Jon Leifs, Iceland's Sanctified Son

By Sigmundsdottir, Alda | Scandinavian Review, Autumn 1997 | Go to article overview

Jon Leifs, Iceland's Sanctified Son


Sigmundsdottir, Alda, Scandinavian Review


Having met with fierce adversity and scorn during his lifetime, the late Icelandic composer Jon Leifs (1899-1968) is now being hailed as the most influential champion of Icelandic musical culture in the nation's history.

The recent revival associated with the late Icelandic composer Jon Leifs has, if nothing else, been a study in the making of a legend. His music, which once was considered unrefined and barbaric, is now labelled "Nordic primitivism" and is thought to be among the most succinct artistic portrayals of Iceland's magnificent landscape ever. His compositions, which in the past were ridiculed and shunned, are now being recorded by Icelandic and nonIcelandic record companies, which release CD after CD of Leifs' work, many to stunning reviews. Icelandic society ignored Leifs while he was alive; yet when a film based on his life was released in Iceland two years ago, the audience gave a standing ovation at the end of it. And this autumn will see the release of the first complete Jon Leifs biography.

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the Jon Leifs revival is how the Icelandic nation has finally made peace with his memory. For Leifs was a man who tended to upset society's delicate sensibilities simply by speaking his mind. The fact that the world-or Iceland-was not ready for his music enraged him, as did the treatment he received; treatment which the Swedish music critic and Leifs champion Carl-Gunnar/Ahlen terms "psychological expulsion." Leifs' public attacks on his countrymen's conservative musical tastes earned him more than a few enemies. Now that a new generation is freed from the prevailing prejudices towards Leifs' person, an objective evaluation of his music is finally possible.

Success and Failure

Jon Leifs was born in 1899 on a farm in northern Iceland, but moved to Reykjavik with his family while still a baby. Music and culture were held in high esteem in the Leifs' household, and the young boy's aptitude for music became evident at an early age. Leifs failed to "find himself" within the formal school system, however, and at the age of seventeen he announced to his parents that he had decided to quit school to study music. After some discussion his mother and father managed to persuade their son to complete the year; afterwards he could travel to Germany to study music.

Jon Leifs studied piano, conducting and composition at the Leipzig Conservatory of Music, graduating in 1921. He received fine grades and the encouragement of his teachers, and to all appearances seemed to be at the starting line of a brilliant career.

In his personal life things seemed no less promising. A week after graduating Leifs married Annie Riethof, an up-and-coming pianist and a fellow student at the conservatory. Riethof, too, seemed to have everything going for her: She was talented, sharply intelligent and came from a wealthy Jewish family which supported her in every way.

In the years following their marriage Leifs and Riethof held several concerts in Iceland. It was then that Leifs began forming and vocalizing his opinions about the Icelanders' lack of musical sophistication. He was determined to do his best to rectify the situation and to that end managed, among other things, to bring the Hamburg Philharmonic to Iceland in 1926. This was considered quite a feat at the time, particularly as it was the first time that the Icelandic nation had ever been exposed to a symphony orchestra.

Soon afterwards Leifs attempted to found a string orchestra in Iceland. It soon became evident, however, that Icelandic musicians were hopelessly lacking in both discipline and technique, and their attempted performances of his demanding compositions were nothing short of disastrous.

In 1935 Jon Leifs was hired as musical director at the newly-formed Icelandic National Broadcasting Service. This promising cooperation quickly turned sour, however, as Leifs' ideas about what national radio should be did not match those of his superiors. …

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