Voices – old recordings of Icelandic folkmusic

Raddir / Voices

Arni Magnusson Institute / Badtaste records 1998.
Editors: Andri Snær Magnason and Rosa Thorsteinsdottir.
Voices is a CD with original recordings of Icelandic folk music. The recordings were collected around Iceland in the homes of farmers, grandmothers and fishermen that still lived in the old tradition or could remember some of the old songs that had been sung in Iceland for generations. The CD contains chanting of rimur, hymns, ballads and nursery rhymes.

Iceland has a very special folkmusic tradition that changed dramatically in the 20th century when Iceland’s contact to the world became closer. Icelanders wanted to be regarded as a high cultural european country but in comparison to Mozart our folk music heritage of chanting rimur made us look quite primitive. People turned against it and the tradition was almost lost and erased and turned into a symbol of our years of depression and hunger.

The folk music that was for sale in the stores had all been “fixed” or purified to the modern sence of “beauty“ or “correct“ singing. The songs were very few but in the archives of the Arni Magnusson Institute in Reykjavik were hundreds of hours of very strange and beutiful music, unknown to the modern day Icelander.

Andri Snær Magnason and Rosa Thorsteinsdottir decided to publish the CD, found a good selection and had it published with a large booklet in english and Icelandic. The music was not fixed, the recordings are original and the idea was that in that way it could be a great inspiration for modern day composers and musicians.

The archives are now online on www.ismus.is.


About Icelandic Folkmusic – Rímur, Hymns, Thulas and nursery rhymes by Andri Snær Magnason

Rímur (plural form; the singular form ríma is used for a single canto within a longer rímur cycle) are a genre of literature peculiar to Iceland; these narrative poems can be traced back to the fourteenth century. The oldest ríma is the one about Saint Olaf, King of Norway, in a handsome vellum manuscript from 1387. In rímur, the heritage of skaldic poetry, with its heiti and kennings, chiefly based on Nordic mythology, merged with the narrative forms of the chivalric and romantic poems of the South. Heiti are synonyms of common words and are used only in poetry, for instance jór for hestur (horse) and rekkar for menn (men). Kennings are somewhat like pictorial puzzles and can be intricate, often being derived from heathen myths. A kenning for the sky, for example, is Austri’s helmet, understandable if we know that Austri was one of the dwarves holding up the sky. Others are based solely on visual inventiveness: blood is called beer of wounds, swords’ maple is a soldier or man, and a wave’s steed stands for a ship. These synonyms and kennings had the effect of removing the language of rímur far from the daily speech of the time, so that it takes practice to follow the narrative thread. The four-line stanzas or quatrains of the rímur have their models in many countries, but they were a novelty when introduced in Iceland, where a great number of variant stanza forms developed. The Prosody of the Icelandic Rímur records 2267 examples of different metres, variants of 22 basic metres. Rímur were from the outset a literary genre produced by known authors, and they circulated mostly in written form. They are considered to have been chanted more or less in the way recorded here. Rímur were chanted at evening sessions from written manuscripts that were passed from farm to farm, and sometimes the listeners joined in the extended last syllable of each quatrain. Good rímur singers were welcome visitors at every farm, and in winter some of them made a living by travelling between the farms chanting rímur. It is difficult to define the chanting, but it is situated somewhere between speech and song with a peculiar use of the voice. The chanting was highly individual, and tunes were sometimes associated with particular performers, while others were used widely. The Idunn Rímur-chanting Society has collected and published 500 tunes.

A traditional quatrain has seven syllables in the first and third lines, and six in the second and fourth lines. Couplets, or pairs of lines, are linked by alliteration. There are two alliterative sounds (studlar) in the odd line, one of them always in the third stressed syllable. The third alliterative sound (höfudstafur) is always in the first stressed syllable of the even line. Hringhenda was a popular variant of the quatrain and often appears on this disc. In the following example of hringhenda, the alliterative sounds are printed in bold letters and internal rhyme is underlined; the end rhyme is the traditional alternate rhyme (abab):

Stakan óðum tapar tryggð,
týnast ljóðavinir,
auðga þjóð um Íslandsbyggð
aðrir gróðurhlynir.

In a rímur cycle a story is related, most often a chivalric romance or a fornaldarsaga (Saga of Ancient Times). The cycle was divided into cantos that were like chapters in a story. At the outset of each canto there were as a rule introductory stanzas called mansöngur (literally, “love song”) where the poet praised women, wrote about tribulations of love that were unrelated to the subject-matter, or wrote about his struggle to produce poetry. These stanzas were frequently omitted in performance, as they delayed the progress of the story. In later times each canto in a cycle had its own metre. Rímur were by far the most popular literary form in Iceland until the late nineteenth century, especially among the common people, but also among the educated classes. They were often criticized for their excessive attention to form, and their tales of giants and knights were thought to corrupt the populace. Attempts to divert the subject-matter of rímur toward God rather than giants bore scant fruit. Yet there are a few cycles about Biblical subjects, such as rímur on Jesus from the seventeenth century. Many found the way of chanting unattractive compared with the sweeter tones coming from Europe. It is unique in European literary history for a single genre of poetry to live with so little alteration for 600 years. Now, however, the rímur tradition is nearly extinct – its last practitioners are in their old age. On the other hand, single quatrains in rímur meters are still very much alive.

Hymns came to Iceland with the Reformation in the 16th century, and at first most of the hymns were translated from German and Danish. The first hymnal was published 1589 at Hólar in Hjaltadalur by Bishop Gudbrandur Thorláksson. In 1594 he publised the hymnal Graduale. By the seventeenth century Icelandic hymns had become very popular, and it may be said that until the twentieth century all of the principal poets of the nation composed hymns. Most would agree that with the Passion Hymns of Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614-1674), printed in 1666, the art of hymn writing reached its zenith. The Passion Hymns were sung every day during Lent in Icelandic households and became an important factor in the cultural and religious life of the nation. It was quite common for people to know by heart all 777 stanzas. No Icelandic book has been printed so often, and in many cases it was laid in the coffin as a final parting gift. For two centuries Graduale was the sole basis of singing in Iceland, until new instruments were brought to the country in the nineteenth century and attempts were made to adapt the old hymn melodies to the new tonal system. The “new melodies” are now sung in Icelandic churches, but in the early twentieth century the old melodies were still sung in many homes.

The origins of the folk ballads can be traced to France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, whence they appear to have spread. Folk ballads are known in every European country, and probably the first ones came to Iceland by way of Norway, before the Reformation. The Tófa Poem is known in Norway, Denmark and Sweden. The Icelandic version is in many respects different from the others and may be quite old. The meters of folk ballads are similar in all the Nordic countries: each stanza is followed by a refrain, and alliteration is used irregularly. It is assumed that the folk ballads were chanted while people danced, as is still the custom in the Faroe Islands. The religious authorities in Iceland were opposed to dancing, and it died out in the eighteenth century, but hard times may also have had something to do with it. The comic verses about the parson’s wife were in all probability brought to Iceland from Denmark in the nineteenth century, though they are also known in Norway and Sweden.

The Grýla Poem and The Monster Poem were perennially popular nursery rhymes. They are both in the same meter, called dragmælt. The Monster Poem exists in several versions, but its age and author are uncertain. Grýla is mentioned in Snorri’s Prose Edda and in the Sturlung Saga from the thirteenth century as well as in a great number of poetic fragments, but the Reverend Stefán Ólafsson’s (1619-1688) Grýla Poem is one of the oldest that has been preserved intact. In this poem the Christmas elves are mentioned for the first time, as the sons of Grýla, but in the version of the poem sung on this disc they are not mentioned. Stefán Ólafsson also composed The Sloth Poem, which is a polemic against the laziness and sloth of farm hands and other people from that time. It is said that the Reverend Stefán recited the poem to his parish farmers outside the church after service, since he found their horseback riding and other extravagances excessive. The poem is composed in a variant of the ancient Greek hexameter. That variant was much used in Latin poetry in the Middle Ages and is named Leonine meter.

Thulas are comparatively free in form compared with the quatrains. There is no division into stanzas, and their narrative thread is often confused – in fact, it does not seem to matter much. For centuries the thulas circulated orally; bits and sections could be linked together in various ways to make up new thulas. In Norway and the Faroe Islands there are some thulas related to the Icelandic ones, which shows that they were a common heritage of these nations and that they travelled between these countries in the Middle Ages when their relations were closer and their languages more similar than later on. The Name Thula is among them, often following a thula on cows’ names. Lists of names seem to be a very ancient genre, rooted in a tradition originating in pagan times. Theodóra Thoroddsen composed her poems in the thula tradition and wove old thula fragments and incidents from folktales into her thulas.

Andri Snær Magnason

Leave a Reply