Kristín Jónína Taylor (Waldorf College)


Nation/Culture. The Republic of Iceland is an island located in the North Atlantic Ocean. Greenland is to the west, the Arctic Ocean is to the north, and Norway is to the east. The island is generally included in Europe for historical, political, cultural, and practical reasons. The cultural heritage of Iceland is comprised mostly from settlers from Norway. The official language of Iceland is Icelandic, although Icelanders also learn Danish and English from an early age. Iceland´s tourism is rapidly growing, particularly due to its beautiful landscapes of glaciers, volcanoes, geothermal areas, and largely unspoiled landscape. Its wildlife includes Arctic fox, mink, reindeer, and many species of birds, fish, and whale. The Icelandic horse is well-known for its sturdiness and its ability to do all five gaits. The Icelandic sheep is unique for its hardiness in its ability to withstand harsh winters. There is also a breed of Icelandic sheepdog which is a very sociable and loyal friend to many Icelandic farmers.


Music. The two main traditional forms for music-making in Iceland are the tvísöngur and the rímur. The tvísöngur is sung mainly in parallel perfect fifths, and voice-crossing does occur. The subjects can range from sacred theme to secular topics such as drinking or what to look for in a good horse. The rímur are epic alliterative and rhyming ballads with a strong rhythmic nature based on the syllabic stress of the poetry. Rímur are sung by one person, and there can be hundreds of verses. Both these genres of Icelandic song date back many centuries. When Iceland worked towards independence from Denmark in the 19th century, new folk songs with a style more akin to Schubert or Mendelssohn were written. Since Iceland´s independence in 1944, composers have worked to both embrace, and alternatively, to reject the heritage of the rímur and tvísöng, sometimes writing in a style that is meant to be inherently “Icelandic romanticism,” but more frequently to write in a more modern style that comprises all of the compositional techniques of the 20th century. The Icelandic music community now is well-known to be on the cutting edge of artistic trends, both in art music and in popular music. The Iceland Symphony Orchestra has especially made a strong impression world-wide for the quality of Iceland´s musicians.


Notable Musicians. The number of prominent composers and musical performers in Iceland is astounding, given the size of the country. Below is a short list of historically important composers who made significant contributions to Icelandic music-making.

Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson (1847-1927) – Composer, pianist, and teacher. Wrote Iceland´s national anthem. Iceland´s first composer of merit.


Sigvaldi Káldalóns (1881-1946) – Composer. Wrote many beautiful and cherished

songs. Has been dubbed “The Schubert of Iceland.”


Páll Ísólfsson (1893-1974) – Organist, composer, and teacher. Prolific composer, was the organist for the Reykjavík Cathedral for many years.


Jón Þórarinsson (1917-2012) – Music historian, composer, choir director, and teacher. Studied at Yale with Paul Hindemith, brought the modern music movement to Iceland.


Jón Leifs (1899-1968) – Composer and conductor. Most of his compositions are about Icelandic natural phenomena or historical figures. Conducted the first performance of a Beethoven symphony on Icelandic soil in 1926.


Jón Nordal (b. 1926) – Composer and piano teacher. Director of the Reykjavík College of Music for many years. One of Iceland´s most respected composers.


Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson (1938-2013) – Composer, pianist, teacher. Iceland´s most prolific composer. Served as a radio announcer, music critic, president of many composers´ associations, and helped establish the Iceland Music Information Centre and the Dark Music Days new music festival. One of Iceland´s most respected composers.


Atli Heimir Sveinsson (b. 1938) – Composer, pianist, and teacher. Co-founder of the Dark Music Days new musical festival. Prolific composer. Studied with Stockhausen. President of many composers´ associations.


Karólína Eiríksdóttir  (b. 1951) – Composer and teacher. Presently serves as chairman of the board of the Iceland Academy of the Arts. Composer and teacher at the Reykjavík College of Music.


Áskell Másson (b. 1953) – Composer. President of the Performing Rights Society (STEF) for ten years.


Haukur Tómasson (b. 1960) – Composer. Haukur Tómasson was awarded the 2004 Nordic Council Music Prize, the greatest honor awarded to a Nordic composer. 


Mist Þorkelsdóttir (b. 1960) – Composer. Dean of the Music Department of the Iceland Academy of the Arts.


Music in Higher Education. There are three institutions of higher learning in which music is taught in Iceland. The oldest and most reputable is the Reykjavík College of Music. Also located in Reykjavík is the Iceland Academy of the Arts, in which students can earn a Bachelor´s of Music (studies here are both in Icelandic and English). The third institution is the Akureyri College of Music. All three are government-funded institutions. Additionally, students may study music as part of their studies in becoming ordained Lutheran ministers at the University of Iceland (in Reykjavík).


Music in Schools. Icelandic schools for music and singing are either independently operated in co-operation with local authorities or entirely operated by the local authorities. The schools are divided into departments. The Ministry of Education issues the Icelandic national curriculum guide for music schools. Each school, moreover, issues its own curriculum. Music teaching and art education in primary and secondary schools is a part of the national school curriculum. Choirs and bands have been established in most schools at all levels of schooling. The age at which students begin their musical education in music schools varies, although the majority of students begin in primary school. Music schools offer programs at basic levels, mid-level, secondary-school level and university level. Music studies at secondary-school level are included in the assessments of final examinations in some secondary schools.


Bjarki Sveinbjörnsson, director, Icelandic Music Museum, [email protected]


Árni Heimir Ingólfsson, musicologist, [email protected]


Kristín Jónína Taylor, pianist and musicologist, [email protected]


Recommendations for Listening. The number of recordings of Icelandic music is, again, quite astounding given the size of this nation. The recordings listed below are only a very small cross-section of what is available. Those who wish to explore Icelandic music are especially encouraged to explore published recordings by the Iceland Music Information Centre, Smekkleysa Records, and 12 Tónar Records.

Rímur (by Steindor Andersen), 2003; Naxos.


Hymnodia Sacra (Carmina Chamber Choir and Nordic Affect), 2013; Smekkleysa.


Icelandic Choral Music (Hamrahlíð Choir), 1995; Iceland Music Information Centre.


Icelandic Folksongs (Hamrahlíð Choir), 1995; Hastedt Records.


Edda: Myths from Medieval Iceland (Sequentia), 1999; Deutsche Harmonia Mundi/BMG Classics.


Icelandic Church Music (The Hallgrímskirkja Motet Choir), 1999; A.C. Classics


Jón Leifs: Saga Symphony (Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä), 1995; BIS Recordings.


Icelandic Flute Music (Martial Nardeau, flutist; Örn Magnússon, pianist), 1995; Iceland Music Information Centre.


Sigurbjörnsson: Portrait (various performers), 1995; Iceland Music Information Centre.


Recommendations for Viewing.

Raddir Íslands/Voices of Iceland (Icelandic Folk Songs and Folk Dances, DVD), 2003; Folk Music Centre in Siglufjörður.


Tears of Stone (Movie on the life of Jón Leifs), 1995; Stjörnubio.


Recommendations for Reading.   Whereas there is a plethora of recordings of Icelandic music, there is precious little printed research on Icelandic music. For a number of years, there were many articles on Icelandic music in the Scandinavian music journal Nordic Sounds, but this publication no longer exists. There are several excellent Masters theses and Doctoral dissertations on the subject of Icelandic music. Also, a very excellent English-language biography on Jón Leifs is forthcoming by Árni Heimir Ingólfsson.


Bergendal, Göran, 1991. New Music in Iceland. Reykjavík, Iceland: Iceland Music Information Centre.


Ingólfsson, Árni Heimir, 2003. These are the Things You Never Forget’: The Written and Oral Traditions of Icelandic Tvísöngur. Ph.D. dissertation. Boston: Harvard University.


Steingrímsson, Hreinn, 2000. Kvæðaskapur: Icelandic Epic Song. Reykjavík, Iceland: Mál og mynd.


Sveinbjörnsson, Bjarki, 1998. Tónlist á Íslandi á 20. öld: Með sérstakri áherslu á upphaf og þróun elektrónískrara tónlistar á árunum 1960-90. Ph.D. dissertation. Aalborg, Denmark: Aalborg University


Taylor, Kristín Jónína, 2006. Northern Lights: Indigenous Icelandic Aspects of Jon Nordal'sPiano Concerto. D.M.A. thesis. Cincinnati, Ohio: University of Cincinnati.


Additionally, anyone interested in Icelandic music is especially encouraged to visit the following web pages for information. Information on Icelandic music. Only in Icelandic. This

is the webpage for the Iceland Music Museum. Has information on old manuscripts and recordings. More information on Icelandic music in English. The webpage for the Iceland Music

Information Centre. Webpage that covers all genres of Icelandic

music. The Icelandic National Radio Broadcasting Service (RÚV)

website. RÚV has a huge library of recordings, interviews, and information that will be of vital importance to those interested in Icelandic music.