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Jón Leifs and the Musical Invention of Iceland
by Árni Heimir Ingólfsson
publ. 2019
Indiana University Press

Any publication about Jón Leifs is welcome, so it is encouraging to read a biography by an author as well qualified as Ingólfsson. It is Ingólfsson who supplied many of the liner notes in the series of BIS CDs and SACDs that have done so much to allow us to hear this unique music. He is a recognised academic and an established musicologist who has dedicated many years to researching Leifs. The extent of that research is evidenced by the huge number of endnotes and references in the present volume. What is much rarer is to find someone who can not only research but can also write well. Árni is the man, one might say, and he certainly gets my thanks for this endlessly interesting study. Everyone from the expert to the general music lover will be able to enjoy this. There are plenty of pictures and music illustrations and the technical explanations of the works, some quite extensive, are mostly easy enough to follow even if, like me, you can’t read music. If you have some Leifs on CD from which to play pieces as they come up in the narrative so much the better. I would expect most readers to be ordering more CDs as they read. This English version of the book is adapted, as well as translated from the Icelandic original, Jón Leifs – Líf í tónum, which was published in 2009. He explains in the acknowledgements the extent and reasons for the reworkings.

Leifs’ is not a life easy to summarise because it was so complex both personally and musically, so Ingólfsson, whilst telling the story mostly chronologically, does not hesitate to jump ahead if the discussion requires it, but he always returns to continue the account so the reader does not lose the thread. Occasionally, as in a chapter on Icelandic Style, he breaks off to explain important issues in more detail. For me this never damaged the flow of an absorbing narrative. Doubtless it helped that I have all the BIS issues in my collection and have been collecting his music since the days of vinyl, also I did an extensive touring holiday in Iceland and could relate to that aspect. A lot of the composer’s life was lived in Germany, resulting in significant problems with his reputation, at the time and since, for being uncomfortably willing to compromise with the Nazi regime. The details Ingólfsson gives of that matter go a long way to explain why he allowed such apparent ‘collaboration’ to take place. What comes over is a rather toxic mixture of egoism, abrasiveness and political naivety in Leifs’ makeup. He is not the only composer to have been dogged by such links, one thinks most famously of Richard Strauss, but also Carl Orff and Henk Badings, both of whom are still tainted for their actions to the detriment of their musical acceptance. In Leifs’ case his music is often as abrasive as his personality, to the extent that his name does not even appear in that old standby, the Penguin Guide to Classical Music on Record.

Given the almost total lack of familiarity with the composer and his music some sort of summary of his life, derived of course from Ingólfsson’s book, would seem useful, particularly to help readers decide if they wish to purchase a three-hundred plus page tome.

Ingólfsson starts with a brief look at Iceland and at Leifs himself and his status. He provides some brief comparisons with other composers also trying to establish a national music. The small sections on Icelandic alphabets and pronunciation, and the derivations of names, are both necessary and interesting for what follows. In a chapter entitled The Land without Music he considers Iceland’s paucity of musical culture prior to the 20th century. Thus the account of how he came to ‘classical’ music in a country almost free of it makes for interesting reading.

Coming from a comparatively affluent family Leifs was able to move to Leipzig to study. He proved to be rather an average student but did get a chance to hear more mainstream European music. The course proved more costly that his parents expected and he was constantly just getting by. He met and fell in love with Annie Riethof a fellow piano student. His health, never very good, caused him to miss well over a year of study. He became quite seriously ill on more than one occasion and ended up graduating nearly two years later than Annie. Some of his earliest compositions date from this period – ones that will only be known to those who have collected the later volumes in the complete BIS series of CDs like the Trilogica piccola. He had hoped to marry Annie in 1920 but her parents insisted she waited until he had finished his studies. He wrote articles for Icelandic journals about events in the German music scene including for example Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten. As it became obvious that his skill as a pianist was never going to suffice to be a soloist he started to investigate conducting as a means to establish himself. He only managed some conducting experience when his parents were able to foot the bills for hiring orchestras for him to practice the art. He married Annie in 1921 and they travelled to Iceland for their honeymoon. This proved to be a challenging working honeymoon because Leifs used his time trying to build orchestral groups and training for local musicians. His abrasive personality made this difficult and he made more enemies than friends through this endeavour. By the time he left Iceland to return to Leipzig he had decided that he must somehow use Icelandic folk music in his own compositions. He arrived back in Leipzig in October 1921 aiming to be a successful conductor and composer.

Whilst back in Germany he continued to organize visits to Iceland by German musicians who would continue the business of improving the national level of music-making. His own progress towards recognition in Germany continued to be halting. He frequently moved home to new areas in pursuit of both peace and quiet to compose and hoping to make useful contacts. Too often his critical reception as a musician was either muted or hostile but there were some moderate successes as a conductor. In 1923 Annie gave birth to their daughter Snót. Leifs continued to make a small amount of money from writing but continued composing. He was still unsure of his career path and applied for jobs in small opera houses without success, his knowledge of the operatic repertoire being only too obviously lacking. In 1925 he set out on more folk-song collecting back in Iceland and if the efforts were a mixed success they did provide him with material for his own compositions. Back in Iceland he did begin to gain more attention as a national composer. In 1926 he worked for some time to get a small amateur German orchestra together for an intended ground-breaking tour of Iceland. His efforts were unexpectedly overshadowed by some members of the Hamburg Philharmonic deciding to make such a visit with Leifs as their conductor. They agreed to take some of his music into their touring repertoire alongside Mozart and Beethoven. In May and June 1926 this group gave multiple performances, mostly around Reykjavík, the quality of which astonished the local worthies who attended. The orchestra, one of the best in Germany, was much praised; their conductor Leifs, less so. After the Hamburg orchestra returned to Germany Leifs stayed on and launched into another round of folk song collecting this time with a cylinder recorder. When he did return to Germany he discovered that his conducting role in Iceland had not improved his reputation so he went back to travelling around touting for work. His second daughter Líf was born in 1929. The decade saw Leifs moving towards his mature style as a composer but did little to provide financial or career stability. To a large extent this was due to his own difficult personality and an unfortunate ability to make more enemies than friends. Alongside that, his music was not very approachable and really did not fit in to any established “school” of composition.

Ingólfsson pauses his biographical account at this point to expand on the roots of the composer’s aesthetic outlook in nationalism, in the medieval literature of the Eddas and Skaldic poetry, in Iceland’s landscape and Icelandic folk music. His nationalism drove not only his politics but also his wish to see the Nordic culture of his homeland recognised as a distinctive and important element within the larger aims of Scandinavian and Germanic countries. Ingólfsson gives an essential summary of the key facts about the Prose and Poetic Eddas as well as defining Skaldic verse. If nothing else, this makes clear the gulf between the Wagnerian view of the Norse legends and Leifs’ own. Those who have visited Iceland as tourists will already know that the landscape is utterly unique: it was not for nothing that NASA used some central areas of the island to practice for the Apollo moon landing missions! The series of nature pieces Leifs composed are very much a product of this forbidding terrain. Leifs is very much a 20th century composer and the consideration of how his highly original sound fitted in, or perhaps did not fit in, with the music of his contemporaries is very thought provoking.

Leifs’ contribution to the Alþing festival, celebrating 1000 years of the Icelandic parliament, was his Iceland Cantata. Unlike most of his music this gained many performances over his lifetime. The festival was a significant opportunity to promote Icelandic culture in all its aspects and Leifs was very keen to be involved and if possible to take the leading role he felt was his due. Typically he managed to fall out with the most important people and in the end his cantata was not performed because it wasn’t ready. His grandiose ideas, like getting the Vienna Philharmonic to perform Beethoven’s 9th in Reykjavik, unsurprisingly did not attract support. The Iceland Cantata was first performed in Germany, though without the irascible composer’s presence because, yet again, he fell out with some of the organisers! One must be impressed by his ability to just carry on regardless; thick skinned is a description made for Leifs. His next published composition, the Organ Concerto, was much more challenging for performers and listeners than the Iceland Cantata. It was during the preparations for the concerto’s first performance that Leifs received some encouragement from no less a figure than Wilhelm Furtwängler who expressed interest in his music generally and who hoped to give the premiere. For various reasons, none of them Leifs’ fault for a change, this did not happen. The period up to 1933 saw the composer gaining some status and with a publisher showing interest it looked as though he might at last gain proper acceptance. He and Annie settled near Potsdam and Leifs himself then set off for Reykjavik to seek funds for publication. Whilst he was away the Reichstag fire took place and the Nazi’s gained a parliamentary majority, so when he returned it was to a very different Germany.

Ingólfsson does his best to clarify the ways in which Leifs managed to function as a Nordic foreigner under Nazi rule. His fervent and much publicised belief in the supremacy of Nordic music and the brotherhood between German and Scandinavian artists of all sorts was very much in his favour. Whilst he did not entirely agree with the Nazi view of all this, he was not sufficiently different in outlook to cause an issue for the new authorities who were mainly aiming to supress foreign – i.e. non-Nordic - influence. The fact that he had a Jewish wife was initially something that could be kept out of the public eye. Annie was a fully assimilated German Jew and had never viewed her heritage as important. As Leifs’ wife she was of course also a long time Icelandic passport holder. Leifs was interested in the “northern-southern dichotomy” that he has written about in the early 1920s and the ideas of racism, which so exercised Nazi supporters, were entirely outside his thinking. He was, as he said himself an “amateur in race studies”. The consequences for Leifs the composer was that his music was actively encouraged by increased National Socialist support for all things Scandinavian to fill the gap left in German musical life by the gradual removal of “southern” composers. Sibelius too gained status for the same reason.

Despite Leifs acceptance by and of the Nazi regime his final period in Germany was one of increasing gloom about politics and his personal life. His marriage to Annie was in a terminal state, as usual not helped by the composer’s own difficult personality and a tendency to blame everyone except himself. There were performances of his music from time to time but things came to a head with the infamous 1941 performance of the Organ Concerto in Berlin, by no means the first performance, where almost the entire audience left. According to reports just 20 remained to applaud. It was described as a “well organised execution” of his reputation. He was simply too modern for the authorities. Nonetheless he stayed for another three years and completed his first Edda oratorio and the famous Saga Symphony before leaving for Sweden in 1944 where he stayed till the war ended.

Whilst in Sweden he worked on his choreographic drama Baldr, a large work which contains the first hints of the Icelandic four important landscape depictions, Geysir, Hekla, Dettifoss and Hafís which were to be composed in the early 1960s. He returned to Iceland in mid-1945 and even on this voyage managed to be so objectionable to the crew that he was confined to his cabin, only being released to see his homeland looming into view as the journey ended. He fully expected to be greeted with open arms by his countrymen, which he was not. With his marriage close to complete failure, he and Annie divorced in 1946, he embarked on a mostly long-distance affair with Thea Heintz a Swedish woman. He ultimately married her in 1950 but the relationship was doomed from the start and they parted in 1956. Ingólfsson describes Thea as a “reluctant muse” since whilst she did offer some personal stability to the composer she had none of Annie’s willingness to sacrifice herself to his career. The key and tragic event of this period was the death by drowning of his daughter Líf. Though he never had a smooth or close relationship with her, Líf’s death was an emotional hammer blow. He composed several works in her memory, appears to have been overwhelmed by guilt and never to have come to terms with it.

Leifs’ final years were a period “of relative peace and stability”. It was certainly a productive time seeing the composition of all four of his landscape works for very large orchestra, the completion of Edda II and a large part of Edda III. He married a third time and this union produced his son Leifur. The word “peaceful” is not appropriate for any part of Leifs’ life and he still managed to fall out with people with enough frequency to maintain his reputation for being difficult. (Though Ingólfsson never says as much, it is difficult to avoid the belief that nowadays Leifs would have been diagnosed with some sort of behavioural disorder.) Until his death in 1968 he never shook off the accusation of Nazi collaboration.

In closing his study Ingólfsson pays tribute to the people who have been responsible for keeping the flag flying, particularly Robert von Bahr of BIS Records without whose efforts to record Leifs’ entire output, published and unpublished, we would all have remained largely ignorant of his remarkable music. No Icelandic composers can be said to have followed in his footsteps but they do often utilise the Icelandic folk music styles that he spent a lifetime using and disseminating.

As noted at the start of this review, this book has to be important because there is so little else published on Jón Leifs. We are fortunate that it is such an interesting as well as informative one. Certainly I shall return to it often as a companion to many more hours listening to the music of this remarkable Icelander.

Dave Billinge

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