Skjaldarmerki ÍslandsThe Icelandic national anthem
Steingrímur J. Þorsteinsson

The Icelandic national anthem, "Ó, guð vors lands" ("Our Country's God"), is in origin a hymn written for a particular occasion and it probably did not occur to either the poet or the composer that there might be in store for it the destiny of becoming a national anthem, for more than a generation elapsed before this came about.

The year 1874 marked the millenary anniversary of the settlement in Iceland of the first Norseman, Ingólfur Arnarson. In the summer of that year there were celebrations throughout the country to commemorate this event, the chief ceremonies being held at Thingvellir, the place of assembly of the ancient Parliament of the people ("Althingi"), and in Reykjavík. It was for this occasion that the hymn was written, hence the words "Iceland's thousand years", which recur in all three verses, cf. the title of the original edition of the poem and the music (Reykjavík, 1874), which was A Hymn in Commemoration of Iceland's Thousand Years.

By an order in council of the 8th of September 1873 it was decreed that services should be held in all Icelandic churches to commemorate fhe millenary anniversary of the first settlement in Iceland, and it was left to the Bishop of Iceland to decide upon a day and the choice of a text for the service.

In the autumn of the same year, the Bishop, Dr. Pétur Pétursson, announced that the day for the service was to be the 2nd of August and the chosen text Psalm 90, vv. 1-4 and 12-17. This decision led to the Icelandic national anthem being composed and its theme was suggested by the chosen text.

About the same time as the Bishop's letter was sent out, the Rev. Matthías Jochumsson (18351920) set off on the third of his eleven trips abroad. He was the son of a poor farmer with a large family and did not go to school until a comparatively late age, by the aid of people who had been impressed by his talent. After graduating from the Theological School in Reykjavík, he took orders and was appointed to a small living in the neighbourhood of the town. This he resigned in the autumn of 1873, whilst in a state of mental distress over the loss of his second wife and being at the time, as so often in his early life, torn by an inner religious struggle. For the next few years he was editor of the oldest weekly periodical in Iceland, afterwards resuming his office as clergyman, and held two maj or livings successively until the turn of the century when he became the first Icelander to receive a pension from the Icelandic Parliament, which he held for the remaining twenty years of his life. - Matthías Jochumsson is one of the most comprehensive, inspired, eloquent yet prolific and uneven major Icelandic poets of any age. He is best known and will be longest remembered for the finest of his own poems and for his masterly .translations of various major works of world literature and for his many and spirited essays and letters. More than anyone else he has earned the honoured title of "Icelandic national poet. Above all he is the poet of life and faith as is evident for example from the national anthem - though it would be unfair to the poet to regard this as one of his very best poems.

The poem was written in Gt. Britain during the winter of 1873-74, the first verse in Edinburgh, the remaining two, which, however, Jochumsson himself never estimated highly in London. At that time only a decde had passed since he had attracted nationwide notice by his poetry, and yet another ten years went by before a separate volume of poems by him was to appear.

The composer of the tune was Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson (1847-1926); his lot was very different from that of Jochumsson. He was the son of one of the highest officials in the country - the president of the Superior Court of Justice - and spent the greater part of his life abroad. He took a degree in divinity and later became the first Icelander to make music his career. He had finished a five years' musical education in Copenhagen, Edinburgh and Leipzig and had just settled down as a music master and pianist in Edinburgh when Jochumsson came there in the autumn of 1873 to stay with him, for they were old school-friends despite a twelve years' difference in age. When he had finished the opening verse of the hymn, Matthías showed it to Sveinbjörn, and in his autobiography we find the following description of this scene: "After studying the words carefully, Sveinbjörn professed his inability to set them to music; during the course of the winter I wrote repeatedly, pressing him to attempt the hymn. And at length, in the spring, the music arrived, reaching us at home just in time for the national celebrations." – Sveinbjörnsson lived in Edinburgh for most of the remainder of his life, except the last eight years which he spent in Winnipeg, Reykjavík and Copenhagen, where he died, sitting at his piano. From the time he wrote the tune for Ó, guð vors lands until the end of his life he continued to compose different kinds of music. Among his works are to be found a number of excellent tunes written for Icelandic poems, in spite of the fact that he was most of the time in little direct contact with his native people; indeed he became earlier known as a composer in Britain than in his mother-country, although his compositions are more in the style of Scandinavian than English music. Among the small band of Icelandic composers he is both among the pioneers and among those who have attained the greatest heights.

Neither the words nor the melody of the anthem seem however to have attracted particular attention when it was sung by the choir during the commemoration services in the Cathedral at Reykjavík on Sunday, the 2nd of August, 1874. On that day there were sung seven commemorative poems which Jochumsson had been commissioned to write, most of them composed in the course of a single day - such could be his speed in writing poetry. But the anthem is one of the few poems he wrote for the celebrations of his own accord.

From all parts of Iceland people flocked to the ceremony and dignitaries came from various European countries and from America. From Denmark came King Christian the Ninth, thé first of its sovereigns ever to visit the country. On this occasion he presented to his people a constitution containing important new reforms (such as the granting of legislative power and partial control over financial affairs). This was one of the stages in the gradual recovery of national independence which had been lost 1262-64; next came Home Rule (an Icelandic minister in charge of Icelandic affairs resident in Reykjavík) in 1904; fourteen years later Iceland became a sovereign state in union with Denmark (the King of Denmark being also King of Iceland) and finally came the foundation of a republic (with an Icelandic president) on the 17th of June, 1944.

While independence was still a thing of the distant future, there was no question of there being a national anthem in the usual sense. However, when Icelanders wished to sing in praise of their motherland, place of honour was during the nineteenth century given to "Eldgamla Ísafold" by Bjarni Thorarensen (1786-1841), written in Copenhagen, probably during 1808-9. But there were two reasons why this could not become established as the national anthem despite its general popularity. One was that apart from the first and final verses the poet's nostalgia finds expression there in taunts against Denmark, where the poet was then living. A weightier reason, however, was that it was sung to the tune of the British national anthem - although set originally, it seems, to a tune by Du Puy.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, "Ó, guð vors 1ands" was often sung in public by choral societies. But it was not until during the period beween Home Rule and Independence, i.e. from 1904-1918, that it became established by tradition as the national anthem. When sovereignty was officially proclaimed, it was played as the national anthem of Iceland at the ceremony, and such it has remained ever since. – The Icelandic Government acquired the ownership of the copyright of the mélody – which formerly had been held by a Danish music-publishing firm – in 1948, and that of the words in 1949.

Still, undeniably "Ó, guð vors 1ands" has its drawbacks as a national anthem. True, Icelanders do not much object to the poem on account of its being more in the manner of a hymn than a patriotic song. But the melody ranges over so wide a compass that it is not within everyone's power to sing. People therefore often turn to other patriotic songs when they wish to sing in praise of their country, and especially popular during the last few decades have been Íslandsvisur (Ég vil elska mitt land) by Jón Trausti (pen-name of Gudmundur Magnússon 1873-1918) sung to a tune by the Rev. Bjarni Thorsteinsson (1861-1938), and Ísland ögrum skorið, a verse from a poem by Eggert Ólafsson (1726-1768); melody by Sigvaldi Kaldalóns (1881-1946). But neither these nor others have succeeded in ousting "Ó, guð vors 1ands" from its place as the national anthem.

It is in fact all the more venerated in that it is the less hackneyed through frequent use. People respond deeply to the sublime poetry of the words – especially the first verse, which is usually the only one sung – and the solemn and moving music finds its way right to the hearts of Icelanders.

Forword to a specil edition by the Prime Minister's Office 1957
© Government og Iceland

© 2000 Músík og sagaMay 1st 2000