With its stark, craggy blocks of sound and archaic, austere harmonies, the music of Jón Leifs vividly evokes the foreboding landscapes of his native Iceland – terrains that to the imaginative eye seem to belong to the mythical prehistory of gods and heroes. It’s quite apt, then, that the composer himself drew on this mythical past in his works, looking to the Eddas – medieval texts detailing old Norse legends and cosmology – for inspiration. This obsession resulted in a plan for a series of oratorios – works so ambitious and monolithic that from the idea’s inception in the late 1920s to the composer’s death in 1968, only two of the four planned parts were completed. And until a 2006 première of Edda I: The Creation of the World, neither of these had been performed in full. Now, to coincide with Iceland’s celebrations for 100 years of national sovereignty, Iceland Symphony Orchestra are set to unleash the unwieldy beast of Edda II: The Lives of the Gods upon the world.

Jón Leifs © Iceland Symphony Orchestra
Jón Leifs
© Iceland Symphony Orchestra

As was the case with Sibelius’ fascination with the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, Leifs’ use of Eddic sources was of a nationalist imperative. “Iceland was still a Danish colony when he was born… So he was very much caught up with the nationalist fervour”, says Árni Heimir Ingólfsson, Iceland Symphony’s Artistic Advisor who literally wrote the book on Leifs. Symbolic of this struggle for cultural self-determination was the fact that the manuscripts for the two pillars of Eddic literature – Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda of around 1220 and the slightly later Poetic Edda – had for many years been held in the Royal Library of Denmark. It wasn’t only Denmark from which Leifs wanted to reclaim Iceland’s Eddic treasures. Richard Wagner famously drew on the literature for his Ring cycle, and while he was undoubtedly an influence on Leifs, the Icelandic composer took issue with the way he had seemingly pillaged these sources to create a sentimentalised, romantic view of Icelandic mythology, writing that his Edda series was to be “a protest against Wagner, who misunderstood so terribly the Nordic character and Nordic artistic heritage.” “Leifs was very preoccupied with ideas of northern music and southern music,” says Ingólfsson. “Northern music was this rough, energetic thing. Southern music was softer, weaker, more feminine I guess. He felt that Wagner had succumbed to the southern influence.” This kind of essentialism has often been aligned with rightwing politics. So was Leifs a political conservative? “You can rather call it national conservatism,” counters Ingólfsson. “So much of his career abroad is spent demonstrating to the world Iceland’s great medieval heritage, which he felt would justify Iceland’s political independence.”

Indeed, it seems that Leifs’ time in Germany, where he went to study in 1916 and stayed for the best part of two decades, only strengthened his resolve to give a musical voice to his home country’s heritage. His preoccupation with Nordic culture initially stood him in good stead with the the German establishment – that is, until conservative critics actually heard his anachronistic music. What’s more, his marriage to a Jewish woman put him under suspicion from the authorities. Against this backdrop of conflict, Leifs conceived of a work to be based on the Völuspá – the first section of the Poetic Edda that deals with Norse cosmology from the creation of the world through to its destruction and eventual rebirth. By 1930, however, this idea had snowballed to a large piece in four movements. And, inevitably, this conception expanded again to accommodate four large oratorios for orchestra, choir and soloists. Leifs’ research went deep, creating what Ingólfsson calls a “collage of texts” including the Prose and Poetic Eddas as well as other sources such as the Heimskringla. And, unlike Wagner, Leifs lifted the lyrical material directly from the texts. Perhaps unsurprisingly due to the sheer scope of the project, it was years before Leifs was able to finish the libretto and write a single note of music.

Árni Heimir Ingólfsson © Iceland Symphony Orchestra
Árni Heimir Ingólfsson
© Iceland Symphony Orchestra

In 1939, Edda I was finally completed, but a series of career setbacks and personal tragedies hampered further progress. After finally being allowed by the authorities to leave Germany in 1944, Leifs and his wife divorced, and three years later their daughter died in a swimming accident. In the early 1950s, moreover, premieres of his Edda-influenced Saga Symphony and selected movements from Edda I received damning reviews. So why were contemporary appraisals of Leifs’ music so hostile? Aside from the fact that Leifs was struggling to combat accusations of Nazi collaboration from his time in Germany, Ingólfsson believes it had a lot to do with the composer’s folk-influenced, nationalist style in an age of pan-European experimentation and serialism. “By the early 1930s he’d distilled elements of the folk style into his unique personal language,” he says. Folk music was a part of Leifs’ makeup from the very beginning. He spent years in the 1920s recording folk songs around Iceland, and his very first activities as a composer were to create folksong arrangements for piano. By the time he was composing the Edda series, however, Leifs had ceased to quote specific folk melodies, instead subsuming elements such as the parallel fifth – “the fifth being the most primal interval”, says Ingólfsson – and changing metres. Consequently the music of the Edda I feels almost elemental. As Ingólfsson asserts: “It gives it very much the sense of primitivism and medievalism, but also, if you want to think of his music in terms of landscape, of a very wide vista, of expanse opening up.” Leifs finished Edda II in 1966 and immediately fell to work on Edda III: Twilight of the Gods. Dealing with the apocalyptic showdown of Ragnarök, Leifs planned it to be a work of huge forces, with groups of instruments placed all around the concert hall. “Leifs was very drawn to the catastrophic, like volcanoes erupting and earthquakes,” says Ingólfsson. “So it suited him really well to be describing the end of the world.” The composer’s greatest fear was to die before he achieved his life’s work, and this sadly happened in 1968 when he passed away, leaving only 20 minutes of Edda III complete. Ingólfsson hopes, however, that this fragment will also see the light of day.  

So why has it taken so long since the composer’s death for the existing Edda works to be performed? It seems like he was simply forgotten by the musical establishment for at least two decades, and Ingólfsson surmises that politics might have been at play in this forgetting: “It just needed the perspective of a new generation who didn’t know him personally and wasn’t too upset by his crazy antics and abrasive personality, and who saw the music for what it was.” Aside from rumours about his time in Germany, there were other reasons why he was a controversial figure on the Icelandic music scene. In 1948 he set up STEF, the Performing Rights Society of Iceland, with the aim of winning better rights for composers. This notion, according to Ingólfsson, “was completely unknown. People thought it was a ridiculous idea for composers to get royalties for their work. He put himself at the forefront of some very difficult battles in terms of Icelandic society.” But there was a sense that Leifs’ aversion to the establishment went deeper than policy-making. “He made a lot of enemies,” says Ingólfsson. “He wanted to cultivate the image of the composer facing adversity. That appealed to him in some strange way and I think he didn’t want to be appreciated during his lifetime.”

Iceland Symphony Orchestra © Hunter Lawrence
Iceland Symphony Orchestra
© Hunter Lawrence

Leifs certainly seems to have gotten his wish of being underappreciated in his lifetime, and the upcoming première of Edda II may well add the stamp of posthumous recognition to that romantic image. Ingólfsson says that audiences can expect something very different from Edda I: “In the 1930s his style was still developing and there are still remnants of, let’s say, counterpoint in his music… He does away with all that in Edda II. It’s very typical rough, mature Leifs style.” While part II leaves out some of the exotic instrumentation of part I, such as the bagpipes and ocarina, it does include one particularly ancient instrument: the s-shaped horn known as the lur. Though of a different kind to the lurs mentioned in the Icelandic sagas, they nevertheless lend an archaic, almost alarming sound to Edda I, and they will feature more prominently in Edda II. “With the symphony orchestra being so much a 19th-century beast, as soon as you have a lur you’re transported much further back in time,” says Ingólfsson. “But the way he uses them, our horn players aren’t very happy.” As well as navigating the unplayable notes that Leifs stipulates for the lurs, the difficulty of the choral writing has also meant that Edda II has been a difficult beast to tame. “It’s virtually unsingable in parts, so that it took so long for a choir to say, ‘We’re psychologically ready to do this.’” But for an acolyte like Ingólfsson, this refusal to cohere with accepted practices is precisely what makes Leifs relevant to a modern audience. “It’s refreshing to have a composer who is so completely uncompromising,” he says. “Within five seconds of hearing a Leifs piece you know that it can’t be anyone else. Love him or hate him, he’s a composer who is endlessly fascinating.”


This article was sponsored by Iceland Symphony Orchestra.