Icelandic Epic Song

Hreinn Steingrímsson


Edited by Dorothy Stone and Stephen L. Mosko



To Thóra Hreinnsdóttir


Stephen L. Mosko

Hreinn Steingrímsson, the author of this book, spent more than half of his life devoting passionate interest to Icelandic folk music, and especially to one special type, kvæaskapur. This style was poetry vocalized by a solo performer. For many years Hreinn tried to resolve the contradictions between his preconceptions (based on what he learned the music should be like) and the actual recordings. This manuscript documents the evolution of his perceptions.
There were no recorded studies of kvæaskapur made since the early part of the 20th century until 1958 when Hallfreur Örn Eiriksson working for the State Radio began a collection of traditional folk music in remote rural areas. In 1964 Hallfreur joined Iceland's archival museum, the Árni Magnússon Manuscript Institute and continued collecting. He traveled extensively making recordings, and occasionally one of the people he met was able to sing or vocalize in an old style. He compiled these recordings and asked the help of Hreinn to catalog them since he knew him to be an expert musician with interest in the old folk music styles. The tradition which seemed to have survived the longest, especially in the north-western part of the country, was kvæaskapur. When Hreinn began his intensive studies, this style had survived as the most important music in Iceland for almost six centuries. However, by the 1950's kvæaskapur had nearly died out and was of little interest to Icelandic society. In fact, for many years it had been disdained not only by the press but even by a main Icelandic youth club (Ungmannafélag). Kvæaskapur had nothing to do with the modern world which had become urbanized and prosperous. The youth club, although it was committed to protecting traditional culture, felt that kvæaskapur was undeserving of preservation unlike traditional wrestling. This style of performance came from an older time, performed in small, isolated turf houses with only one oil light for reading the texts on dark long winter days. Fuel was scarce, and while the members of the household were working in virtual darkness on repairing fishing nets, knitting, wood carving, etc., someone would intone (kvæa ) the structurally intricate verse form called rímur, relating a story. This would go on for many hours, sometimes for months on end. With the new era after World War I and II, this tradition was associated with times of poverty, overwhelming devastation from the plague, and an unrelenting struggle just to survive.
With the return of interest in national heritage first clearly evident worldwide after the World Wars in the 1920's and renewed in the 1950's, kvæaskapur, was revived. However, many changes had come to Iceland. During the World Wars there were enormous numbers of North Americans and Western Europeans in the capitol, Reykjavík, often far outnumbering the Icelanders. The Icelanders left their farms, thinking it was only for a short time, but they remained in the city because there was great opportunity and well-being. Associated with this progress were new influences in the music such as different kind of European vocal styles, new melodies, and by 1930 the new technology produced radios. The radio introduced an alarming concept -- something could sound exactly the same over and over when recorded and then played back. Until about that time it never occurred to most people anywhere that this was possible. Also the radio, by playing only certain performers, spread one style and excluded others and thus standardized the art form.
Kvæaskapur was very different from the new concepts; the vocal quality was unrelated to the large chest voice prevalent in European song. Instead it had a very high ringing quality, and the melody always changed from stanza to stanza never with exact repetitions. Perhaps most remarkably, the old style did not use Western scales. In fact, it never occurred to the performers that each pitch should be a fixed, specific point. On the contrary, the performers (kvæamenn ) intoned outlines of certain shapes, where each note was not a specific point but somewhere within a flexible band. One note in each stanza, usually at the end, was inevitably the exact same pitch throughout the performance (the seimur ) like a straight line in a stream where the melody was always fluid and changing slightly.
So when Hreinn began examining the recordings, he expected each performer to sing in basically a Western voice from the chest, with each stanza repeated exactly the same way, and using more or less precise pitches from European scales. Generally this was the case, but he continued to find examples that did not fit these premises, and he set them aside in a corner of his study. Gradually he began to discover certain consistencies in the anomalies -- mostly they were recorded in a region in the west called "Breiafjörur," and strangely he found these examples surprisingly interesting. He began to read every travelers account of Iceland (beginning from the 15th century), every newspaper article, every possible description of the style, and almost without exception they described the recordings he had set aside. Hreinn was a brilliant researcher, and he completely mistrusted his conclusions -- namely that kvæaskapur was perhaps the purest link to the Nordic and Germanic musical and poetic traditions dating back centuries. The Icelandic language is the most uncorrupted modern language with respect to Old Norse, so why not the music? He had no colleagues studying the same recordings, and few people in Iceland were interested in his pursuits, but nonetheless he had an unconditional devotion to the old ways, and especially to the music. He knew he had found a treasure, and he spent the rest of his life trying to understand it. This book is a journal of Hreinn's gradual emancipation of his preconceptions. How does one try to understand music that did not have fixed pitch, was always changing, and had a completely unique vocal quality? He analyzed the recordings on a sophisticated machine in Sweden, and then he transcribed each recording over and over in musical notation numerous times. Later he attempted to analyze the performances with numerical rather than musical notation, and he listened repeatedly to interviews with the performers. This book traces his prolonged pursuit to understand the "old style" and is the first to analyze this tradition.

My second visit to Iceland was in 1974 as a Senior Research Fellow sponsored by the Fulbright Foundation. I came for eight months, and one of my goals was to study Icelandic folk music which I knew very little about since there was almost nothing published on the subject. At first I went to the archives of the State Radio, and they allowed me to listen to various recordings of rímur . After a short time, I found the music quite uninteresting. Since the performer would sing each stanza exactly the same way over and over without particularly captivating melodies, I concluded the music only functioned to transmit the poetry.
Then I had the unique opportunity of meeting Hreinn Steingrímsson. Several people suggested I contact him since he knew so much about the folk music. He was highly reclusive, concentrating many hours on end in his study listening to the tapes, transcribing them, and eventually writing about it. However, after we met we spent almost every day together, often well into the evening, talking about the tradition and listening to his extensive library of recordings. I would prepare for each session by making a list of questions based on our last discussion, and he would patiently attempt to answer them meticulously. As an outsider, I had no preconceptions about the music, so he did not need to convince me that mostly what I heard at the Radio did not truly represent the "old style." His enthusiasm was contagious and the music was extremely impressive, far beyond my imagination. I took several hundred pages of notes, and copied about 50 tape recordings. That autumn we traveled to the country and recorded the last performances and interviews of the only known two living kvæamenn who were of exceptional quality (Thórur Gubjartsson and Gunnar Alexandersson). Unfortunately, following this occasion neither was able to perform again because of age and health, so this was the last collection Hreinn could study.
After I left, we corresponded frequently. He began writing the first version of this book, and he would send me a chapter at a time, all very neatly hand-written. I commented and asked more questions, and in about four years the first version was completed. In addition, we had lengthy discussions when he stayed with me at my home in California on several occasions while lecturing at American universities. I returned to Iceland in 1978, again through the auspices of the Fulbright Foundation, and helped him complete the book. I typed the manuscript occasionally modifying his English or asking for further clarification of an idea. He wrote the book in English so that it could be read by a larger public. It was scheduled to be published that summer, but at the last minute he decided that his ideas were not perfected enough, and he withdrew it.
He spent the next twenty years, off an on, revising the text and had finally decided to publish it shortly before he died in 1998. I have tried to compile the manuscript as faithfully as possible to his intentions.
This volume is highly compressed, as it represents many years of thought presented in a most concise way. Ultimately, he wanted the book to be a resource for serious musicologists and Nordic scholars. It was not intended to explain all of the complexities of the tradition but rather to provide a seed for future research. Therefore, he often details the process of his investigation, as one interpretation leads to another, continually reevaluating his ideas.
After the completion of this edition, he had planned to write a second book on this subject intended for a more general reader without all of the highly technical details. Sadly, he did not live to do this, for this book is filled with amazing insights into a past history of Iceland with numerous implications. For this reason, I have decided to give a brief discussion of each chapter, perhaps to enable a more general reading.
I had never met anyone like Hreinn. The English translation of his name "Hreinn" is "clear, pure, sincere, genuine," which could not be more appropriate.



My research in Old Norse was highly influenced by the generous teachings of Konstantin Reichardt. In Iceland, Hallfreur Örn Eirikssson provided invaluable information on rímur and introduced me to Hreinn Steingrímsson. Helga Jóhannsdóttir and Jón Samsonarson, who recorded many extremely important examples of kvæaskapur and other folk musics, kindly shared a great deal of information with me. This project would not have been possible without my research partner in 1974 Ann Roebuck. This project was made possible in part by a grant from the California Institute of the Arts.



Stephen L. Mosko is a composer, conductor, and teacher. He is currently on the faculty at the California Institute of the Arts and has previously been a member of the faculties at Yale University, Harvard University, The University of Chicago, and the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Dorothy Stone is flutist and Artistic Director of the California EAR Unit, a new music ensemble dedicated to the performance, creation and promotion of the music of our time. The group has toured extensively throughout the United States and Europe and may be heard on the Bridge, New World, New Albion, Voyager, O.O., Tzadik and Nonesuch record labels.