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ClassicsOnline Home » SVEINBJORNSSON: Piano Trios / Violin Sonata
The music of Iceland’s first composer, Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson, is reflective of his personality, described by his contemporaries as vivacious and affectionate but temperamental at times. This recording celebrates the composer’s 160th anniversary by presenting an instrumental portrait of Sveinbjörnsson that should help to introduce his music to a wider audience.
Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson (1847–1927)
Piano Trios • Violin Sonata
Lyriske Stykker • Idyl • Víkivaki • Barcarolle
The music of Iceland's first composer, Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson, is reflective of his personality, described by his contemporaries as vivacious and affectionate but temperamental at times. This recording celebrates the composer's 160th anniversary by presenting an instrumental portrait of Sveinbjörnsson that should help to introduce his music to a wider audience.
As Sveinbjörnsson was born in the year of Mendelssohn's death and was a piano student of the latter's friend Reinecke in Leipzig between 1872 and 1873, it is perhaps not a coincidence that the music of the great German composer exerted influence upon him. The ornamental filigree of notes combined with gentle intertwining of elfin melodies is, for instance, common in the music of both composers. At the same time, a strong masculine element is found in Sveinbjörnsson's music, one that emphasizes Nordic square rhythms associated with folk dance.
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, 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-thousand-years-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.
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.
The selected piano and chamber works presented on this recording provide intriguing insight into the art of Sveinbjörnsson. Although none of the works is dated, it is possible to infer according to the available sources that the majority were composed between 1910 and 1923. The Idyl and Víkivaki are based on Icelandic folk-songs and are probably Sveinbjörnsson's best-known works, apart from the national anthem, which may be attributed to the fact that they were published in Denmark in 1924 and recorded by the composer himself. By way of contrast, the more intimate Barcarolle has its première in this recording.
The two piano trios witness Sveinbjörnsson's ambition to work within larger forms, using the four movements of each trio to present his motifs in contrasting and complementary ways. An energetic folk-dance element captivates the ear in the opening movement of the Trio in A minor and again in the Trio in E minor finale. The religioso atmosphere of the Andante of the Trio in A minor is reminiscent of the national anthem, whereas the slow movement in the Trio in E minor is a cantilena. The joyous mood of the third movements of both trios is a welcome glimpse into the European ballrooms of bygone times. Finally the opening Allegro of the Trio in E minor is characterized by a noble sentiment, which is also found in the finale of the Trio in A minor.
Three of the four lyric pieces for violin and piano were dedicated to the Danish violinist Sigrid Petersen and published by Wilhelm Hansen Publishing Company under the title Lyriske Stykker, but the Moment Musical in F major has its première in this recording. The ornamented cantabile melody of the Romanza brings Chopin nocturnes to mind while the Vögguvísa is based on an old Swedish song. The Moment Musical in G minor brings in the folk-dance once more whereas the amiable Moment Musical in F major shares a certain simplicity with the Barcarolle, which is indeed an endearing aspect of Sveinbjörnsson's music. The Sonata for violin and piano had its première in Iceland in 1923 with Þórarinn Guðmundsson and the composer in a concert that included the Trio in E minor and the Víkivaki. The work shares some elements with the Mendelssohn sonatas, in particular the weighty central movement and perpetuum mobile finale.
Nína Margrét Grímsdóttir
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SVEINBJORNSSON: Piano Trios / Violin Sonata