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  • Writer's pictureÁrni Heimir

Iceland’s Favorite Hymn

Updated: Nov 9, 2023

In an informal online survey in 2018, Icelanders were asked to name their favorite piece of music by a local composer, and the winner was a beautiful hymn tune written half a century ago by composer Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson (1938–2013): Heyr, himna smiður or Hear, Heaven’s Maker. For most Icelanders, this result came as no surprise. Sigurbjörnsson’s hymn has long been a particular favorite among Icelandic choirs and audiences, and is frequently heard both in concerts and religious services.

The medieval text, by the Icelandic chieftain Kolbeinn Tumason (1173–1208), is a heartfelt plea for Christ’s mercy. The first of its three verses is as follows:

Hear, heaven’s maker,

the poet’s plea. May thy gentle mercy

come unto me. Therefore I call on thee, thou hast created me. I am thy slave, thou art my Lord.

According to one near-contemporary source, Tumason wrote this hymn on September 7, 1208, the night before his violent death in a fierce battle. Thirteenth-century Iceland was a messy battleground of rivaling family clans, including Ásbirningar, Tumason’s family, which ruled in the northwestern part of the island. Tumason had used his considerable influence to get a priest by the name of Guðmundur Arason elected as Bishop of Hólar, expecting him to be subservient to his own power as chieftain. Instead, Arason turned out to be a fierce proponent of clerical independence, a position that enraged his former patron. The Bishop eventually took the drastic step of excommunicating Tumason, who sought revenge by assembling a troop of 400 men to attack the Bishop and his entourage at Víðines, near the bishop’s seat at Hólar. Did Tumason compose his fervent hymn panged with guilt, knowing that he was about to attempt to kill a man of God? In any case, things turned out rather differently. Tumason died from a head injury after a rock was thrown at him by an unknown assailant (perhaps not the most heroic of medieval battle deaths), while Bishop Arason became one of the most admired clergymen of Icelandic history, revered as a saint for his generosity and for his reputation for miracle-working.

Tumason’s hymn has the distinction of being the oldest surviving hymn text written by an Icelander in the native language, but Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson’s musical setting is far more recent—it dates from 1973. The suggestion that Sigurbjörnsson should try his hand at the ancient text came from Robert Abraham, a Jewish-born German musician and scholar who had fled to Iceland in 1935 to escape the Nazi regime (I’ve written about him before, see here). Abraham was to prove immensely influential in Icelandic musical life, and in the 1960s he was appointed Church Music Director for Iceland’s national (Evangelical Lutheran) church. Among his duties in that position was supervising the publication of a new local hymnal, and commissioning new hymns by local composers.

Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson, composer of Heyr himna smiður, Icelandic hymn

Sigurbjörnsson, who had been Abraham’s student at the Reykjavík Music School, was an up-and-coming composer who had shown particular aptitude for setting religious texts—perhaps not surprisingly, given that his father was the Bishop of Iceland. Abraham was particularly fond of the medieval hymn, and, given its historical importance, wanted it to be included in the planned new hymnal. Yet the text had been set to music only once, by the amateur composer Sigvaldi Kaldalóns in the early twentieth century, a somewhat bland setting that had never gained popularity. Abraham found it a shame that no suitable melody existed for such a beautiful hymn text, and at an editorial meeting in January 1973 he urged Sigurbjörnsson to try his hand at it. The result came sooner than expected. The composer later recalled that as he was driving back home from the meeting, in the midst of a furious winter storm with treacherous road conditions in the city, the tune began to take shape in his mind. He completed his setting soon afterwards and Abraham conducted the first performance with the Skálholt Choir later that same year.

Sigurbjörnsson’s haunting melody, so poignantly harmonized, soon became one of Iceland’s most loved hymns. Internationally, it became a viral hit in 2013, when members of the Icelandic band Árstíðir (Seasons) gave an impromptu performance at a train station in Wuppertal, Germany, which reached millions of viewers online within a few months – the current count stands at roughly eight million views. More recently, it has entered the repertoire of leading international choral ensembles such as the choir of Clare College, Cambridge, as well as Voces8, who recorded this riveting performance in 2021:

I first encountered Sigurbjörnsson’s setting as a high school student, when I was fortunate enough to sing it countless times, in Iceland and abroad, with the amazing Hamrahlíð Choir (its recording is still, in my opinion, the finest overall). More recently, I have often been asked by foreign ensembles for help with the Icelandic pronunciation. I am always happy to comply with such requests, as this is a musical gem that deserves to be heard around the globe. And it is fascinating to recall, in our divided times, that this Christian hymn tune, composed 50 years ago, owes its existence to the suggestion of a Jewish-born immigrant musician who was forced to seek refuge in Iceland in the 1930s and who would become a much-loved and influential musician and pedagogue.

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