SVEINBJORN SVEINBJORNSSON (1847 - 1926)
Iceland’s first composer Sveinbjörnsson was born in the year of Mendelssohn’s death. He studied piano with Reinecke in Leipzig between 1872 and 1873. He was influenced by both great German composers, and at the same time, a strong Nordic element associated with folk dance is found in Sveinbjörnsson’s music.
Sveinbjörnsson’s works also betray a kinship with the music of Niels Gade, which is not surprising as Sveinbjörnsson met and auditioned for Gade in 1869 and became in due course a member of his Copenhagen choir, the Musikforeningen, until 1870. During this period he participated in performances of large works by the esteemed Danish composer, and this experience was, according to Sveinbjörnsson’s memoir fragments, invaluable and enriching for his musical development.
Sveinbjörnsson was by all accounts a precocious and musical child and also fortunate in that his well-educated parents had the means to ensure that he and his seven siblings all received intellectual stimulation from early on, including music lessons. His father, a government official and member of Parliament, brought a piano into the home in 1855, an instrument barely known in Iceland at the time, which added a new dimension to the many musical moments of his large family.
At the age of nine, however, Sveinbjörnsson lost his father and, like his siblings, had to choose a practical line of education that would ensure a secure financial future. A career as a professional musician in his native country, no matter how talented, was not an option. Therefore, when Sveinbjörnsson was encouraged by the
visiting Norwegian composer Johan Svendsen to study music abroad in 1867, when he was already halfway through his studies for the priesthood in Reykjavík. The decision to add a year of private study in piano and harmony with Vilhelm Carl Ravn in Copenhagen, following graduation as priest in 1868, showed Sveinbjörnsson’s strength of character but ultimately directed him towards his true calling as a musician.
Sveinbjörnsson established his career on firm ground by composing Ó Guð Vors Lands (Oh, God of our Land), a ceremonial chorale in E flat major, to a poem of Matthías Jochumsson. The occasion was Iceland’s one-thousandyears- of-settlement festivities in 1874 in the presence of the Danish King, Christian IX, to whom the work was dedicated. This profound masterpiece by the young composer was not only to become the future Icelandic national anthem but also the first example of Sveinbjörnsson’s deeply religious disposition revealed from time to time in his music.
Sveinbjörnsson’s career was based outside Iceland for most of his life. He composed, performed and taught piano in Edinburgh between 1873 and 1919 and in 1887 helped found the Edinburgh Society of Musicians. In 1890 he married a Scottish woman, Eleanor, with whom he had two children, Þórður and Helen.
The family moved to Canada in 1919 and joined the community of Western-Icelanders for a while. The Sveinbjörnssons lived in Iceland between 1922 and 1924 and subsequently made their final home in Copenhagen. Sveinbjörnsson’s many honours include the Presidential Commander’s Cross and the Royal Knight of Dannebrog Cross.
The music Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson is reflective of his personality, described by his contemporaries as vivacious and affectionate but temperamental at times. According to his biographer Jón Þórarinsson, Sveinbjörnsson’s compositions were published in around sixty editions in England and Denmark. The chief publishers were the London Music Publishing Company, Paterson & Sons and R.W. Pentland in Edinburgh, and Wilhelm Hansen Publishing Company in Copenhagen. The current publisher of Sveinbjörnsson’s works is the Iceland Music Information Centre.
In 1925 Sveinbjörnsson recorded a selection of his own works in Copenhagen for Polyphon and Skandinavisk Grammofon, and these historic recordings are preserved by the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service. Moreover, in 1926 he recorded piano solos for the Danish Broadcasting Corporation.