Saturday, March 19, 2011

Music Museum Iceland, Tónlistarsafn Íslands

I visited the Music Museum of Iceland today. A bit by chance, I glanced through a book of cultural attractions in Iceland and noticed that there was a music museum, that I had somehow overlooked! It was also right next door to the art museum that I planned on going to anyway, so I stopped into both.

What a delight! I was treated like royalty by the staff and got a personal tour of the exhibit by Guðrún, the curator. I was also the only guest that day, so I guess she was happy to show me around. The staff was really excited that I had learned so much Icelandic in seven months, so we could basically talk about the exhibit only in Icelandic (mind you with a lot of simplification, and me asking questions, but still it was a proud moment). Here is Guðrún next to her life-size poster ancestor Sveinbjörn.

The Museum of Music in Iceland is more like an online collection of scanned documents and recordings for use on the internet, but it has a small exhibition space that changes based on funding and as time allows. Tónlistarsafn Íslands is one of the only places that researches the physical artifacts of Iceland's mostly-oral musical history.The current exhibit is on the composer of Iceland's National Anthem, Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson. There were letters and artifacts from his life, donated by his granddaughter, texts and scores of his music, and a couple particularly cool items including a blanket from Sveinbjörn's bed and a solid-silver piano sculpture, given as a gift.

Sveinbjörn was one of the first composers in Iceland, though originally trained to be a priest and later a performing musician. As there was no rigorous academic training in music in Iceland until later in the 20th century, Sveinbjörn moved to Leipzig to study with Reinecke, and eventually to Edinburgh to work and raise a family (I'm sure a really crazy idea at that time, nearly impossible for the average Icelandic citizen to do, just up and move to a foreign country and become successful). The king of Norway and all his entourage attended the premiere of one of Sveinbjörn's works, but unfortunately, his music was constantly panned...'well, he's no Greig, that's for sure.' Sveinbjörn's music certainly isn't much in the way of originality or daring avant-garde, but the music is pleasantly Mendelssohn-y. He received a lot of accolades in his life, like a pension from Iceland, much fame in Canada (some of his family ended up moving there), and the Order of the Falcon (Iceland's version of Knighthood). There's a cool picture of Sveinbjörn's funeral procession, with hundreds of Icelanders parading down the street in the rain to show tribute to the man, their black umbrellas all a-bobbin'.

It was only recently that the melody that Sveinbjörn composed became the 'official' Icelandic national anthem, which was a setting of 'Ó Guð Vor Lands', a poem written by Matthías Jochumsson (side note: it's rare for Iceland, and I would say for anthems in general, that it's basically a poem to God, and not to nature or the landscape or the people). Matthías was reported to have heard the premiere of his poem and hated it, he thought his own words were terrible, but then again he was also severely depressed. In any case, the national anthem became common to sing in Iceland, though very few people that the museum surveyed actually knows who wrote it or who wrote the lyrics. They also say that it's very hard to sing, and requires a big vocal range, which I could say the same thing about the national anthem for the States as well. (America's is 'The Star-Spangled Banner', and was written by Francis Scott Key, a poet, but set to the music of a drinking song by John Stafford Smith. I must admit that I didn't know the drinking song fact about the Anthem. I would think most Americans, if they remember Francis Scott Key, would side with me and say that he wrote the music as well. Right?)

There are also several verses of the Icelandic anthem, but people only sing one--much like the American anthem, which has up to five giant verses but people only sing or screech or mess up the first. There's also debate of getting a second anthem, or making a more populist anthem that really gets the country all patriotic-like. Some countries have two anthems, why the heck not.

After the Sveinbjörn chat, I was also showed several other projects the Music Museum is working on, including digitizing of documents, receiving donations of instruments and memorabilia, maintaining Iceland's giant website, and I got to see a couple of old wax cylinders made by Jón Leifs (the Bela Bartók of Iceland, if you will, who went around Iceland recording traditional melodies).

Certainly I did not expect a dance remix of a folk song to enter the conversation at this point, but this is where we break it down, now. I listened to a wax cylinder recording of an (probably crazy) old man singing this folk-song 'game' (the first recorded sample on this Icelandic page). The story goes that the Devil tests someone to sing this difficult song, and each time sing it up a fourth, hardly breathing, and if you can pass the test, then I don't know, maybe you won't be taken away by the Devil or something. This old man passes the test. A composition student heard the piece and used the recording, and worked on it and it actually is quite successful (and hilarious) as a dance remix! It was even on Icelandic radio and everything. To top it off, the remix was then found by a class of children, who choreographed it into a hot dance jam. Musical dissemination through the generations at its finest!

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