April 28, 2020



It's hard to exaggerate how musically isolated Iceland was before the 20th century. While music flourished in mainland Europe, widespread poverty and the sheer difficulty of survival in the remote Danish colony left little time or money for pursuing the arts. While Bach's majestic Toccata and Fugue in D minor made church windows rattle in Germany, it was still one hundred years before the first organ was installed in Iceland. Decades later, as opera singers battled it out in six-part counterpoint in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, Icelanders were singing in unison (occasionally in two parts) in country churches. Still later, while Beethoven premiered his 9th symphony and its famous Ode to Joy with a massive orchestra and choir, Icelandic fishermen were lucky if they had a three-string fiddle (langspil), to while away the evenings in their turf houses.

For hundreds of years, little changed. But in the 19th century, as Iceland's independence movement started gaining momentum, so did its musical potential. In 1874, King Christian IX of Denmark visited the island as it marked the 1,000th anniversary of its settlement. He came with a Danish brass band in his retinue. It's hard to imagine what the locals thought of the sound of the loud, blaring instruments, but perhaps easier to imagine how they saw the musical entourage: as a symbol of the King's status, and of Denmark's nationhood, advancement, and superiority over the little island colony.

The band's performance enthralled two brothers, Jónas and Helgi Helgason, so completely they decided to travel to Denmark to study music the following year. Upon their return, they formed a brass sextet, which held its debut concert in 1876.

It was the first public concert in Iceland - held nearly 50 years after Beethoven's death.

Just like the springs of its climate, Iceland's musical spring started late and warmed up slowly. Around the turn of the century, a handful of Icelanders went abroad to study music, forming small ensembles or teaching others upon their return. Foreign musicians also brought a glimpse of music's possibilities to the island. One of them was Danish violinist Oscar Johansen, who moved to Reykjavík in 1910, where he proceeded to teach violin and perform in Hótel Ísland regularly for years. While Iceland declared its sovereignty in 1918, the occasion was sombre - on the heels of a volcanic eruption and Spanish flu epidemic, most of its population was still thinking of little else than survival.

Yet despite these hardships, or perhaps because of them, the will to assert their nationhood grew stronger among Icelanders. And from these early days, patriotic occasions did not fail to include music. In 1930, when a festival was organised to mark the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of Alþingi, it was decided that a musical spectacle would be the main attraction. Original compositions were commissioned for the occasion, both for orchestra and choir. Dr. Franz Mixa, an Austrian conductor, was brought from abroad to prepare the orchestra, and Danish musicians hired to support the ensemble. Composer Páll Ísólfsson, who conducted at the event, described it as "a spring thaw across the country, turning it green." The performance convinced Icelanders that to be a nation, they must have music that befits one.

Posted by at April 28, 2020 12:00 AM