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Jón Leifs (01.05.1899–30.07.1968)

Jón Leifs was an Icelandic conductor, composer, folk music researcher and publicist. He studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Leipzig from 1916 to 1921.


  1. Biography
  2. Private Life
  3. Connection to Leipzig
  4. Reception
  5. Works
  6. Sources and Links

1. Biography

Jón Leifs was born on May 1st, 1899 at Sólheimar farm in northwest Iceland, as the son of Þorleifer Jonsson and his wife. His birth name was Jón Þorleifsson

The family moved to Reykjavik when he was still a child. There his father worked as a postal administrator. Jón Leifs grew up in good financial circumstances. This enabled him to become involved with music at an early age. From the age of 14, he received piano lessons from Herdis Matthiasdóttir and Oscar Johansen, and also took violin lessons.

Jón Leifs was a great admirer of the Norwegian-born Edvard Grieg. He especially loved his piano pieces, and so the composer inspired him to make his first attempts at composition at the age of 14.

His wish was clear at that time: he wanted to study music. That's why he went to Leipzig in 1916, where his great role model Edvard Grieg had already studied. At the Royal Conservatory he met Annie Riethof, who studied piano like him. They married shortly after his graduation in June 1921. Annie Riethof, the daughter of the glass manufacturer Edwin Riethof and his wife, came from Teplitz-Schönau in Bohemia (now Teplice, Czech Republic) and was two years older than him. She was Jewish. Jón Leifs had two daughters with her – Snót and Líf. The family lived in Rehbrücke near Potsdam, among other places.

After graduation, Jón Leifs worked as a conductor in Germany. He undertook several successful concert tours, especially to Czechoslovakia and the northern European countries. In 1926, for example, he went on tour with the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra to Norway, the Faroe Islands and his native Iceland. There he also recorded folk songs for the phonogram archive of the Berlin Conservatory, which was headed by Erich von Hornbostel. These recordings that Leifs made are still preserved today. Leifs also wrote numerous articles on music and interpretation.

In 1935 he was offered the position of musical director of the Icelandic State Radio and went back to Iceland, leaving his family behind in Rehbrücke near Potsdam. He stayed in Iceland until 1939, when he returned to his family in Germany. As his wife was Jewish, she was not given a work permit. Jón Leifs was not expelled from the Reichsmusikkammer (statutory corporation controlled by the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda that regulated all music in Nazi Germany) despite his marriage to a Jew. Nevertheless, there were repeated problems with the National Socialist system: Leifs received hardly any conducting assignments and his compositions were performed less and less frequently. In 1944, the family finally fled to Sweden. The marriage ended in divorce in 1945.

He married a second time, to a Swedish woman. Little is known about this marriage.

After the end of the Second World War, Jón Leifs left Sweden and returned to Iceland. There, also drawing on his experiences in Germany, he founded the Icelandic Composers' Association and in 1948 the Icelandic Music Office STEF, a copyright society.

As a composer, however, he repeatedly experienced the rejection of his works; in particular, the premiere of the Saga Symphony op. 26 was received with incomprehension. Leifs fell into a deep emotional crisis. In the 1960s he regained his creative energy and again composed large and imaginative tone poems for orchestra or for orchestra and choir (e.g., Hekla in 1961). In the meantime, Leifs came to terms with the fact that his works were not understood during his lifetime and often exceeded the practical performance possibilities of orchestras, and therefore wrote them, as it were, for the future.

Jón Leifs died on July 30th, 1968 and was buried at Fossvogsgarður Cemetery in Reykjavik.

2. Private Life

When Jón Leifs came to Germany in 1916 – he was just 17 years old – he discovered a completely new world for himself. He said, among other things: "For the first time I saw a tram, a train and much more... My first walk through tree-high avenues was symbolic: falling, drifting, autumn-coloured leaves."

Throughout his life, Leifs repeatedly had to struggle with private and musical creative crises. In addition to the rejection and lack of understanding that his works were met with again and again, the divorce from his second wife also led him into an emotional low. Another misfortune befell him in July 1947, when his daughter Líf from his first marriage drowned off the Swedish coast. Leifs processed his grief through composition. In her memory he wrote the Requiem op. 33b, a very sensitive a cappella work. He also dedicated his string quartet Vita et mors to her.

In 1959 Leifs married a third time, to Þorbjörg Jóhannsdóttir Möller. Their son Leifur had been born in 1957.

3. Connection to Leipzig

At the age of 17, Leifs decided to study music in Germany and chose Leipzig as his place of study. The reason for this choice was that his great role model Edvard Grieg had also studied in Leipzig. At that time, by the way, the composer changed his name from Jón Þorleifsson to Jón Leifs, with the permission of the relevant authorities in his home country.

On October 19th, 1916, he was admitted to the Royal Conservatory of Music in Leipzig with the registration number 12388. His teachers were Robert Teichmüller (piano) and Paul Graener (composition).

After five years of study, he passed his exams on Iceland's national holiday, June 17th, 1921, with very good results (Talent 1; Diligence 1; Performance 1: 1 being the best possible mark), but he turned away from a career as a pianist and took conducting lessons with Alfred Szendrei, Otto Lohse and Hermann Scherchen after his graduation. Szendrei was conductor at the Leipzig Opera from 1918 to 1924, conducted the Leipzig Symphony Orchestra from 1924 to 1932, and was director of the MDR (Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk, one of nine regional public broadcasting services).

Otto Lohse came to Leipzig in 1911 and conducted at the Leipzig Municipal Theatre from 1912 to 1923. Hermann Scherchen presided over the "Orchestra of the Concert Association" in Leipzig from 1920 to 1921 and played a decisive role in promoting the work of Gustav Mahler and the composers of his time.

In Leipzig, Jón Leifs lived at Fürstenstrasse 11, today's Audorfstrasse at Flossplatz.

He moved to Berlin, probably in 1928, and lived in Rehbrücke near Potsdam (Bergholz-Rehbrücke).

4. Reception

Although Jón Leifs is today considered the most important Icelandic composer of the 20th century and one of the greatest composers of recent music history, he was initially forgotten after his death due to his idiosyncrasies. It was not until 1990 that he was rediscovered with Baldr, an opera without words. Today, Jón Leifs is regarded as Iceland's first internationally recognized composer, but also as one of the radical composers of the modern age. In his compositional works, he devoted himself to a very unique, Icelandic music. His work – according to his intuition – should in any case be unimpressed by other currents.

During his lifetime, his works often met with incomprehension because of their modern way of expression and their unusual practical performance requirements. But Leifs did not want to sacrifice his convictions to momentary success. Thus, in 1960, he confessed in an unpublished essay "How I Compose Music":

"My first and last goal in all my musical work is to be myself, to be honest and real, not to let in any foreign influence from others, no mannerism, no last resort in terms of skill and style ..." Furthermore, it was important to him to give Iceland's music an independent identity with his compositional language. He conducted his confrontation with European and Nordic culture, for example, in his book Iceland's Artistic Stimulation: Confessions of a Nordic Musician.

He was inspired for many of his great works by the natural phenomena of his homeland. The work Geysir already expresses the source in its title. Dettifoss depicts the most powerful European waterfall in north-eastern Iceland. Hafis was influenced by the impression of "drifting ice", and Hekla with its huge apparatus of percussion instruments is based on a volcanic eruption that the composer himself witnessed in 1947. In addition to works for large ensembles, Leifs also created important works for smaller ensembles. His three string quartets, which date from different phases of his life – the third is dedicated to the painter El Greco, the other two are strongly autobiographical – are among the most important works in the genre.

Shortly before his death in 1968, Leifs confessed that he had composed many of his works as a "protest against Wagner [...] who misunderstood the nature and artistic tradition of the North in such a despicable way".

Leifs was never able to hear a large part of his compositions during his lifetime. It was not until the late 1980s that many of his works were premiered and finally recorded. In 1995, a film was made about Jón Leifs, his wife Annie Riethof-Leifs and his two daughters Snót and Líf in a collaboration between Iceland, Sweden and Germany. The film was directed by Hilmar Oddsson. Entitled Tears of Stone, it depicts the life of Jón Leifs with his wife Annie and their two daughters until he left for Sweden.

5. Works

Orchestral Works (some with choir)

Hekla (1961)
Geysir (1961)
Hafìs (1965)
Dettifoss (1964)

Icelandic Folk Dances (1929–1931)

Vocal Music

Iceland Cantata (1929–1930)
Song of Gudrun (1940)
Baldr (1943–1947)
The Ballad of Helgi (1964)
Gróa’s Spell (1965)


Edda I to III (1935–1940)

Chamber Music

Quintet for Flute, Clarinet, Bassoon, Viola and Violoncello (1960)

Works for Piano

Icelandic Folk Dances (1929–1931)
New Icelandic Dances (1931)
Iceland Ballad (1922)
Iceland Scherzo (1922)
3 String Quartets

Audio Samples

Geysir op. 51 (1961) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEthgtm4n3U
Konzert für Orgel op. 7 (1930) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTPi6ehepMo
Isländische Volkstänze op. 11 (1929) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=La4EkWFJr2M

6. Sources and Links

Åhlén, Carl-Gunnar: Jón Leifs. Ein genialer Komponist, von niemandem ernst genommen, in: Island, volume 3, issue 1, April 1997, p. 18.

Bergendahl, Göran: New Music in Iceland, Reykjavík. 1991.

Cunnings, Robert: Artist Biography, www.allmusic.com/artist/j%C3%B3n-leifs-mn0002149366/biography

Finscher, Ludwig (ed.): Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Index of persons, 2nd revised edition, Kassel a. o. 2003.

Heister, Hans-Werner & Sparrer, Walter-Wolfgang (ed.): Komponisten der Gegenwart, Munich 2019 www.munzinger.de/document




Jón Leifs, 1934 photo, Wikipedia, Willem van de Poll, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons