11. Arts and Mass Media

Music in the Past

The history of Icelandic instrumental music is, by European standards, very young. Throughout the centuries, music consistent mostly of singing and it was not until around 1930 that the foundations were laid for the abundant musical life which now thrives in the country.

Few Sources
There a few extant sources regarding people’s musical pursuits during the first centuries of the Icelandic settlement. Through to the nineteenth-century, sources are limited. Yet the ancient Norse people were widely travelled and one can argue that they would have had some knowledge of the music of the countries they visited. Many slaves accompanied the Icelandic settlers, mainly of Celtic origin, and one might argue that these people did, in some respect, bring their musical culture with them. Icelanders also travelled widely during the first centuries of Icelandic settlement and came into contact with foreign musicianship. Furthermore, music was part of the education of learned people.
    Although the sources say little about the ownership of musical instruments or instrumental music, music has a long tradition in Iceland. Roman Catholic songs of worship, named after Gregory the Great (540-604), were brought to the country with Christianity and performed in churches and monasteries. It was the central subject of the mass and service, and one spoke of “singing the mass.” Various old manuscripts indicate that, in the Catholic church in Iceland, there were many clerical scholars who were familiar with musical notation. The largest manuscript of this kind is Þorlákstíðir. Þorlákur Þórhallsson, after whom the manuscript is named, was bishop at Skálholt. He died in 1193. “Þorlák’s Service” (on the 23rd December) is also named after him, and Þorlákur was declared a saint at the National Assembly in 1198.
    After the reformation the Icelanders sang Lutheran hymns that were printed with musical notation in hymnbooks. Many hymns have also been preserved in manuscripts. Pictures of Icelandic musical manuscripts can be found in an on-line database, Ísmús, a website about the Icelandic music and cultural heritage.

Ballad Songs or “Rímnalög”
The general public enjoyed themselves by singing ballads or rhymes (the Icelandic is “rímur”), which were the greatest source of amusement for Icelandic people over the centuries. Their origin can be traced back to the middle of the fourteenth-century. Although the “rímur” form a branch of poetry, it is not unnatural to classify them as music as well, for they were recited or delivered with a certain kind of musical intonation or chant. The poetic tune of the “rímur” is called “stemma” (tune), “rímnalag” (ballad song), or “bragur” (melody). “Rímur” are narrative poems. They are mainly based on the ancient legendary sagas and chivalric romances (called “fornaldarsögur” and “riddarasögur” respectively), foreign works, and a few are based on events in the family sagas (or “Íslendingasögur”).
    The ballad songs can, perhaps, be called Icelanders’ chamber music, at a time when other kinds of chamber music were not available. Not everyone agrees about the aesthetic quality of the Icelandic ballad songs.

On the Path to the Present

A Musical Revival in Iceland

Around the middle of the nineteenth-century, musical life begins to change. At that time, a great musical stirring began in Iceland: it came on the initiative of one man, Jónas Helgason (1839-1903). He had benefited from musical instruction and had the opportunity of taking a short course of musical study in Copenhagen. He quickly developed a strong interest in polyphonic music, leading him to establish the first choir in Iceland in 1862. About one decade later, his brother Helgi Helgason set up the first brass band in Iceland, called Lúðurþeytarafélag Reykjavíkur. Jónas was an energetic music teacher and, in addition, established more choirs. As a result, choral music became increasingly popular and to this day it is probably one of the most common musical pursuits. Little by little, more people took to musicianship and the conditions for a living musical culture in the nation were created.

“Ó, Guð vors lands!” (“Oh God of our Land”)
The first professional Icelandic composer was Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson (1847-1927). Amongst other things, he was an excellent pianist and composed larger pieces and compositions than any Icelander had done before. Amongst the general public, he is perhaps best known for having brought his nation a new national anthem, using Matthías Jochumsson’s psalm “Ó, Guð vors lands!

Icelandic National Songs
Shortly after 1880, Bjarni Þorsteinsson (1861-1938) took on the important task of recording Icelandic national songs and printed his research in the book Íslenzk þjóðlög. Until that time, little attention had been paid to the musical heritage of the common people.

1930, A Crucial Year in Musical History
1930 marks a watershed in Icelandic musical history. At that point, about one hundred years of quiet development, driven in large part by the enthusiasm and initiative of few men, came to an end and a new chapter began. This occurred because of the establishment of the first institutions which, one might say, are necessary in order for musical life to prosper. They were the College of Music in Reykjavík and the National Radio Broadcaster. The first symphony orchestra, The Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, was established two decades later, in 1950.

Musical Life Now

Musical life in contemporary Iceland is characterized by a varied classical music culture and all kinds of popular music. The symphony orchestra has operated since 1950, and a small opera house has been going for almost 40 years. There has been more and more interest in musical training in past years, and the general population has enjoyed a musical harvest resulting from seeds sown in the past years and decades. If one looks in the newspapers, one can see the large number of events advertised or in the pipeline, so everyone should be able to find something which suits them.
    Pop music in Iceland is developing greatly. Songs by The Beatles resounded on the waves of the ether during the 1970s and, as in other places, enchanted the younger generation in Iceland. Within a while the first Icelandic Beatle-style group was formed. This was the band Hljómar, from Keflavík. They released the first Icelandic “Beatle record” in 1965.
    Many very good bands have shot into Icelandic pop stardom and even managed to cast some rays of light abroad. The group Mezzoforte, and The Sugar Cubes (in Icelandic, “Sykurmolarnir”) with Björk Guðmundsdóttir, are probably the Icelandic bands to have received the most exposure abroad along with Sigur Rós, but Björk is the first Icelandic pop singer to have really broken onto the international scene. Without any doubt, she is a crucial factor in the current strong growth in Icelandic pop music. Her success is an encouragement to artists. Certainly, throughout the country drums are being hit, horns blown, and strings thrashed in the hope of fame and success abroad.

Popular Bands and Singers
Amongst the most popular bands today is the group Sigur Rós (lit. Victory Rose), which attracted interest in the summer of 1999 with their LP Ágætis byrjun (lit. “A Good Start”). The band was responsible for the music for the film Englar alheimsins (Angels of the Universe), based on the novel of the same name by Einar Már Guðmundsson and made by one of the most important Icelandic directors, Friðrik Þór Friðriksson. There the originality which characterizes this unusual band is used to full effect. Emilíana Torrini has also been successful at home and abroad as a singer and a songwriter. Popular dance bands are many and some live only for one summer. Few groups have lived on and been popular for a long time like Stuðmenn, Sálin hans Jóns míns and GusGus. The singers Bubbi Morthens, Ragnhildur Gísladóttir and Páll Óskar Hjálmtýsson have been popular for a long time and have a strong fan bases as well as DiktaÓlafur Arnalds and Of Monsters and Men