Icelandic song, choir enchant campus

Anyone in attendance at the Concert and Chamber Choir’s concert last Friday was privileged to a moving and beautiful performance of the vocal music of Iceland. Set most appropriately in the grandeur of Thompson Chapel, the program was dedicated to the memory of one of Iceland’s most significant composers, Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson. Notable for more than just his modernizing music, Sigurbjörnsson was beloved uncle to Professor of History Magnus Bernhardsson. Bernhardsson’s written note in the program described his uncle as having “brought a cosmopolitanism to Icelandic music that blended international aesthetics and trends with a very distinct national vernacular.” Indeed, his music translated seamlessly from Iceland to Williamstown, remaining distinctly Icelandic yet inherently relatable.

The program began with “Island,” an example of a tvisöngur or “twin song,” an ancient folk form. Its translation details an ode to Iceland, “land of good fortune/And snow-white mother of prosperity.” The soulful patriotism of the lyrics retained a similar melodic quality. The next three songs were performed by the concert choir. From the joyful beginning of the first song “Oh, the wonder of life/Oh, the wonder of life!” to the cooing canon of “Dufa A Brun,” which imitated its subject of the sound of doves to the expressive three-voice texture of the hymn “Til pin, Drottin hnatta’og heima,” the choir rendered the inherent poetry of the music most accurately.

The chamber choir treble voices then took over, singing “Upphaf,” composed by Sigurbjörnsson as a present for his children on the first day of summer in 1978. A soaring chorus of voices performed the song in canonic style with a celebratory yet almost eerie tone, ending joyfully with an exclamation translating as “Everything is new,/Rejuvenating start!” The following folk song paid similar tribute to nature, beginning with “It’s lovely in these valleys/It’s lovely in these valleys.” Composed by Scotsmen John Hearne, it carried an appropriately ecclesiastical tone, featuring a solo performance of soaring clarity by Claire Leyden ’16. The tone was so reverent that the boisterous applause signaling the conclusion of the piece almost seemed blasphemous. The third song performed by the chamber choir’s treble voices, “Kvoldvisur Um Sumarmal” composed by Hjalmar H. Ragnarsson, was colored by a contemplative tone with a beautiful humming harmony in the middle and a melodic focus on the sopranos.

At this point in the night, the entire chamber choir came on stage, beginning this phase of the performance with an Icelandic folk song whose title translates as “Here under this Earth rests-Epitaph.” Following this theme of death came an enlivened performance of a musical adaptation of an early 18th-century poem entitled Amor. The poignant lyrics, “True love still nourishes/affection still burns its flame,/love’s blaze still flourishes” translated into a delicate, emotive melodic quality. The following hymn dedicated to Jesus upheld this tone as did the lyrics of the piece by Jon Asgeirsson with verses by Vatnsenda-Rosa that began with “My eyes and your eyes./Oh those lovely gems./Mine is yours and yours is mine,” as did the vivid musicality of the musical interpretation of the poem “The Deceptive World.” The cherished hymn “Hear, heaven’s maker” by the focal composer of the night concluded the Icelandic program. Apparently, the text to the hymn was written by Kolbeinn Tumason the evening prior to his death on the battlefield with the men of Gudmundur, a story made poignant by the first lines, “Let your grace protect me/in my sore need.”

The evening concluded with a rendition of “Amazing Grace,” performed with joyful enthusiasm by a conflation of all performing groups that night. It was the appropriate ending to a night of the loveliest music and atmosphere. The soaring vocals of the choirs perfectly complemented the emotive delicacy of the lyrics. The ecclesiastical grandeur of the setting along with the personal significance of the night to the College all served to augment this effect. Those leaving the concert did so with hushed reverence, a glowing look of calm contentedness settled on their faces. No better end to a wearying week could be found.

  • I was very pleased to read the report of your performance of my arrangement of ‘Fagurt er í fjörðum’ last November, which I happened upon by accident. I knew Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson quite well and was greatly saddened by his passing. One of the favourite pieces for The Stonehaven Chorus was his beautiful evening hymn ‘Nú hverfur sól í haf’ and it was the last piece I conducted with them last May when I retired as their conductor. I have never met Magnús Berharðsson but I know his father, and his grandfather Steven Wilkinson conducted the first performance of my motet ‘Lætatus Sum’. Music is indeed a small world!

    Thank you again for honouring Icelandic music!