"massive chords of intemperate savagery"
August 21, 2015 3:11 PM   Subscribe

Jón Leifs' Organ Concerto (jump to 21:30) was played tonight as part of the BBC Proms classical music program by organist Stephen Farr and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakari Oramo. Farr recounts the work's strange story, first performed by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1941 to walk-outs and booing. Jón Leifs' own story is strange enough. After gaining prominence in post-WWI Germany, he was popular in Nazi circles for a few years, but became a persona non grata. Nonetheless, he, his Jewish wife and their two daughters received permission to leave for Sweden in 1944. After his death in 1968, he seemed headed for obscurity but some pieces became popular, such as the Requiem for his daughter. In recent years he's gained some ardent fans, such as Alex Ross of The New Yorker. For more, read this collection of reviews of recordings Leifs' work.
posted by Kattullus (7 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps the best account of the context for the 1941 performance of the Organ Concerto is given by Alex Ross in one of the reviews in the last link:
Leifs's involvement in the Nazi cultural apparatus is a perplexing episode that seems to require a bit more explication than BIS's notes attempt. He had studied in Leipzig starting in 1916 and had met and married a Jewish pianist named Annie Riethof. He stayed in Germany through the 1930s and only returned to Iceland by way of Sweden in 1944, having been barred from leaving earlier. Hjalmar H. Ragnarsson's notes say he kept a "low profile," trying to protect his Jewish wife, children, and in-laws from the Nazi regime. But his profile was a little higher than that: he was a member of the Composers' Council, an organization set up under the titular leadership of Richard Strauss in order to supplant the degenerate-Bolshevist International Society for Contemporary Music. A composer interested in ancient Norse myth and folk melodies of the far northern peoples must have found a dangerously receptive climate in the Germany of the 1930s. Whatever the biographical complexities, Leifs's musical methods themselves were of no use whatsoever to the Nazis. His increasing propensity for dissonance made his music unplayable in the late 1930s. A concession was granted for a single performance of his Organ Concerto by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1941 (who conducted?); it was a spectacular failure, and Leifs withdrew into total isolation to compose his Saga Symphony.
To answer Ross's question, I believe that Leifs conducted the concerto himself. And it wasn't given a concession to be played, but rather was snuck by the censors. The regular conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, knowing that the piece would be badly received, declined to conduct. From what I remember, by the time the concerto was done, only twenty people remained in audience, and Leifs bowed to them for a very long time, either sarcastically or in appreciation for them having sat there until the end.
posted by Kattullus at 3:18 PM on August 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Requiem is lovely...
posted by jim in austin at 3:31 PM on August 21, 2015

That requiem. Thank you for this.
posted by mrdaneri at 5:11 PM on August 21, 2015

That requiem is beautiful, thanks.
posted by Cpt. The Mango at 5:53 PM on August 21, 2015

I'll put my small-mindedness on display; I have a gut reaction to regard Iceland as a sort of quaint, neighborly place, so my first reaction was to think "I wonder what Björk thought the first time she listened to Leif's works...."

Seriously, though... I'm a fan the Nordic composers who leaned on folks music for their works around the turn of the twentieth century: Grieg, Sibelius. I was heretofore unaware of Lief, though he seems cut from the same cloth, in a sense. The links seemed to summarize the issues he had in composing with this sort of focus a few decades after Grieg and Sibelius: a Nazi regime all to eager to co-opt any sort of nationalistic thinking. Interesting to see how this tension found a denouement with his concerto performance in Berlin.

As a listener I'm not drawn to his music, but in understanding how it fits in with those circa 1900's Nordic compositions, I'm much obliged for the FPP. I'll soak in the mental pictures of travelling the Iceland countryside in the 1920's looking for folk melodies!
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 10:34 PM on August 21, 2015

Theophrastus Johnson: so my first reaction was to think "I wonder what Björk thought the first time she listened to Leif's works...."

Funny you should wonder about that, because Alex Ross wondered about Björk's opinions about Jón Leifs.
Björk herself loves Leifs’s music. “I think he almost animated eruptions and lava in sound,” she said. Yet this composer lived out the tragedy of Laxness’s “independent man,” who fails to see that his pride is the source of his suffering.
She even worked with a particular choir because she liked how they had sung on a recording of Leifs' Hekla:
Most of the singers were members of a group called Schola Cantorum, which has appeared on several recordings of the music of the furiously original Icelandic composer Jón Leifs. Björk heard the Leifs recordings and liked the chorus’s crisp, potent sound.
posted by Kattullus at 7:48 AM on August 22, 2015

Freaking amazing-- what a climax! I'm listening to Hekla now. I've found a new star. Thanks Kattullus!
posted by cleroy at 11:40 AM on August 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

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