In recent years, Jón Leifs (1899-1968) has become recognized as the most important and original composer of Icelandic music in the twentieth century. A controversial figure in his own lifetime, Leifs´s most important contribution to Icelandic music was his attempt to integrate elements of native folk music into the Western art music tradition in which he was trained. Although many Icelandic composers have since followed Leifs´s example by using folk elements in their music, Leifs´s creation of a national style in the early twenties was a radical departure from convention. The small number of native musicians trained in composition in the early years of the century had for the most part neglected folk music as a source for their works, and they treated Leifs´s ideas with skepticism, if not outright scorn. There is, indeed, much that is primitive in Leifs´s music - although there are moments of great expressive beauty in his works, they often have a harsh, rugged, and austere character. In fact, Leifs occasionally attempted to describe in music the severe and often desolate landscape of his native country, including volcanoes, geysers, icebergs, and waterfalls. Jón Leifs was born in Sólheimar in northern Iceland on 1 May 1899, but moved to Reykjavík with his family a year later. As a teenager, he studied piano with local teachers, and performed music by Grieg and Beethoven in public recitals. The mediocre state of Icelandic art music in the early years of the twentieth century can hardly have been encouraging, but Leifs still found himself compelled to become a musician. Having more or less exhausted the limited resources available to him in the capital, Leifs went to Leipzig in the fall of 1916, accompanied by two other Icelandic music students (organist Páll Ísólfsson and composer Sigurður Þórðarsson). Upon his arrival, Leifs was admitted to the Leipzig Conservatory, where he studied piano with Robert Teichmüller, conducting with Hermann Scherchen and Otto Lohse, and composition with Paul Graener and Aladár Szendrei. During his student years Leifs fell in love with a young pianist of Jewish descent, Annie Riethof, and the two were married in June 1921, only days after Leifs graduated from the Conservatory. At this time, Leifs had hopes of making a career as a conductor and pianist, and did not intend to concentrate exclusively on composition. Shortly following his graduation, however, Leifs discovered the possibilities of a native style based on Icelandic folk music, and thus he began his career as a composer in earnest. In Leifs´s earliest folk-inspired music (Four Pieces for Piano op. 2, composed in 1922) the parallel fifths of the Icelandic tvísöngur (a two-part vocal genre) and the metric shifts of rímur (a monophonic genre of secular vocal music) were raised to the status of real compositional material for the first time in the history of Icelandic music. Leifs continued his conducting career in the twenties, and among the ensembles he directed were the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Hamburg Philharmonic. In the summer of 1926, the Hamburg Philharmonic (under Leifs´s direction) toured Norway, Iceland, and the Faraoe Islands, giving Icelanders their first opportunity to hear symphonic music performed in concert. Among the works Leifs introduced to his countrymen during the tour were symphonies and concertos by Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, as well as a large number of smaller pieces. However, composition took up more and more of Leifs´s time, and he felt deeply committed to his project of creating a national style of composition based on Icelandic folk music. In 1925-28, Leifs traveled around the Icelandic countryside collecting what then remained of Icelandic folk music, later using the melodies as the basis for his compositions. Among the works Leifs composed during these years are the Iceland Overture op. 9 (1926), where he weaves together Icelandic folk songs as well as melodies of his own creation, and the Organ Concerto op. 7 (1917-30), a passacaglia that quotes an Icelandic funeral chorale towards the end of the piece. Leifs continued to live in Germany with his wife and two young daughters, where his works were generally well received. His arrangements of folk songs, including the Icelandic Dances op. 11 (1929) and op. 14b (1931) were especially popular, and were widely performed by salon orchestras. In 1933, the Leipzig-based Kistner & Siegel published all of Leifs´s compositions to date, which led to an increasing number of performances for a couple of years. At this time, Leifs immersed himself in Eddic poetry, and in completed the first installment of what would become his largest composition, the three-part Edda-oratorio (The Creation of the World, 1939). Leifs regarded his music as an attempt to revive Nordic culture, which he felt had been suppressed ever since Iceland lost its independence to Norway in 1262. Not surprisingly, Leifs often turned to Old Icelandic literature for texts and programs to his works. Apart from the Edda-oratorios, other works based on Eddic poetry include Guðrúnarkviða (The Lay of Guðrún, 1940), Baldr, a "choreographic drama" completed in 1947, Helga kviða Hundingsbana (The Lay of Helgi Hundingsbani, 1964) and Grógaldr (1965). Leifs´s native style of composition, as well as his ideas of a "Nordic renaissance", was often well received by Nazi ideologues during the early years of the Third Reich.. Among the orchestras who performed Leifs´s music during the early Nazi period was the Berlin Philharmonic, which gave a concert in 1936 devoted entirely to the music of Leifs and Wagner. Leifs was also a member of the Ständiger Rat für die internationale Zusammenarbeit der Komponisten, a group formed in 1934 under the leadership of Richard Strauss, with support from the Nazi authorities. As the decade drew to a close, however, Leifs´s career in Germany came to a grinding halt, not least due to the Jewish origins of his wife. In March 1941 the Berlin Philharmonic again performed a work by Leifs, his Organ Concerto op. 7. This time, the audience responded by leaving the hall during the performance, while critics used every opportunity to ridicule both the composer and his works. Leifs spent the following years working in isolation, without hearing any of his music performed. Among the works composed during this time is the Saga Symphony op. 26 (1941-42), which describes five characters from the Icelandic sagas in an attempt to correct the misappropriation of Nordic culture during the Nazi period. Leifs, along with his wife and daughters, finally managed to leave Germany for Sweden in February 1944. Shortly thereafter, Leifs and his wife were divorced, and he returned to Iceland in the summer of 1945. Having returned to his native country, Leifs began working on behalf of various associations of artists, both local and international. Leifs already had some experience in such matters: he had been one of the founders of the Association of Icelandic Artists in 1928, and only days after his return to Iceland in 1945 he took part in founding the Icelandic Composer´s Union. Leifs also helped enforce laws regarding performing rights on behalf of STEF (the Icelandic Performing Rights Association), founded in 1948. In general, Icelanders greeted the idea of performing rights with skepticism; ironically, it was not least for his aggressive methods for collecting fees for STEF (rather than for his compositions) that Leifs became a controversial figure in Iceland during his later years. After his return to Iceland, Leifs´s private life was beset by crises and traumatic events.On 12 July 1947 his younger daughter, Líf, drowned at age 17 while swimming off the coast of Sweden. Shattered by her death, Leifs composed four works in her memory, which include some of his most emotionally powerful music: Torrek op. 33a for voice and piano, Requiem op. 33b for mixed chorus, Elegies - In Memoriam op. 35 (all composed 1947), and the string quartet Vita et Mors op. 36 (1948-51). Leifs married for the second time in 1950, but his marriage to Swedish hotel-owner Althea Heinz was an unhappy one and they were divorced in 1956. During the early fifties, Leifs also spent much time trying to refute accusations that he had cooperated with the Nazis during his years in Germany, to the point where it almost became an obsession. As if these personal setbacks were not enough, Leifs´s works were received with indignation and ridicule during this period (including the Saga-symphony in 1950 and movements from Edda I in 1952). Thus it is hardly surprising that Leifs´s creativity diminished rapidly as a result: in the years 1950-55 he completed only two new works. Only after his third and final marriage to Thorbjörg Möller in 1956 did Leifs return to his earlier rate of artistic production. In this, his last "period" of composition, Leifs´s style underwent several important changes: his rhythms are even more rigorous than before, his harmonic progressions less varied, and motivic development in any traditional sense is hardly to be found. Among Leifs´s works from this last compositional period are Three Abstract Paintings op. 44 (1960), Geysir op. 51 and Hekla op. 62 (both 1961), and the string quartet El Greco op. 64 (1965). During these years, Leifs also returned to the second Edda-oratorio (The Life of the Gods), which he completed in May 1966. He immediately began the third installment of the cycle (Edda III - The Twilight of the Gods), but the work was left unfinished at his death. Jón Leifs died in Reykjavík on 30 July 1968. More than a decade was to pass from Leifs´s death until the gradual re-awakening of interest in his music. During his lifetime, as new generations of Icelandic composers slowly began their exploration of twentieth-century idioms, Leifs had been regarded as the main representative of "avant-garde" composition in Iceland. In fact, there is little in Leifs´s music that is radical (except perhaps the large number of percussion instruments required for some of his orchestral works), and one might better label his music as an attempt towards a "national primitivism". But the impression remained of music that was supposedly impossible to perform and all but enjoyable to listen to, and Leifs´s works were rarely performed in the years following his death. The notable exceptions to this were few indeed: the Hamrahlíð Choir performed the Requiem at the opening of the Reykjavík ISCM-festival in 1973, and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra performed a cut version of the Saga Symphony at the Reykjavík Arts Festival in 1976, a performance that was subsequently recorded. Not until Hjálmar H. Ragnarsson´s M.F.A. thesis from Cornell University in 1980, however, was Leifs´s music approached from an historical/analytical perspective, opening up a wider range of dialogue about the composer and his music. Other milestones in the reception of Leifs´s music included a 90th anniversary concert by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in 1989, conducted by American violinist-conductor Paul Zukofsky, who also premiered Baldr op. 34 with the Icelandic Youth Symphony Orchestra in 1991. Another scholar, the Swedish Carl-Gunnar Åhlén, also began looking into Leifs´s career (particularly his years in Germany and Sweden), and his article in the Swedish journal Tonfallet in 1989 became the basis for much future work on Leifs. However, it was only with Hilmar Oddson´s motion picture Tears of Stone (1995), that Leifs´s life and work were made accessible to a larger audience. In the movie, the traditional view of Leifs as a temperamental rebel was somewhat softened (or at least re-interpreted in a more favorable light), and audiences gradually discovered the captivating force of his musical style. Tears of Stone quite literally turned Leifs into a household name in Iceland, and it remains perhaps the single most important contribution to the recent reception of Leifs´s music. Today, Leifs´s music is performed more frequently than ever before, and his international reputation is growing quickly. With an ever-increasing number of his music available on CD (including a commitment by the Swedish record label BIS to record all of his works), an overall view of Leifs´s music is gradually becoming possible. With the donation by Leifs´s widow of the complete manuscripts, sketches, letters, and notebooks to the National/University Library in Reykjavík, much new material is becoming available that will eventually lead to a better understanding of Leifs´s biography as well as his musical style. The Iceland Music Information Center plans to publish all of Leifs´s music in reliable editions (replacing the often illegible photocopies of his manuscripts). Ultimately, it is this effort which will yield the greatest musical results. Several of Leifs´s compositions, including his most important ones (the three Edda-oratorios) have yet to be performed, although plans are currently underway for a full production of Baldr in 2000, and Edda I in 2001. With the cornerstones of Leifs´s output still unperformed, his importance in Icelandic (and European) music remains difficult to assess. But if his other pieces are anything to judge by, perhaps the greatest Icelandic music of the twentieth century still remains to be discovered.
Árni Heimir Ingólfsson