Friday, January 28, 2011

The Ogress of War: Leifs' "Saga Symphony"

There is to Jón Leifs' music a ruggedness, sometimes verging on brutality, impossible not to link with the scarred and hostile land the composer called home: Iceland. Virtually his entire oeuvre is inspired directly or indirectly by his homeland -- not uncommon for composers from historically "unheard" nations but rarely to the degree Leifs strove for. His most representative works are the orchestral pictures of famous Icelandic geological highlights: Detifoss (Europe's largest waterfall), Geysir (the eponymous spouting hot spring), Hafís (drift ice), and Hekla (a volcano that makes Eyafjallajökull look like a puffy pastry). Hekla has the oft-touted distinction of being the "loudest piece of classical music ever written," which you can judge for yourself with this youtube link.[1]

Leifs (1899 - 1968) was the first and probably still most prominent of professional Icelandic composers. Prominent - but not exactly the founder of a national school in the same manner as Bartok or Sibelius. For his style was so idiosyncratic as to border on inimitable, and many of his pieces were so gargantuan that performance venues in Iceland's nascent classical performance scene were out of the question, leaving his largest works unrecorded, and in some cases unperformed in his lifetime. Corrected now by the labels BIS's diligent release of his catalog and performance by the world-class Iceland Symphony Orchestra, the majority of Leifs' music can now be heard in all its tectonic glory (excerpts here from Osmo Vanska's conducting).

The largest work purely for orchestra he wrote, the Saga Symphony Op. 26 (1942) is one of Leifs' many pieces inspired by Icelandic lore. It was written while he was living precariously in Nazi Germany with his Jewish wife and children, but was not performed until 1950, six years after the Leifs were lucky enough to flee. Leifs enjoyed some initial success in Nazi musical culture, perhaps unsurprising given the shared bent for monumentality and Nordic hero valorization. However, his favor dried up, due in part to his Jewish ties, but also from suffocating distaste for modernism in fascist Germany.[2]

The Sagas of the Icelanders are a collection of prose accounts of prominent families - their battles, feuds, climbs and descents from power -- mostly written in the 12th century and recounting events of the 10th and 11th, during the earlier days of Viking settlement of Iceland. Taking a cue from Liszt's Faust Symphony (the first, and from his account revelatory, orchestral work he heard live), Leifs casts each of the Saga Symphony's five movements as a character portrait. As in the Faust Symphony, Leifs' movements distill personality traits more than they track specific narrative developments. In fact, symphonic development is also downplayed (which is not the case in Liszt) in favor of great floes of harmonically static material. This is not to say uneventful, however!

The first movement, which depicts the personality of the warrior Skarphedinn, gives a good idea of Leifs' musical tendencies. Skarphedinn is a hot-headed and acid-tongued hero from Njál's saga, the kind of personage who never makes a threat he can't back up with deadly force. Leifs' portraiture renders this propensity for violence with shocking orchestral hacks and hews, as if the conductor's baton were replaced by Skarphedinn's neck-seeking axe, daintily named "the ogress of war." Here is a representative passage from the middle of the long (16:30 minute) movement, including some marginally varied material from the symphony's first pages.

What stands out is the propensity for tutti thwacks from the orchestra, heard routinely but with high metrical unpredictability. This is an outgrowth of Leifs' lifelong interest, both compositionally and ethnomusicologically, with a style of Icelandic folksong called rímur, which is heavily and complexly accented. The irregular accenting can be heard in Leifs' earlier, directly rímur-inspired  Icelandic Folk Dances (op. 11). But in his mature style these have been thoroughly internalized, even "abstracted," so that they serve here as a kind of percussive manifestation of Skarphedinn's ferocity. In fact, having such  long passages of relative silence interspersed by unheralded orchestral blasts makes for an oddly flat affect, despite the violence; this is what you get with accents without a determinable tactus. Yet it also seems apposite to Skarphedinn's portrayal, who like many of the Saga characters, is psychologically opaque by today's literary standards. (Interestingly, Leifs suggested this movement came closest to being a self portrait. Yikes.)

The next movement portrays Gudrun Osvifrsdottir, of the sprawling Saga of the Laxardals. In a literary culture full of strong-willed women, she is perhaps the most powerful and complex, at turns blood-thirsty and pious, and a fount of snappy one-liners. Leifs begins her portrait with quieter hues, suggesting this will serve formally as the work's slow movement. But while more graceful in places than other movements, Gudrun's characterization is no shrinking adagio. The 
rímur-beats are still palpable, along with other bold techniques in Leifs' arsenal: block-chord progressions by thirds and (especially) tritones; massed octave melodies; and an emphasis on perfect fifths derived from another Icelandic tradition, two-part songs known as tvísöngur. While Leifs' neo-primitive idiom is often labelled as being predominantly homophonic and counterpoint-averse, there is actually a fair amount of contrapuntal layering happening here. Though more often than not it's interrupted by some accent-eruption or the like. Here is a passage, again from the middle of movement, showing Gudrun's commanding disposition.

The following three movements use similar techniques in evoking their respective characters. The third is most scherzo-like, portraying the comic braggart Björn who shows up towards the end of Njal's saga. This is the most whole-tone scale heavy movement (which in one motivic form offers a slight - very slight - aspect of cyclicality to the symphony). One can hear Björn here as he and his vengeance party travels through the Orkneys and Wales, making short work of those who stand in their way.

The next movement captures the anti-hero Grettir and his confrontation with the revenant Glamr, whom he bests in combat (only to succumb to Glamr's malediction to be an outlaw for his whole life). The movement is the spookiest of the lot, with extremely long passages of a sustained pitch (D) interrupted by increasingly frequent percussive jolts of terror.  
The final movement takes on Tormod Kolbrunarskald of the Foster Brother's Saga. Tormod is the image of the classic warrior poet; mortally wounded in battle, he has the gumption to yank the killing arrow from his heart and compose a lovely poem before expiring. Leifs lends him the most orchestrally swollen treatment -- in addition to a truly gigantic percussion arsenal (which, among other things hosts three differently tuned anvils, two differently sized stones, whip (!), and three shields of iron, leather, and wood), Leifs calls for six Bronze Age (and thus anachronistic) horns! Heed, then, the call of the Viking horn! (just try not to go deaf or induce palpitations in the process!)

--Frank Lehman
[1]: Just so that you don't think it's all eruptions, here is a bit of Leifs at his most austerely beautiful.
 And in case you thought there might be a connection in manner and subject-matter with another Nordic-preoccupied composer, Leifs loathed Wagner's influence and attested that much of his music was "a protest against Wagner, who had misunderstood the essence and artistic tradition of the North in such a detestable manner."Quoted in Bergendal, New Music in Iceland (1987, 47).


  1. Thanks for introducing me to this guy. This is just a quick note, and I may be totally misguided here, I was looking to see if there was any connection between Leif's music and Iceland's greatest living musician, Bjork, and I found this:

    One of the comments says it's by Leifs, though I would bet it's something he recorded as part of his ethnomusicological investigations you pointed out.

  2. I have had this one in CD (BIS) since the mid nineties or so. Stunningly original music.