An Introduction to Icelandic Classical Music

For its relatively small size – not even 40,000 square kilometers, and a population estimated at around 360,000 – Iceland has had a significant impact on the music world. Björk and Sigur Rós are probably the first names that come to mind. But along with its rock scene, Iceland also is home to a large number of folk, electronic, and metal musicians. Its classical music, too, is remarkably diverse and fascinating.

The earliest Icelandic folk music probably dates from the fourteenth century. Because of its isolation from the rest of the world, foreign influences on the music were pretty much absent for a long time. Some of the earliest influences from outside came from Danish settlers, who brought traditional dances like the waltz and polka. The European classical tradition was a late arrival, only emerging in the middle and late nineteenth century.

Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson, recognized as the first professional Icelandic composer, received training in Europe under Johan Svendsen and Carl Reinecke, and actually ended up living in Scotland. Sveinbjörnsson is largely remembered today as the composer of Iceland’s national anthem, “Lofsöngur,” which he wrote in 1874 for the one thousandth anniversary of the settlement of Iceland. He also made many arrangements of Icelandic folk songs.

The first orchestral concert in Iceland took place in 1921 as part of the ceremonies around a visit by King Christian X of Denmark, then also the reigning monarch of Iceland. The group that performed was dubbed the The Reykjavík Orchestra (Hljómsveit Reykjavíkur). In conjunction with, and supported by, the creation in 1930 of the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service and the Reykjavik College of Music, the orchestra continued performing in subsequent decades, eventually morphing into the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in 1950. The Iceland Symphony continues to perform a full annual series of concerts, and tours and records frequently. The Reykjavík Chamber Orchestra and the chamber ensemble Nordic Affect have also become familiar to audiences in Iceland and beyond.

Some well-known classical instrumentalists come from Iceland. Violinist Sigurbjörn Bernhardsson was a founding member of the Pacifica Quartet. Another violinist, Elfa Rún Kristinsdóttir, has won many prizes and is now a member of the period instrument ensemble Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. While he’s a bit of a ringer, the famous Russia-born pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy has been a citizen of Iceland since 1972, having married an Icelandic woman in 1961 and lived in Iceland since 1968. He actually had an advisory role in the construction of Reykjavik’s Harpa concert hall, and conducted the Iceland Symphony in the first performance at the hall. One of Iceland’s best-known instrumentalists internationally is pianist Víkingur Ólafsson – named Artist of the Year at the 2019 Gramophone Awards – who has recorded a much-praised album of Bach’s music in transcriptions and arrangements, accompanied by some very distinctive videos.

The most important Icelandic composer in the first half of the 20th century was Jón Leifs (1899-1968). After studying in Germany with the likes of Ferruccio Busoni, Leifs pursued a conducting career around Europe. He led some of the first orchestral performances in Iceland. Like Béla Bartók, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and so many before him, Leifs became interested in folk song, and traveled around Iceland collecting and recording traditional songs in the late 1920s. It was in that decade that Leifs started composing, moving from arrangements of Icelandic folk songs to more ambitious orchestral works. Leifs and his family settled in Germany, but moved to Sweden with the rise of the Nazis. In 1945 Leifs returned to Iceland for good. Due to the poor reception his music received, Leifs had a difficult time in the 1950s, and nearly gave up composition. But he regained confidence, and produced several of his most distinctive works toward the end of his life. Some works, such as the Saga Symphony and the huge Edda oratorio that he left uncompleted at his death, took their inspiration from the famous medieval Icelandic sagas. Other works are inspired by the landscape of his homeland, such as Geysir, Dettifoss (Europe’s most powerful waterfall), and, perhaps most notoriously, Hekla, which powerfully depicted the 1947 eruption of the Hekla volcano via a huge orchestra that includes nineteen percussionists playing instruments ranging from rocks and steel chains to anvils, sirens, and cannons.

Leifs’s music is distinctive, with its often rough-hewn sound, slow chord progressions, and folk music influence. Another work that failed to impress its initial listeners is his Organ Concerto, which he finished in 1930, but which didn’t receive a first performance until 1941. That performance was a disaster; most of the audience left, and it is said that only twenty people remained by the end of the concerto. It has seldom been performed since, but it makes quite an impact.

Moving to the present day, Iceland’s best-known classical composer is probably Anna Thorvaldsdóttir. She was born in Reykjavik, and studied at the University of California San Diego. She has won many prizes, including the 2012 Nordic Council Music Prize, and in 2015, she was chosen as the New York Philharmonic’s Kravis Emerging Composer, leading to the Philharmonic’s world premiere of one of her works in 2018. Her newest piece, Catamorphosis, is scheduled to be premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic early next year. Metacosmos, from 2017, has become one of her signature orchestral pieces. In describing the piece, Thorvaldsdóttir uses the metaphor of “falling into a black hole – the unknown – with endless constellations and layers of opposing forces connecting and communicating with each other, expanding and contracting, projecting a struggle for power as the different sources pull on you and you realize that you are being drawn into a force that is beyond your control.” The Iceland Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Metacosmos was among the New York Times’s “25 Best Classical Music Tracks of 2019.” Fortunately, the Iceland Symphony has made YouTube videos available of many of its performances of Icelandic music, including Metacosmos.

A couple of Icelandic composers have struck it big in the world of film music. Jóhann Jóhannsson, who tragically died in 2018 at just forty-eight, composed music that combined traditional classical sounds with electronic instruments. Johannsson actually studied languages and literature at Reykjavik University, and got his musical start playing in indie rock bands. But he started experimenting with ways to combine rock, classical, jazz, and electronic music. Early in the twenty first century, Johannsson started writing music for television shows and films. His collaborations with director Denis Villeneuve in particular attracted a lot of attention, and the score for Sicario won Johannsson his second Academy Award nomination in 2016, the first coming the previous year with his music for the Stephen Hawking biographical film The Theory of Everything.

Hildur Gudnadóttir is a composer, cellist and singer who studied, as so many Icelandic musicians have, at the Iceland Academy of the Arts. She has worked with rock bands like Animal Collective and Throbbing Gristle as well as similarly genre-flexible musicians like Nico Muhly. She won the Academy Award for Best Original Score – the first Iceland native to win an Oscar – for the 2019 film Joker. She also composed the score for the HBO series Chernobyl.

Some themes emerge when looking at contemporary Icelandic composers. For one, the coexistence of acoustic and electronic sounds seems to be taken for granted among the current generation of Icelandic musicians. Almost all of the musicians featured in this article routinely incorporate electronic sounds into their compositions, even those for traditional orchestra. Also, perhaps because of the country’s isolation and its having found its own particular way forward musically, it is not at all unusual for Icelandic musicians to work freely in different musical genres, or even fuse disparate genres in their own creations. Someone like Kjartan Olafsson, for instance, is the chair of the Society of Icelandic Composers and a musicologist and teacher at the Icelandic Academy for the Arts – where members of Sigur Rós studied – and the artistic director of the contemporary classical music festival Dark Music Days, but also plays in a metal band.

One of Kjartan Ólafsson’s pupils at the Academy for the Arts, Valgeir Sigurdsson, joined forces in 2006 with New York-based musician Nico Muhly and several others to found the pioneering Bedroom Community record label and musician collective devoted, as its website says, to “creatively diverse artists who are drawn to the murky spaces between genres, and who uniformly support one another’s forays into this murk.” This 2010 video features music by Sigurdsson and some of his Bedroom Community colleagues set to footage of Iceland drawn from Dreamland, a documentary about the exploitation of Iceland’s natural resources.

One of the pillars of Icelandic musical life that should not be forgotten is Reykjavik’s beautiful concert hall, Harpa, with its distinctive colored glass facade, which opened in 2011. Performances of the Iceland Symphony as well as a range of music festivals, classical and otherwise, take place there.

Another composer-performer that moves easily between different genres and styles is María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir. She graduated from both the Reykjavik College of Music and the Iceland Academy of the Arts. One of her musical roles is as a member of the chamber pop instrumental band amiina, which she founded years ago with fellow members of a string quartet she played in at the Reykjavik College. That group has put out a few albums, done several film soundtracks, and has performed often with Sigur Rós both in recordings and concerts. At the same time, Sigfúsdóttir writes very idiomatically for orchestra and classical ensembles. One of her orchestral works, Oceans, was composed in 2018 and given its premiere in January 2019.

Daníel Bjarnason, who conducted that performance of Oceans, is another member of the Bedroom Community collective. He has been artist in residence with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, is currently its principal guest conductor, and served, along with Los Angeles Philharmonic Conductor Laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen, as co-curator of the orchestra’s Reykjavik Festival in 2017. The two albums of Icelandic music he has recorded with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra for the Sono Luminus label, Recurrence and Concurrence, would serve as an ideal introduction to the wealth of contemporary Icelandic classical music. Along with his full conducting schedule, Bjarnason is equally busy as a composer. His works, according to Time Out NY, “create a sound that comes eerily close to defining classical music’s undefinable brave new world.”

Sources and more information:

Wikipedia: “Music of Iceland”

Official Iceland website: “Music”

Guy Dammann for The Guardian: “Ice and fire: the classical music scene in Iceland”

CBC Radio: “Why tiny Iceland is a global giant in the field of music”

Iceland Symphony Orchestra YouTube page

Bedroom Community website