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The Un-Singable National Anthem of Iceland (KH)

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katharinahauptmann02_dlBecause I've been living in Iceland for a couple of years now I tried to acquaint myself with the basic facts of the country. Naturally, I came across the national anthem of my host country.

Iceland's anthem is called “Lofsöngur” (“Song of Praise”) and is also known by its opening words: “Ó Gud vors lands” (“Oh, God of Our Land” literally translated). The national song actually consists of three verses but only the first one is commonly sung. Which is enough.

The lyrics were penned by poet and playwright Rev. Matthías Jochumsson (1835-1920) and the music was written by Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson (1847-1927).

The song had its debut in 1874 on the occasion of the 1000th anniversary of the first settlement in Iceland when a ceremonial service was held in the Reykjavík Cathedral, Dómkirkjan, to honor the jubilee.

King Christian IX attended the service; back then he wasn't only King of Denmark but also King of Iceland.

The hymn's lyrics are deeply religious and don't praise the country's nature or cultural values as one might expect. No, they praise God.

See for yourself and read the first verse (from this website):

“Our country's God! Our country's God! We worship Thy name in it's wonder sublime. The suns of the heavens are set in Thy crown By Thy legions, the ages of time! With Thee is each day as a thousand years, Each thousand of years, but a day, Eternity's flow'r, with its homage of tears, That reverently passes away. Iceland's thousand years! Iceland's thousand years! Eternity's flow'r, with its homage of tears, That reverently passes away.”

As one can see the hymn is basically a prayer to God and not a praise of the country, which is a huge pity in my personal opinion. I don't think it does Iceland justice.

Apparently the anthem has been subject to controversy in recent times because people find it too religious but those who support “Lofsöngur” point out that Iceland has a state church and that Christianity is still the most popular religion.

That might be true, but one doesn't get the impression that Icelanders are generally God-fearing churchgoers who pray daily. Surely, that's worth a totally different discussion.

So much for the content. But why are people unable to sing the national anthem?

I've listened to several versions of the “Lofsöngur” on YouTube (here is an example) and I have to admit that it sounds beautiful and surely is a worthy anthem, musically spoken.

However, the melody is tricky to sing and also ranges over such wide a compass that it is not within everyone's power to sing it, to put it mildly.

I can imagine how awfully it might sound when the right notes aren't hit. Nothing for big crowds. Then it certainly wouldn’t be a praise of anything or anyone. The hymn should only be performed by a trained choir.

The reason why this song was chosen as national anthem is probably because its words are so poetic and the music pretty. Granted. However, the composers didn't write it with the intention of making it their country’s national anthem.

Ceremonial and elaborate is all fine, but how are normal people supposed to eulogize and pay tribute to their country if nobody can sing the national anthem? It’s quite impractical, if you ask me.

Luckily Icelanders have found a great solution to praise their country musically: there are dozens of patriotic songs which they love to sing when they get all sentimental and feel the need to proclaim their devotion for their motherland fervently (and that happens quite often).

The list of songs that fall into this category is endless, including “Ísland er land thitt” ("Iceland is your country"), “Öxar vid ána” ("By Axe River”, referring to a river at Thingvellir where delinquents used to be executed) and “Eldgamla Ísafold” ("Ancient Ice-land"—which is actually sung to the melody of “God Save the Queen”).

My favorite alternative to “Lofsöngur” is quite a recent song by the popular band Baggalútur, “Ísland, ég elska thig” ("Iceland, I love you"), which is a very affectionate and sweet declaration of love to Iceland with witty lyrics.

In my opinion this song represents the spirit of Iceland and its people much better than the current national anthem.

Iceland, I love you, too.

Katharina Hauptmann – [email protected]

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.