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About this Piece

Composed: 1930    
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, large woodblock/hammer, snare drum, triangle), strings, and solo organ
First LA Phil performance

Jón Leifs was one of the dominant 20th-century figures of Icelandic music in European art styles, although he spent the first half of his career based in Germany. He left Iceland in 1916 to study at the Leipzig Conservatory, graduating in 1921. He married the pianist Annie Riethof and began composing using references to Icelandic culture, traveling to his native land to collect folksongs. (He also conducted the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra on a Nordic tour in 1926; its concerts in Iceland were apparently the first there by a professional symphony orchestra.)

Other than a two-year stint with the Icelandic State Radio, he remained in Germany through the Nazi rise to power. His more conventionally folk-oriented music and his dream of a Nordic cultural rebirth made him popular in the early 1930s, but the more dissonant modernist side of his music and his wife’s Jewish origins left him increasingly marginalized. A now-notoriously poorly received performance of his Organ Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1941 (with Georg Schumann conducting and Leifs himself the soloist) marked the end of his public life in Germany; he was allowed to leave with his family for Sweden in 1944. The composer returned to Iceland in 1945, where he was a founder of several institutions for promoting the work of Icelandic composers.

Leifs sketched ideas that eventually appeared in the concerto while still a teenager at the Leipzig Conservatory. In 1930 he finished the work, cast as an Introduction, Passacaglia, and Finale, played without a break. It begins with an aggressive blast, two superimposed diminished seventh chords in the organ. The Introduction previews many of the themes and textures of the work, and fades hesitantly into the eight-bar Passacaglia theme, which covers all twelve chromatic tones, though not as a pitch row. The Passacaglia begins softly, with sighing strings and then the organ suggesting traditional Icelandic singing, but it builds inexorably in rhythmic complexity. Leifs morphs the singing into marching, and the timpani solo in the 21st variation is marked “in modo de ‘rímur’,” a traditional genre of epic poetry chanted to short tunes.

Leifs extends his Passacaglia for 30 astonishing variations over the repeating bass theme, before crashing full tilt into a massive coda. This pushes the organ/ orchestra dichotomy to its fullest contrasts and hits several climaxes before a twooctave double pedal glissando brings its final emphatic punctuation, a stack of open fifths in the orchestra, with a few extra notes in the organ and horns for polytonal sweetener.