A. J. Symington, in 1862, going to an evening that included Icelandic music with two of his friends. The three of them “spent the evening, by invitation, at the Governor’s—the Count Von Trampe. I had a long conversation with him in German, during which he mentioned that all the old Saga and Edda MSS, had been removed to Copenhagen; and, in answer to sundry enquiries, told me that the “lang spiel” is the only Icelandic musical instrument now in use. It is something like a guitar or banjo, has four strings, and is played with a little bow. The airs now played are chiefly Danish dance music, and other foreign melodies.
“The Icelanders, like the natives of Madagascar, have adopted the music of our “God save the queen” as their national air. The words to which it is sung were composed In the beginning of the present century, by the late Biarni Thorarensen, Governor of the northern province of the island, when he was a student at the university of Copenhagen. The song is called “Islands Minni,” or the “Remembrance of Iceland;” and finely illustrates the intense love of country displayed by Icelanders, who, wherever they may travel or sojourn, always sooner or later return home though but to die; for to them, as their own proverb has it, “Iceland is the best land on which the sun shines.”
“One or two old Icelandic airs linger amongst the people, but are seldom heard; and as there was—so I understood the Governor to say—no musical notation to hand them down, little reliance can be placed on their accurate transmission.
“I was introduced to the Compte d’Ademas of the Artemise frigate, an officer who speaks English well. He is Lord Dufferin’s cousin. There were several other French officers present. After leaving the Governor’s we called for M. Randrop, the state’s apothecary, who received us in the wonted hospitable Icelandic manner. Madam Randrop kindly played to us on the piano-forte “Robin Adair,” “Cheer Boys,” “Fin chan dal vino,” “Hear me, Norma,” a Danish dance, and an Icelandic song. Her two daughters, the Misses Muller are learning English, and her son is going south by our steamer to attend the university at Copenhagen.”
The contrast is amazing. This happens in travelers’ books all the time. Even though there is no attempt to make a comparison, the travelers visit both Icelanders and Danes and describe both.
The Icelanders had no way of making musical notations so there are no music sheets. The Danes had the knowledge of musical notation and so their music is preserved. The Icelanders only have one musical instrument, the langspiel, and it is a simple four-stringed instrument played with a bow. The Danes have a piano-forte.
Icelandic music and dancing had not died out on its own. It was destroyed by the Icelandic church. The bishops railed against dancing because it led to sex and sex to babies and babies to more paupers that the rich farmers had to pay a tax to keep.
In Europe dancing had rules passed against it but it was mostly to stop dancing in churches and churchyards. In Iceland, the church persecuted and prosecuted frivolous activities in private homes. Punishments were meted out.
The sagas, after all, were long, complicated tales and were handed down through the generations orally before being written down and even after being written down. Rimur, often hundreds of verses long, were shared orally. It took a long time and great effort to get the Icelandic people to the sorry state that Symington reports in 1862 where there are only a couple of Icelandic airs and the authenticity of those are in question.
The astounding thing is that it was not the Danes who were fanatically opposed to music and dancing, after all, they were the people with the piano-forte and the sheet music for Danish and foreign songs and dances. It was the Icelandic clergy who were rabidly opposed to anything except church music.
The Icelanders did their best to have a good time in spite of disease, hunger and political repression and, if I remember correctly, it was Richard Burton who said that when he went to a harbour where the Danish trade ships had arrived and the Icelandic farmers had gathered, there was a lot of loud, drunken singing of hymns. That might not be as much fun as dancing a farm girl off to a haystack but it was a lot better than nothing.
If we can take any consolation about the destruction of Icelandic music and dancing, it has to be that the wonderful choir music of today is the direct result of the religious and political strictures imposed on the Icelandic people.