January 2005
Barry Whitney

Iceland's Greatest Classical Composer:

JÓN LEIFS (1899-1968)

and other Icelanders of Note


Jón Leifs was born on May 1st, 1899 in Sólheimar, Svínavatnssókn,Húnavatnasssýsla, Iceland. He studied and composed in Germany from 1916 until 1944, returning to Iceland for the remainder of his life. He composed about 70 works and published dozens of papers. His musical genre is uncategorizable, since he consciously rejected influences from other composers or schools. The basis of his music was the Icelandic folk song, a source from which he found rehabilitative power. The Icelandic "part singing at the fifth" was the source of his harmonic language, as well as the accentuated meters. His music reflects Iceland and its ancient history and, when Jón Leifs was composing, Iceland's struggle for independence from the foreign domination which had oppressed its people since the 13th century....(some of this from Hjálmar Ragnarsson,)

"The Icelandic heart can be neither understood nor interpreted except in connection with the forces of nature, earth and sky, and the rough though bountiful seas that restlessly surge about the land...[Jón Leifs' music is unclassifiable. He]... stands alone amidst an ocean of ideas, somewhere between, or beyond the composer's mainland. He seeks his material from the harsh nature of the historic island that is Iceland...."(Hilmar Oddsson)

Part of the uniqueness of Icelandic music is its use of "tvísöngur" -- "twin song," sung in parallel fifths. The basis of thismusical form lies in medieval European church music. Also distinctive is the secular music's "rímur" sung ballads, sagas, which use inflections that follow the words in the text. Jón Leifs' "Saga Heroes" is a good example of this.

Jón Leifs' Music

"Elegy" Op. 53, written as a tribute to his mother who had died in 1960, "There are moments of both clear brightness and dim shadows...Soft string passages stretch out and draw together, lift themselves up and then bow down in humility to the highest power. From the beginning the conclusion is clear: EACH PERSON IS ALONE, ALL ALONE, WITH HIS GOD" (Hilmar Oddsson)

"Geysir" Op. 51 is inspired by the incredible forces of nature which give rise to the power of the Icelandic geysirs. Jón Leifs was aware also of the vulnerability of human beings when confronted by such powerful forces. This is a reality with which all Icelanders live daily.  

"Three Images" Op. 44, probably has been performed more often than his other works. First comes "The Beauty of the Sky," beginning with deep tones of the countrabass and the high tones of the piccolo. Other instruments join in, gradually, and the piece ends with a magnificent heroic chord that spans six and a half octaves. The second image, "Zigzag", is an energetic scherzo, but it connates cold laughter more than a warm laugh. Finally, "Rocky Cliffs" represents the huge cliffs which rise above the settlements and the wild landscape alike, preserving the ravages of the history of the land and its people. [Thanks again to Hjálmar Ragnarsson for parts of this short interpretation..]

"Symphony Number 1, Saga Symphony" (literally, "Saga Heroes") contains 5 movments, each devoted to an Icelandic saga hero: Njál's Saga, wherein the story is told of Skarphéðinn, son of Njáll, a warrior who unhesitantingly meets his death and achieves great glory; Laxæla Saga, wherein the story of Guðrún Ósvifrsdóttir is told, the most admired woman in the Icelandic sagas, ending her turbulent life in prayer; an episode in Njál's Saga about the coward Björn and the daredevil Kári Sölmundarson; Gretti's Saga, which chronicles the life of Grettir Àgsmundarson, Iceland's most famous outlaw, who struggles with the ghost of Glámur; and Fóstbræða Saga, accounting the heroic death of the port Þormóður Kolbrúnarskáld in Norway. (Thanks again to Hjálmar Ragnarsson)

Much more about Jón Leifs' music on the way!

External Links:

Jón Leifs' Official Website (Music samples, "Tears of Stone" movie clip, etc.)
Jón Leifs' entry on Classical Music website
Jón Leifs' entry on Icelandic Music website
Reviews of n Leifs' music

Other Icelandic classical composers of note: A renaissance of music in the making!

Home Page: Dr Barry Thor L. Whitney
Updated Sept 2004