From Iceland — Ask An Expert: What Is Traditional Icelandic Music?

Ask An Expert: What Is Traditional Icelandic Music?

Published November 13, 2023

Ask An Expert: What Is Traditional Icelandic Music?
Catherine Magnúsdóttir
Photo by
Art Bicnick

We asked a folk musician for answers

With Iceland Airwaves just behind us, it is nice to take a moment to contemplate and appreciate the role music has long played on this island. But what do Iceland’s musical roots look like? Or rather, sound like? What makes Icelandic music traditional? For more insight on the subject we spoke to Bára Grímsdóttir, composer, folk musician, music teacher and chairwoman of the Iðunn Poets Association.

“I’ve always had this folk music background, growing up with the rímur style of music,” Bára begins. “Rímur are these long ballads, one story that can fill an entire book – the rímur based on Njáll Saga for instance. The longest one, “Rímur af Olgeiri Danska” (Rímur of Olgeir the Dane) is 6,000 verses. They are divided into chapters, which each have their own metres, and people used to sing these.”

Over time, melodies do change as they are passed along via oral tradition, it will always change a little bit.

While the rímur texts were written down eventually, the tunes weren’t, leading to some variations between singer. “Over time, melodies do change as they are passed along via oral tradition, it will always change a little bit. You might not remember exactly how your mother or grandmother sang it, but it was kept in the families, even if people ended up singing different melodies in different areas, changing it and making it their own but keeping the core.” Though traditionally, the last tone in particular would be carried for a long time.

Bára explains there is a very strong history of song in Iceland, with stories and descriptions of, for example, one person in the baðstofa (living room) of an old turf house taking on the role of the singer. They wouldn’t necessarily sing long rímur ballads, but rather simpler rhymes and melodies that don’t necessarily require much vocal range – though they would require stamina. After all, the singer would have to carry those tunes for a while and over all the household noise of people working.

Bára also talks about the Icelandic tvísöngur, a specific style of singing that incorporates two voices singing in parallel fifths, creating a unique polyphonic sound of blending and crossing over voices. Quite a few tvísöngur melodies started out as church music, but secular texts later replaced the original religious verses.

“As a composer and when performing, I use things that would connect to Icelandic folk music,” Bára says, referring not only to song elements but also traditional instruments like the Icelandic fiddle and the langspil, which looks like a simple oblong box with a few strings, holes and tuning pegs, at which point her co-performer and life partner Chris Foster chimes in:

“Langspil belongs to a family of instruments called the fretted zither fiddles,” he explains. “They all share this characteristic of having one or two melody strings with frets under and then two or three drones. There are very close relatives you find particularly in northern Germany, southern Sweden, Denmark, northern Europe generally and then they got carried across with settlers to the United States and then that evolved into the Appalachian Mountain dulcimer – which is kind of an iconic instrument in Appalachia.”

“The first description of langspil is in a manuscript from 1705,” Bára says. “There are verses about people travelling with them, stories of travellers performing rímur for food and shelter. It was quite popular in the 18th and 19th century, but in the 19th century other instruments gradually came into the country like organs, guitars etc.”

The church wasn’t a big fan of rímur because it was too crude.

An important record of the history of Icelandic folk music is the collection compiled by the priest and composer Bjarni Þorsteinsson in the early 20th century. This collection includes all kinds of music, from lullabies to game songs to drinking songs, dance ballads, church music and songs about folk characters like Grýla.

“The church wasn’t a big fan of rímur because it was too crude so they asked poets to write holy rímur and stories from the bible,” Bára adds. “Some just did both.”

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