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Mark Morris's Guide to Twentieth Century Composers

Front Page




For such a small country, with a total population smaller than most cities, Iceland has a lively compositional life. This has been entirely a 20th-century phenomenon, part of the resurgence of Icelandic cultural life following the independence of Iceland (within the Danish crown) in 1918, and full separation from the Danish crown in 1944. Literature has long had a prominent role in Icelandic culture (including the Nobel Prize winner Haldór Laxness), and the musical resurgence has drawn for inspiration on modern Icelandic literature and the roots of the great period of Icelandic sagas in the 12th and 13th centuries, as well as Icelandic folk-music, of which the first substantial collections and recordings were made in the late 1920s.

The first Icelandic composer of note was Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson (1847-1927), who spent most of his working life in Edinburgh. Perhaps the most interesting Icelandic composer is Atli Heimir Sveinsson (born 1938), who is discussed under his own entry below. Among the founding generation of Icelandic composition, Jón Nordal (born 1926) is primarily a composer of orchestral and concertante works, whose music has been heard in both Europe and North America. He evolved from a nationalistic style to an expressive lyricism whose atonality follows the mainstream of European ideas, as in the meditative and atmospheric Choralis (1982) for orchestra, which uses material from old Icelandic songs.

Leifur Thórarinsson (born 1934, and not to be confused with the composer Jón Thórarinsson, b.1913) was the major Icelandic advocate of serialism during the 1950s and 1960s, being influenced by Webern and pointillism in such works as the Symphony (1963). This culminated in the thick-textured and unsettled Violin Concerto (1969 revised 1976), the solo instrument rather violently fighting its way through the orchestral textures, except for an extended cadenza. In the equally unconventional one-movement Oboe Concerto (1982) the oboe regularly emerges from the large aggressive orchestration, with little sense of the more mellow writing of other recent works.

Perhaps the most prolific of Icelandic composers to date is Thorkall Sigurbjörnsson (born 1938). He has written works in all genres, including chamber opera and electronic and computer music. Primarily a tonal composer, much of his music belongs to the Icelandic story-telling tradition, utilizing Icelandic mythology or lore, exemplified in his suite of folk-song arrangements for wind quintet, Hraera (1985). The orchestral Mistur (Mist, 1972) shows his descriptive and dramatic preference, with lucid orchestration and rhythmic drive, and a broad pictorial canvass. The literarily bleak, and musically spartan song cycle Níu lög úr þorpinu eftur Jón úr Vör (Nine Songs from 'The Village' by Jón úr Vör, 1978) for soprano and piano, is particularly effective, reflecting a specifically Icelandic aesthetic. It is recommended as being well worth hunting out. Of his instrumental music, G-Sweet (1975) for violin and piano is a pun on the string (Gee) and the form (one-movement suite), whose insistent drama belies its title.

Of the younger Icelandic composers, the flautist and composer Jónas Tómasson (born 1946) has followed unconventional patterns. In his considerable output he prefers series with abstract titles (notably a series of 15 sonatas for various instruments, 1965-1985), and webs of textured sounds, formally free and often slow moving and introspective. The atonal Orgia (1973) for orchestra is ritualistic, with layers of rhythmic activity and different dark-hued rugged orchestral textures. The expressive and severe Vetrartre (Winter Trees, 1982-1983) for violin and piano is an effective work.

Note that in Icelandic the `th' of such names as Thórarinsson is written Þórarinsson.

Iceland Music Information Centre:
Islensk Tónverkamidstöd/Iceland MIC
Sídumúli 34
IS - 108 Reykjavík
tel: 354 1 68 31 22
fax: 354 1 68 31 24





born 21st September 1938 at Reykjavík


Atli Heimir Sveinsson (born 1938, and not to be confused with the composer Gunnar Reynir Sveinsson, b.1933) is the most interesting of the Icelandic composers. He has embraced a variety of styles (including a popular musical, Land míns föður [My Father's Country], 1985), though his idiom largely follows the European mainstream of the post-avant-garde. The exciting Flute Concerto (1973) deserves to be much more widely known as one of the finest flute concertos written since the Second World War. It pitches a percussive opening influenced by African rhythms against a haunting flute, followed by atmospheric and often complex virtuoso writing, dramatic and intense, with careful emphasis on alternating colours and with moments of eastern influence that almost verge on the banal. His orchestral music includes the existential Hreinn: Súm: 74 (1974) for a variable ensemble of two pianos, one to ten violins, electric guitar and obbligato winds and percussion, reflecting the painting of Hreinn Friðfinnsson, using the minimum of means to express the white minimalism of the Icelandic landscape. The improvisatory Gloria (1981) for piano is a meditation (influenced by Messiaen) on the Christmas gospel, using extremes of register and washes of effect, before moving to a melodic sense of tonality and dramatic outbursts. Sveinsson currently teaches composition at the Reykjavík College of Music.


works include:

- bassoon concerto Trobar Clus; flute concerto; viola concerto Könnun (Exploration)

- Hjakk (Hacking) for orch.; Infinitesimal Fragments of Eternity for chamber orch.

- Xanties for flute and piano; Dansar dyrdarinnar (Precious Dances) for guitar and 4 instruments

- Gloria and Odur steinsin (The Stone's Ode) for piano

- Aria for soprano and chamber ensemble; song cycles; Haustmyndir (Autumn Images) for chorus

- opera Silkitromman (The Silken Drum)


recommended works:

Flute Concerto (1973)

Hreinn: Súm: 74 (1974) for various forces



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