatically for instrumental ensemble. Their names were Sveinbjorn Sveinbjornsson, Jon Leifs and Porarinn Jonsson, and none of them actually lived in Iceland; they settled abroad where there were instruments and orchestras, courts and institutions. The first sonata by an Icelander, Hallgrimur Helgason's piano sonata from 1939, was written by a man who had left for Switzerland and could care less about the rules of counterpoint. After that things developed quickly. Twenty years later Magnus Blondal Johannsson was able to present the first electroacoustic work from Iceland.
In 1945 the composer, conductor, writer and organizer Jon Leifs returned from decades of exile in Germany. In less than three weeks he had organized a composers' association whose first act was to hold the exhibition I began by mentioning. Its aim was to draw the attention of the general public as well as of politicians and administrators to the state of music in the country. The exhibition booklet contains the following statement:
"Composers in Iceland today work in much the same way as the poets of the thirteenth century, who wrote their works on vellum and were not paid for them. The difference is that their manuscripts were circulated from hand to hand, were copied and recited so that the whole nation got to know them. Some of these poems are alive even today. The Icelandic composer writes down his work on perishable material. Few people can read it, fewer or even none in the country are able to make it come alive in performance; there are scarcely even competent copyists. The skalds of old were patronized by the great farms and monasteries. The only resort for a composer of today is to produce all kinds of songs that have nothing to do with real artistic effort."
Two important Icelandic musicians, Jon Leifs and Pall isolfsson, went to study in Leipzig in the second decade of this century. Nowadays Jon Leifs is the big name, with an ever increasing reputation for his large-scale works with their Icelandic and Old Norse titles; he is regarded by some as a genius and by others as a dilettante. But in my opinion Pall Isolfsson, who later became cathedral organist in Reykjavik, is very much the personality who laid the foundations of the surprisingly rich and exciting musical environment that is to be found in the Iceland of today.
Jon Leifs stayed in Germany and developed an idiosyncratic, primitivist style in his Edda oratorios and Icelandic overtures scored for orchestral and choral forces that certainly did not exist in Iceland. His "Icelandic" style seems in fact to have been designed for foreign consumption. After his belated return home, he published a collection of essays about his personal aesthetic, Islands künstlerische Anregung (1951), in which he pleads for a revival of the Normannic or Northwestern culture that since the fourteenth century had only lived on in Iceland. Keywords here are "hard, powerful, abrupt, rugged, taciturn, stoical" - all well-known epithets from the Eddie Havamail (The Sayings of Odin).
Jon Leifs is indeed the only composer who has attempted to formulate an Icelandic aesthetic. Most people seem to have rejected it (and with good reason as far as I can understand), but no one can afford to ignore Jon Leifs the composer.
Pall Isolfsson did the exact opposite of Jon Leifs. Already in the twenties he broke off a promising international career as an organist, returned to Iceland, and began systematically to construct a modern musical culture, the kernel of his work being a music society that acted as a galvanizing, organizing and supporting force. At the beginning of the thirties, this society started a music school, and in the course of that politically unsettling decade, foreign musicians and teachers were invited to Iceland. They brought with them knowledge, methods, repertoire and experience from Germany and Austria, and their arrival broadened the horizons of young Icelanders. Pall Isolfsson thus imported necessary expertise, and established a broad and highly respectable program of basic music education. He was not particularly interested in launching a distinctive Icelandic profile, and his own compositions were modest contributions to the working repertoire in the spirit of Brahms and Reger.
In a conversation back in 1981, Pall Isolfsson's pupil Porkell Sigurbjornsson asked apropos independence: "What is independence, actually? There are two attitudes to this question. One encourages us to learn what the outside world has to offer in order that we may survive, for example the latest in technology, the fishing industry, how to preserve protein, how to utilize our skills in order to be able to export our products afterwards. In the field of music, it is fantastically important to look to the outside world for experience and knowledge. Pall Isolfsson was precisely one of those people who fetched skills home to Iceland. The other attitude encourages us to believe that we are different - the idea that the rest of the world is waiting for a Messiah from Iceland. Folk music, Blut und Boden
I believe that the remarkable versatility and global qualities of contemporary Icelandic music are indebted to what I would call Pall Isolfsson's concept. The need to gather information and experience from abroad is self-evident to young Icelandic composers, virtually all of whom spend long periods abroad either during or after their training at the Reykjavik music school. This practice is not nearly so common among for example, young Swedish composers.
Iceland's geographical position, of course, makes the choice between going abroad and staying at home a black and white one; there is in practice no halfway house. The following 12 examples, which I think are representative, will have to suffice as illustrations of this point:
• Jon Porarinsson (b. 1917) went to the United States during the war, studied with Hindemith, and then came home to teach.
• Magnus Blondal Johannsson (b. 1925) went to the Juilliard School in New York and to all the electronic music studios in Europe; he is a pioneer in Iceland.
• Jon Nordal (b. 1926) went to Zurich (Willy Burkhard), Paris (Pierre Boulez), Italy and Darmstadt.
• Fjölnir Stefansson (b. 1930) went to London and spent four years with Matyas Seiber.
• Leifur Porarinsson (b. 1934) went to Vienna and studied with the serial theoretician Hanns Jelinek.
• Porkell Sigurbjornsson (b. 1938) studied in the United States at the University of Illinois (Kenneth Gaburo, Lejaren Hiller) and also visited Darmstadt.
• Atli Heimir Sveinsson (b. 1938) went to Cologne (Günther Raphael, Stockhausen, Zimmermann), Darmstadt, and Utrecht (Koenig).
• Haflioi Hallgrimsson (b. 1941) studied the cello in Italy and composition in London (Peter Maxwell Davis, Alan Bush).
• Porsteinn Hauksson (b. 1948) has been to Stanford, IRCAM, EMS in Stockholm, and Japan.
• Kjartan Olafsson (b. 1958) has been to Utrecht and Helsinki.
• Hilmar poroarson (b. i960) has studied in the United States at Yale (Mel Powell, Druckman), Stanford, and Berkeley, and has also been in Japan.
• Atli Ingolfsson (b. 1962) has studied in France (Gerard Grisey) and Italy (Donatoni).
All of these people - and many more - fill out the abstract concept of "Icelandic music" today, a multifarious musical environment that has received impulses from all over the globe. The list does not, perhaps, sufficiently reflect the interest in Japanese music and culture, an interest that is more or less clearly manifested in compositions by Atli Heimir Sveinsson, Karolina Eiriksdottir, Porsteinn Hauksson, and Hilmar Poroarson. Music lovers searching in 1994 for a characteristically Icelandic style will be disappointed: almost everybodv uses traditional Icelandic material at one time or another (usually derived from the folk music collection of the Rev. Bjarni Porsteinsson from the beginning of the century), but the only national style waiting to be discovered is the strictly personal primitivism of the Edda composer Jon Leifs, with its chauvinistic undertones. Another interpretation of my list of 12 composers might be that Iceland's Nordic neighbors, and Denmark in particular, have held very little attraction for Icelanders venturing abroad. Some may be tempted to repeat the age-old question: is Iceland in fact a Nordic country at all? My answer would be yes - for precisely that reason!
Translated by Michael Chesnutt