Iceland is legendary for its creative approach and rich culture, but it is Icelandic music in particular that continues to capture and hold the world’s attention. We readily associate this northernmost island with Björk and Sigur Ros, but Iceland has a vibrant and deep musical heritage that is very much a part of every day life. Through the ages, the ability to learn and recite a rhythmical stanza has been as much a part of the development of Icelandic children as learning to walk and talk. Historical poems, nursery rhymes and songs would be taught to the little ones as families battened down the hatches and endured those long, dark winter nights. Everyone knew the Icelandic Sagas and epic poetry ‘rímur’ off by heart and could recite them at any given moment.
Yes, when it comes to Iceland’s musical exports, we have to go way back in time and pay homage to the composers of the sagas. Back in the Viking era, it was considered a sport to compose and perform opuses at court festivals – and not only could the creation and recitation of a gripping saga bring you fame and fortune, it could even save your life: Egill’s Saga, for example, tells the tale of warrior and poet Egill Skallagrimsson managed to escape execution by reciting the drápa Head Ransom (Höfuðlausn) in praise of King Erik Bloodaxe of England after having composed it in one night, while in prison. When Egill recited the poem the following morning the king was so pleased with the drápa that he gave his prisoner freedom instead of executing him – although the two noblemen remained enemies for the rest of their lives. Still, the primal power of music, performance and poetry is not to be underestimated…
Icelandic rímur stayed unchanged for more than 500 years, and chain dance songs, ‘Vikivaki’, have been performed in the same way since the 11th Century. Iceland was still relatively isolated in comparison to the rest of Europe, so while European musical instruments and musical styles developed into what we now call classical music, traditional Icelandic music was either sung a-capella or played on primitive instruments. It wasn‘t until the very end of the 18th Century when young Icelandic scholars started to explore European music that music in Iceland started to evolve. But despite the evolution, thanks to that deep-rooted sense of tradition and place, there has always been something different and unique about Icelandic music and musicians - no matter how far they stray. That’s what, in our opinion, makes it rather special…
Want to hear about some Icelandic artists who might not have appeared on IMX, but are no less important pioneers of early Icelandic music export? Here are some of the musicians we would like to tip our hats to for flying the flag and taking Icelandic music beyond their home nation.
The singer Árni Jónsson left Iceland for Copenhagen in the middle of 19th Century to become a music teacher, and pianist Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson (1847-1927), who composed the Icelandic National Anthem in 1874, moved to Edinburgh where he continued to live and breathe music. Later, a number of Icelandic musicians moved to Europe and America before World War I paving the way for others to follow.
Other Icelandic artists who broadened their horizons and lived abroad include stage actor and cabaret singer Bjarni Björnsson (1890-1942), who worked in Denmark, Canada and United States, and opera singer Einar Hjaltested (1893-1961), who had a brief career in New York in the twenties. Opera singers Pétur Á. Jónsson (1884-1956) and Sigurður Skagfield (1895-1956) found acclaim in Germany, as did the composers Þórarinn Jónsson (1900-1974) and Jón Leifs (1900-1967) who stayed on after studying music in Leipzig.
The folk singer Engel Lund (1900-1996) introduced a lot of Icelandic traditional music to the rest of the world, while singers Elsa Sigfúss (1908-1979), Stefán Íslandi (1907-1994) and Hallbjörg Bjarnadóttir (1915-1997) enjoyed long and successful careers in Denmark and Northern Europe. María Markan (1905-1995) was the first Icelandic opera singer to tour Australia and to be signed to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The versatile opera singer Einar Kristjánsson (1910-1966), the grandfather of Einar Örn Benediktsson of Sugarcubes and Ghostigital, enjoyed great success in German and Austrian opera houses in the middle of the 20th Century. Good genes…
Moving forward to the 1950s, the Icelandic dance orchestras K.K. Sextet and Orion Quintet toured Germany and played gigs in Scandinavia, while male singer Haukur Morthens (1924-1992) frequently visited Scandinavia and Germany and his band toured the Soviet Union in early 1960s. Female jazz singer Sigrun Erna Jonsdottir (1930) continued singing after moving to Norway in the early 1960s, and Pétur Island Östlund continues to be a respected jazz drummer and music instructor in Sweden.
Bass player and composer Árni Egilsson had a successful Hollywood session career for year, composer and cello player Hafliði Hallgrímsson (1941) has been in Scotland for decades and opera singer Kristján Jóhannsson was based in Italy for many years, just to name a few of the many Icelandic musicians who have spent most of their time away from Iceland.
In the 1980s, jazz rock band Mezzoforte and alternative rock group The Sugarcubes (featuring Björk) kicked open the door for Icelandic popular music, and in recent years numerous artists ranging from pop to jazz, indie to hardcore rock and classical music have spread their wings and performed all over the world.
So, Icelandic music has been a valuable export for many, many years - and has in its own way had an impact on millions of fans all over the planet. We’re proud to represent Icelandic music and musicians here at IMX, and, if you’re reading this right now, whether you’re a longtime Icelandophile or new to the scene, we’d like to welcome you to a musical world that will always inspire, fascinate and surprise.