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About Björgvin Guðmundsson


Björgvin Guðmundsson was an Icelandic composer.  He was born at Rjúpnafell, Vopnafjörður in 1891. A farmer's son, he was the youngest of five children. His father, Guðmundur Jónsson was the lead voice in Hofskirkja church and directed the singing at the daily services he held at his house. It soon became clear that Björgvin was attracted to music and at the tender age of twelve he took over from his father, who by then was very ill, directing the household's music. There was no musical instrument on the farm so, to be able somehow to create music, Björgvin made a crude stringed instrument, in which he fastened one end of a length of string to a chair and the other to a bobbin, which he could tighten and slacken, thus producing sounds and so compose melodies. If there was an instrument or singing going on anywhere in the surrounding district, Björgvin tried to become involved and sang in a church choir amongst other things. He listened to how the voices blended together. Gradually he learned the rudiments of harmony and taught himself to write down correctly those songs that he knew.
Before Björgvin's emigration to Canada, the church organist at Vopnafjörður encouraged him, both by teaching him what little he knew of organ playing and urging him on to compose. One of Björgvin's first compositions was a song to a hymn by Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614-1674). He said the work came to him as if in an instant, complete in all parts and was printed exactly as he wrote it, aged 17.
It was with great sadness that Björgvin left Iceland in 1911. His family, as so many of his countrymen, was emigrating to Canada in the hope of a better life. Björgvin's family also hoped that in Canada there would be more of a chance for him to become involved in the musical life there and develop his talents.
Not everyone was lucky enough to find work on their arrival in Canada. Björgvin's brothers farmed while Björgvin tried his hand at various jobs, including building and threshing. Jobs were scarce at that time in Canada. During this time, he also tried to get in touch with musicians, sang in choirs and wrote songs as the spirit moved him. He was able to read music and was quick to discover the rudiments of harmony and part-writing. He taught himself a great deal, at the same time taking lessons in piano-playing and theory of music. His family was very supportive and he managed to arrange his time so that he could use every free moment to compose.
Gradually his countrymen took notice of his musical ability. ... He was invited to conduct various choirs and his works were being more frequently performed. His works were praised by people of note, such as the famous composer Percy Grainger, and in the papers he almost always got the most favorable critique. In 1926, Björgvin assembled a sixty-voice choir to rehearse and perform his cantata Adveniat Regnum Tuum- (Thy Kingdom Come). It was premiered at the First Lutheran Church in Winnipeg. His talent was indisputable and the Icelandic community in Winnipeg collected money to enable him to study further. Björgvin therefore, moved to London, with his wife and young daughter and enrolled in the Royal College of Music, where his main teacher was Herbert Howells. During that time, Icelandic poet Stephan G. Stephansson sent him his work Þiðrandakviða, to which Björgvin composed one of his greatest works, the oratorio Örlagagátan (Riddle of Fate). He graduated after two years, returning to Canada, where he worked until 1931.
In Winnipeg, Björgvin completed his last major composition in 1929, Íslands þúsund ár (Iceland's Thousand Years), a cantata to Davíð Stefánsson's Alþingishátíðarljóð.

He was then offered a position as music teacher at two schools in Akureyri, North Iceland. Working at the two schools did not satisfy Björgvin musically. He needed and wanted a larger instrument to perform his own music and, indeed, other Icelandic music, too. So already in 1931, the year of his arrival in Akureyri, Björgvin broached the idea to form a mixed choir of considerable size in the town. At this time two male choirs were active in Akureyri, but no mixed one, except a small one at the church. Björgvin argued that the women in town did not have the opportunities they deserved and wanted to sing in voices. At the same time he, of course, realized that getting male singers for the proposed choir would prove to be difficult, as all the best male singers in the town were already active in the two men’s choirs. In 1932 Björgvin started to work earnestly at putting together a mixed choir. Women singers were not hard to find, but for men Björgvin had to seek help from the male choirs. The first rehearsal was held on the 23rd of October 1932. That day the members of the choir considered to be the birthday of their choral society, which they named “Kantötukór Akureyrar” (“the Akureyri Cantata Choir”) Björgvin spent 23 years directing the choir, which premiered many of his large-scale compositions.Twice the choir went on successful concert tours to Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland, and numerous times it performed on the radio. Still, the high point in the existence of Kantötukór Akureyrar came in 1951, when the choir, as a representative of Icelandic mixed choirs, took part in a Nordic mixed choir competition in Stockholm, Sweden. On the whole the choir got high praise both in the papers and among the general concert audience. Before and chiefly after the competition the choir travelled around Sweden and was well received in all the places where it sang.

Björgvin Guðmundsson was one of the most prolific composers of his day in Iceland. He was the pioneer of large-scale choral composition and his works include five oratorios. In total he composed over five hundred works of varying magnitude, as well as one stage-work,Skrúðsbóndinn(The Farmer from Skrúður) which was published in 1942 and performed in Akureyri before full houses. Many of his works have been published, as well as his autobiographyMinningar(Memories) in 1950, which covers the years until 1931.
Björgvin Guðmundsson died at Akureyri on 4 January 1961.

A biography of Björgvin Guðmundsson entitled “Ferill til frama – Ævisaga Björgvins Guðmundssonar tónskálds” by Haukur Ágústsson has now been published by Ásprent Stíll ehf.  It is distributed in the Reykjavík area by Bókaútgáfan Salka.

(Tel: +354 552 1122,

The book, which runs to 160 pages (including indices), contains an English summary.

In 2004, “Hljómblik” a CD with 24 of Björgvin’s songs was published by Smekkleysa ehf. Artistic director was Pétur Grétarsson.  

The CD is available from ....BG Memorial Fund ...


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