2. júlí 2003
“These are the Things You Never Forget”: The Written and Oral Traditions of Icelandic Tvísöngur

Ph.D.-ritgerð í tónvísindum við Harvard háskóla, Bandaríkjunum (2003) – Abstract

Árni Heimir Ingólfsson

The Icelandic term tvísöngur (“Twin-song”) is commonly used to refer both to polyphonic pieces in manuscripts dating from the late fifteenth to the late eighteenth centuries, and to an oral folk practice of singing in parallel fifths, documented through various transcriptions and field recordings from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, neither practice has been adequately documented, nor has the relationship between the two traditions (one written, the other oral) been fully explained.

The earliest examples of tvísöngur in manuscript sources can be classified as cantus planus binatim, a European-wide quasi-improvisatory practice of adding a second voice to a plainchant according to certain voice-leading principles. The tradition of cantus planus binatim continued in Iceland past the Reformation, and seems to have been particularly strong at the Latin schools at Skálholt and Hólar. There it was joined by other traditions of polyphony, including Stimmtausch-techniques, two-part performance of Lutheran hymns, and four-part Latin metrical odes by Statius Olthof and other composers.

As the role of music in the Latin school curriculum diminished during the eighteenth century, polyphonic singing became an extracurricular activity. A decline in musical literacy resulted in a shift to oral transmission, which required a simplification of the techniques involved. In its new, simplified form, tvísöngur singing was able to spread rapidly throughout the country, largely transmitted by native clergy and secular officials, educated at the Latin schools. This tradition was definitively documented by 42 transcriptions in Bjarni Þorsteinsson’s anthology Íslenzk þjóðlög (1906-1909), and is supplemented by recordings made in the early twentieth century. An ethnographic approach to the oral tvísöngur tradition is made possible by interviews made by folklorists at Stofnun Árna Magnússonar in the 1960s and 70s. My discussion focuses on processes of transmission and learning, as well as aesthetics and gender in the performance of tvísöngur. An examination of the decline of the tvísöngur practice in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and its revival as a form of “national” musical expression in post-1944 Iceland, rounds out my study of the tvísöngur phenomenon.

Á Vefnum frá júlí 2003©  2003  Músa