Jón Leifs and the Musical Invention of Iceland

Jón Leifs and the Musical Invention of Iceland

Árni Heimir Ingólfsson
Distribution: Global
Publication date: 09/27/2019
Format: Paperback 18 music exx., 37 b&w illus.
ISBN: 978-0-253-04405-1
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In Jón Leifs and the Musical Invention of Iceland, Árni Heimir Ingólfsson provides a striking account of the dramatic career of Iceland's iconic composer. Leifs (1899–1968) was the first Icelander to devote himself fully to composition at a time when a local music scene was only beginning to take form. He was a fervent nationalist in his art, fashioning an idiosyncratic and uncompromising 'Icelandic' sound from traditions of vernacular music with the aim to legitimize Iceland as an independent, culturally empowered nation.

In addition to exploring Leifs's career, Ingólfsson provides detailed descriptions of Leifs's major works and their cultural contexts. Leifs's music was inspired by the Icelandic landscape and includes auditory depictions of volcanos, geysers, and waterfalls. The raw quality of his orchestral music is frequently enhanced by an expansive percussion section, including anvils, stones, sirens, bells, ships' chains, shotguns, and cannons.

Largely neglected in his own lifetime, Leifs's music has been rediscovered in recent years and hailed as a singular and deeply original contribution to twentieth-century music. Jón Leifs and the Musical Invention of Iceland enriches our understanding and appreciation of Leifs and his music by exploring the political, literary and environmental contexts that influenced his work.

Author Bio

Árni Heimir Ingólfsson is Artistic Advisor of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and Visiting Professor at the Iceland Academy of the Arts. He is the author of Jón Leifs—Líf í tónum, which was nominated for the Icelandic Book Award.



Composers of fearsome originality seldom have an easy path in the world. Jón Leifs, who translated the landscapes and legends of Iceland into sound, comes vividly to life in this brilliant, panoramic biography, his myriad personal and political conflicts delineated with clarity and candor. A major twentieth-century figure at last receives his due.


Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker and author of The Rest Is Noise


Árni Heimir Ingólfsson's Jón Leifs and the Musical Invention of Iceland is a book with three parallel stories, expertly told: a nuanced and detailed look into the life of a composer, the development of Iceland's musical identity through the 20th century — from a 19th century frugality towards its modern rich reputation; and, perhaps most interestingly, the way in which Iceland's relationship to Europe and the world is connected in subtle ways both political and cultural. Árni Heimir takes an unflinching look at Leifs' relationship to the Nazis, not just through the traditional stereotypes of Nordic ethno/artistic unity, but through a more subcutaneous network of German composers, Nazi cultural ministers, and music critics.  Árni Heimir is equally comfortable discussing the minute musical details of Leifs' visionary cantatas and pantomimes as he is teasing out, through letters and diaries the composer's emotional development.


Nico Muhly, Composer


Jón Leifs was the first major Icelandic composer and it is insane that most of his pieces were not performed or recorded until recently. His works were almost just a myth to us Icelanders and therefore this book is so magnificently important. He pioneered in notating glaciers and orchestrating eruptions, sometimes masterpieces (sometimes not), but he had the courage to embrace the cliché and show us the way. This book is incredibly well written and Árni Heimir's analysis of the music is deeply satisfying. I listened to each work as it was being discussed, which turned the experience from black and white to color! An extraordinary achievement!


Björk, singer/songwriter


At last, a thorough account in English of Iceland's foremost composer. Jón Leifs and the Musical Invention of Iceland expertly teases out the roots of Leifs's music in Iceland's folk traditions, her awe-inspiring landscape and an idiosyncratic, mid-twentieth-century European modernism. Ingólfsson's account of the composer's tortured life, his controversial politics and the uneasy reception of his music is a page turner. This is a book for music lovers and experts alike, and will surely draw many new fans to his music.

Claudia Macdonald, Professor Emerita of Musicology, Oberlin College


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Table of Contents


Note on Spelling and Naming


1. The Land Without Music (1899–1916)

2. Years of Study (1916–1921)

3. Composer and Conductor (1921–1929)

4. Leifs and the Elements of an Icelandic Style

5. Icelandic Nation-Building and the 1930 Alþingi Festival (1929–1933)

6. "This Music Belongs to Us" (1933–1937)

7. Dinosaurs in Berlin (1937–1944)

8. Guilt and Retribution (1944–1955)

9. The Final Years (1955–1968)

Postlude: Revival and Influence

Appendix: List of Jón Leifs Completed Works

Selected Bibliography