In traditional Icelandic music a distinction is generally made between two vocal performance practices as expressed by the verbs kvea and syngja (to sing). Kvea, apart from its two other meanings, to make verses and to say, is used today only in connection with with the epic poetry, rímur and other texts in the same verse metres. This study began as an attempt to gain a comprehensive view of the melodic material used in performances of rímur recorded on tape by several collectors for 20 years. It soon turned out that most of this material consists of fixed diatonic melodies in all parts of the country except in the district Breiafjöur in the west, where the majority of the informants of the oldest generations, born at or before the turn of the century, perform in a style characterized by variable melodies apparently not based on fixed scales. In their opinion the term kvea should not be applied to performances of rímur as generally practiced today, for they are akin to singing if not pure singing. Gradually the limited and complicated material associated with kvea in the narrower sense became the main subject of the research resulting finally in this book.
No printed transcriptions of rímur -melodies (rímnalög, also called kvæalög or stemmur ) are known prior to the fifteen published by the folklorist Ólafur Davisson in the chapter devoted to rímur in his work on Icelandic entertainments.1 Not much later (1906-1909) appears the Rev. Bjarni Thorsteinsson´s book Islenzk Thólög, the only major collection of Icelandic folksongs published to date. Besides the 250 rimur -melodies printed at the end of the book, all other genres are represented, divided roughly into three classes: secular songs, sacred songs, and twin-songs (tvísöngur sung in parallel fifths with one or more crossings of the two parts). Musical instruments are discussed in the Introduction. In the first half of the 19th century only the two bowed instruments lángspil and fila were in use, mainly for accompaniment of singing. Until the middle of the century learned or art music in the Western sense was practically non-existent, but then foreign songs and instruments, especially accordions and harmoniums, began gradually to spread. In an anonymous article quoted by Ólafur Davisson this change is compared with earlier conditions: "Rímur- melodies were almost the only recreational melodies known in Iceland a few years ago, and each person treated them in his own way and made them according to his fancy." Ólafur adds: "There is much truth in this; however, some kvæa -melodies [i.e., rímur -melodies] are invariable and known in the whole country."2 Bjarni Thorsteinsson makes the same distinction between variable and fixed melodies, but the most detailed account in given by Benedikt Jónsson, one of his chief collaborators:
When men kvea , each goes his own way; then they are handling
property and treat it accordingly as their humour dictates on each occasion; thus
almost everyone has his own kvæa -melody but not always in the same way; it
depends on the subject, metre, and impulses at the moment...There is such a
myriad of kvæa -melodies with innumerable variants in use that one gets dizzy in
this flood. But in spite of lack of definition and form in the kvæa -melodies, there
are many kvæa -melodies which are known, almost without any changes, maybe
in the whole country.3
Thus the first collectors apparently
faced an immensely productive performance tradition still in full
vigor in the last decades of the 19th century in most parts of
the country. But they had neither the means nor inclination to
deal with it except in so far as it did not conflict too much
with current Western theoretical norms. The transcriptions in
any case gave no hints of tonal or melodic variability.
Now the situation is reversed. What was a stream has become a trickle, and art music and popular music, just as in other countries, dominate the musical scene in its place. In the intervening period several recordings of rímur melodies were made on cylinders and discs in the years between the World Wars, but it was not until 1958 that intensive collecting activity commenced, resulting in substantial collections of performances and interviews recorded on tape.4 Other genres of traditional music collected at the same time can be divided into religious and secular, and the secular into songs sung for children and other songs (in accordance with the classification generally made by the informants).
The performance practice expressed by the verb kvea is usually referred to by either of the closely related terms kveskapur and kvæaskapur. Kveskapur is also a general term for poetry, irrespective of verse meter; kvæaskapur on the other hand as used by the informants of Breiafjörur always refer to the performance even if it is not always clear whether the text (necessarily in rímur metres) is included or not. When singing is mentioned without further specifications, both traditional and modern singing could be meant, in spite of marked differences. The traditional hymns, usually called "the old tunes," stem from Protestant chorales brought to the country by the Reformation in the 16th century, but they have changed radically from the originals and exist in numerous variants. Some of the informants think that they resemble kvæa-melodies a little more than do "the new tunes" in the major and minor modes introduced in the last century at the same time as the old tunes were banished from the churches.
Singing for children, unlike kvæaskapur and singing hymns, is not expected to be a vocal art. The verb raula is most often used here. It does not seem to refer to any specific technique but rather to all artless or modest delivery not taxing the voice. Texts and melodies of this group are highly diverse; it includes, for instance, the few ballads still performed. In performance a strict duple metre characterizes the group as a whole even when the texts are only spoken, as is frequently the case.
Apart from an article by the composer Jón Leifs (1929),
Svend Nielsen's thesis (1972) is the only study to date on kvæaskapur
based on the recorded material. It concentrates on the formal
aspects of the performances of Thórur Gubjartsson, one
of the most outstanding performers of Breiafjörur. Nielsen
poses the question what makes Thórur´s kvædaskapur
stable in the long run in spite of radical changes frequently
taking place from one stanza to another in individual performances.
The variability of intervals and syllable length is briefly mentioned
but not discussed further and therefore not indicated in the transcriptions.
His meticulous description in terms of a finite number of formulaic
melodic units then presents the solution and leads at the same
time to the conclusion that neither the language, nor the content
of the text, nor Thórdur's attitude to it influence the
melodic changes in any obvious way. On the whole it emerges clearly
that the question of the nature of change in kvæaskapur
is highly complex both with regard to musical elements, ranging
from single intervals to complete melodic outlines, and other
relevant factors, linguistic and cultural.
Before encountering the variable performances of the west, I had already made a number of transcriptions of fixed melodies from the east and the south-eastern parts of the country which were easily brought within the confines of the diatonic scale with only slight occasional deviations. My first reaction to the variable intervals was bewilderment. In other respects the melodies seemed to be similar to some of those transcribed earlier, and gross changes of the melodic outline as in Thórur's performances did not appear to be a constant feature in most cases. It became clear too that the total number of melodic outlines connected with variable style is small. Thórur in fact uses the greater part of the common outlines. The kvæa- melodies in Breiafjörur not based on them are relatively few and for the most part fixed. Thus formal variety in Breiafjörur as a whole appears to be less than elsewhere in spite of the changes possible within individual performances. Also the common outlines easily gave an impression of neutrality and lack of salient features. Then it happened one day while listening to a performance of three stanzas (the last music example, No. 39d) that I did not recognize the melody and thought for a moment I was hearing it for the first time. On the other hand I was aware of a coherent sequence of intervals perfectly "natural" in their own right and somehow much more meaningful than the melodic outline as a whole, soon identified as one of the most used in the whole country. This experience led to renewed attempts resulting in complicated transcriptions loaded with details, since after I no longer persisted in hearing deviations from diatonic intervals every feature seemed significant. At the same time comments made by the informants in the recorded interviews previously shelved as contradictory or irrelevant began to make sense to some extent at least. But the new transcriptions kept on changing from one revision to the next. Earlier Jón Leifs, apparently facing the same problem while transcribing his recordings, came to the conclusion "that one can transcribe the same melody in different and equally right ways,"5 but at the same time he found it difficult to decide whether the ambiguity of the intervals is an essential or an accidental phenomenon. However, since the physical signals variously heard on different occasions are nevertheless fixed on the recordings, they could be expected to stand still and eventually shed some light on the fleeting, evasive character of the music if examined with appropriate tools.
At this stage it was necessary to limit the material that was to be examined in detail. Therefore I selected samples from the recordings of the sixteen informants already at the center of the investigation.6 The samples were then registered on the melograph "Mona" at the Institute of Musicology of the University of Uppsala, Sweden.7 "Mona" presents the registered sound as two curves on a strip of paper running at a certain speed; the higher indicates fundamental frequency (pitch) and the lower amplitude (dynamics). The clarity of the pitch curve depends to a considerable degree on the quality of the recordings and the vocal techniques used. Unfortunately, the voice most characteristic in kvæaskapur tended to cause distortions difficult to eliminate by filter adjustments. In addition, the recordings from 1958 generally gave poor results because of low technical quality. Some of the melograms, however, turned out quite well with pitch discrimination near 15 cents in the most favorable cases. Durations on the other hand were easily estimated with relatively great accuracy for all samples by using the information contained in both curves. The melograms, which varied in length from single stanzas to performances of more than 80, indicated as expected a wealth of details, but frequently more than one interpretation was possible, and the range of alternative interpretations of problematic passages seemed greater than ever. This state of affairs continued until I realized that certain traits lay outside the scope of pitch transcription regardless of the system of notation used. The melograms certainly gave the exact shape, but neither a graphic notation nor the Western staff notation could indicate the fleeting, ambiguous impressions of those traits on the borderline between pitch and timbre and belong perhaps more to the domain of voice quality than melody. The next step eliminated the most elusive traits by retaining only what attracted my attention repeatedly on subsequent hearings. The melograms were then of great help in clarifying the constantly recurring traits, leading ultimately to what appeared to be the narrowest possible range on interpretations in each case.
The process leading to this result inevitably raised further questions about what would be the most economical and realistic representation of the material and consequently about the nature of the musical system. The search for this system, involving finally a particular notation in numbers, is in fact a continuation of the same process: a repeated approach to the same question (the musical system) from different angles.
1 Davisson (1888-92), 206-223.
2 Davisson (1888-92), 218.
3 Thorsteinsson (1906-9), 812-813.
4 Most of the recordings are deposited in Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi, Reykjavík.
5 Leifs (1929), 373.
6 Besides the 16, I had studied 45 other informants from the west, i.e., Breiafjorur and the neighboring Vesfirir. Most of them however do not perform in the variable style, as only a few such performers are found in Vestfirir. From other parts of the country, I studied 23 informants closely but listened to at least twice as many without classifying their performances precisely.
7 For a detailed description see Bengtsson (1967).